Two in a million?
Ryan McGee [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
April 17, 2013
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This story will appear in ESPN The Magazine's April 29 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!

"SMALL MOVES, MARCUS. Small moves."

It is 10:45 a.m. in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Tucked behind the famously tacky sign beckoning vacationers to Pensacola Beach, famed orthopedist Dr. James Andrews' Athletes' Performance facility is filled with the desperate activities of football players on the mend -- nearly two dozen damaged dreamers, each hoping to repair both his body and his NFL draft stock.

Standing in an open garage, offensive linemen rehabbing shoulder injuries grunt their way through 440-pound dead lifts, the weights crashing to the mat with yells and clacks. On the field behind the brick building, defensive backs and wide receivers explode through 40-yard dashes, their recently repaired elbows and knees flinging sweat and cracking away scar tissue. And in the shadowed space between the lifters and the sprinters, quietly grinding it out in slow inches rather than intense bursts, is Marcus Lattimore.

The mood in the gym is resolutely positive, everyone acting as if he will become pro. Yet deep down, there's the knowledge that only a handful will actually realize that shared dream. Hell, the odds were already long. As distressed goods, their chances have been stretched even further.

"Bring that back up straighter, Marcus, just an inch or so."

Right now Lattimore is perfectly still, hands pressed against the gray cinder block wall, knees bent, ass out, legs awkwardly supporting the weight of his six-foot, 218-pound frame. This is his 11th exercise of the morning session -- the 11th of 30 -- all performed under the precision-guided eye of Athletes' Performance's tactical performance director, Russ Orr.

"Give me just a half an inch more bend in your knees, Marcus," Orr continues. "Just a half-inch more."

Lattimore appears peacefully trapped in tedium, knowing all too well that the road to healing a bum knee is a monotonous one. One year ago, he was rehabbing his left, beset by an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear that abruptly ended his sophomore season at South Carolina. "The scar on my left knee used to look so bad to people," he says, touching the telltale dots of arthroscopic surgery. "Now no one even sees that one." He smiles, speaking in a deep-throated voice that belies his gentle nature, reaching beneath the knee brace on his right leg, touching a kneecap parenthesized by two long lines of raised skin. "This one here gets all the attention now."

Five months earlier, that knee had been grotesquely dislocated, with tears in three -- ACL, LCL (lateral collateral) and PCL (posterior cruciate) -- of its four major ligaments. Now this is the knee that dominates Lattimore's life, altering pre-NFL draft chatter and dictating his worth. The degree to which it can be healed will determine the degree to which he can rekindle what seemed predestined since he was in middle school: playing football on Sundays.

The work he put in on the first knee was, in the end, merely a dress rehearsal for the second. That's how he knows that these decidedly unsexy, minimalist workouts will eventually be worth it. "This is all about activation, about rebuilding the pillar that everything else is built on," says Orr. "Crawl to walk and walk to run. We're somewhere in that first half."

Others continue to remind Lattimore of the potential payoff, of the NFL stars who have been where he is now and are now where he's always wanted to be. "This is a world where Adrian Peterson can tear two ligaments in one knee and come back to rush for 2,000 yards in the NFL eight months later," the 21-year-old says between exercises. "And this room we're in -- this is the room where he started the road back, inch by inch, just like me."

THE INJURY IS too gruesome to watch. On Oct. 27, 2012, with South Carolina leading Tennessee 21-14 late in the first half, Lattimore took the ball on a simple counter, his favorite play. As a freshman in 2010, he posted an otherworldly 1,609 total offensive yards. Before his injury in 2011, he was on pace to shatter that mark, nearly at 1,000 with six games remaining. And now, nine games into the season, Lattimore was at 835 total yards (662 rushing) in Steve Spurrier's evolving, more balanced offense. Earlier in the game, he'd scored his team-leading 11th touchdown.

Lattimore stepped up to the line and made a cut left. As he turned the corner, he was met simultaneously by two Volunteers defenders -- linebacker Herman Lathers and cornerback Eric Gordon. With Lathers wrapping up from behind, Gordon blew in from the left, gunning for the ankles. Lattimore's left leg planted, supporting the linebacker's full airborne weight. His right foot came up to step, and with that leg bent and rising, his knee slammed into Gordon's oncoming helmet, cap to crown, and collapsed between the 190-pound defensive back's torso and the grass.

When the upper half of Lattimore's body hit the ground, Lathers rolled him over and away from Gordon, who rose to chase the loose football. As Lattimore's lower extremities whipped overhead, his right leg, from the knee down, was bent strangely at a near-90-degree angle. It flapped directly over his face like a loose flag, slapping into the turf beside him. "As it went by, I saw my kneecap outside my leg, just totally in the wrong place," he says.

As nauseating as the images of the leg are, the look on the player's face as he instinctively reached out to grab his knee is even more devastating to those who knew him best. "The scariest part was the shock," says wide receiver Ace Sanders, another South Carolina NFL draft hopeful. "Anyone will tell you that our locker room looked -- still looks -- to Marcus as our leader. He's our rock. When he looked scared lying there, it shook us all."

"At that moment, I really believed I was done," Lattimore recalls. "When you look back and see what people were writing and posting on Twitter and Facebook that night, they all thought I was done too."

Digital well-wishes poured in from every corner of the sports world as he rode off the field in the flatbed of an athletic trainer's Gator, a towel covering his face. Players on both sidelines, South Carolina's and Tennessee's, wept. The story of how he'd used his time during his first ACL comeback to reach out to other injured players, even those from rival SEC teams, had quietly created a bit of a Lattimore cult within football circles.

On Sunday, Oct. 28, he was in a Columbia, S.C., hospital. "It was always going to be bad," says Gamecocks team physician Jeffrey Guy. "But when we realized that it was a dislocation and not a break, there was instantly a glimmer of hope." Not of playing football again but of walking normally.

"I just knew he was done with football," says Lattimore's mother, Yolanda Smith, an outspoken...
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