Marcus Lattimore is coaching mere miles from the site of his gruesome career-ending injury

Jonathan Jones, Sports Illustrated | Source, MSN

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a sea of green, blue and white shirts, Marcus Lattimore sits in the sunlit cafeteria of Heathwood Hall Episcopal School eating pinto beans, brown rice and asparagus. There’s no mystery meat at this private school, but Lattimore is jaded from his two years in San Francisco; his palate is more refined than most in South Carolina.

“I don’t mean to interrupt, but I’m going to put a bug in your ear and I’ll talk to you more about it later,” a brunette teacher tells Lattimore as she sits down. There’s a student of hers who needs “a kick in the butt” academically and Lattimore is the one who needs to deliver it. “I’ll take care of that for sure,” Lattimore says.

At 25, Lattimore should be at the height of his powers. He should have a couple of 1,000-yard seasons, a Pro Bowl or two and a second contract just as the league experiences a renaissance of sorts at the running back position. But one bad knee injury followed by one catastrophic one has him at this private school just two miles away from Williams-Brice Stadium, the place where he made his name and lost his first career.

He’s about half a year into his new gig as Heathwood Hall’s varsity football coach on this day in May, hours before he will run his team through its first padded spring practice in 93° heat. On top of that, he’s sort of a brand ambassador for the school—he’s always wearing Heathwood Hall Under Armour gear, and when the administration needs to close the deal with a family deciding between that school and another, they bring out Lattimore to show them around.

The Highlanders look like your stereotypical private school kids. There’s not much Division-I talent, you could easily mistake them for golf or lacrosse players and they’ve won four games in the past two seasons. If a quarterback at that age knows what Cover-2 is, or if a running back intuitively understands what happens when the safety slides down in the box, it’s a bonus. At this spring practice, Lattimore is teaching the basics.

“That’s the one thing I’ve had to learn is patience,” he says. “Some of those guys out there right now hate football because they have their head down and they’re getting blasted because they don’t know what’s going on.”

To know Marcus Lattimore is to know one of the most well-liked people in South Carolina. He was the state’s top player and nation’s top running back who stayed in-state for college and played three hard-fought, heartbreaking seasons without any off-field controversy. In one sitting Lattimore went from talking to a reporter to a student to a teacher to a janitor without a hint of pretension or phoniness. He’s not sure whether he or former No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney is more famous in the state, and it very well could be a draw.

He has advertising deals with the local Mitsubishi dealer, a sub restaurant and a roofing company. His foundation holds camps and seminars across the state, including an annual 700-person seminar in Columbia that prepares kids not only for the NCAA academic process but also for life outside of sports: how to write an email, how to write a check, the differences between credit and debit.

Along the way he gives speeches, which mostly center on faith-based messages. He’ll tell the story of how a young girl in a classroom asked him how he balanced school, football and faith, causing him to do a self-inventory to realize he wasn’t balancing his faith at all. Then he’ll tell the audience about how he recovered from the devastating injuries and how he still, to this day, wouldn’t change a thing.

Lattimore's second knee injury, against Tennessee in 2012, shook up the Gamecocks and sent his first-round dreams spiraling.

South Carolina led Georgia 14–6 in the fourth quarter of Lattimore’s second-ever collegiate game, in 2010. The defense was playing well, but the passing game was struggling, so coach Steve Spurrier called up to his offensive coaches with a message. “I’m going to give the ball to Marcus every play until they stop him,” Spurrier recalls saying. “We ain’t throwing another pass.”

Lattimore ran the ball 37 times that game, including nine in the fourth quarter and seven consecutively, as the Gamecocks topped the Bulldogs and went on to have their best season in a decade.

No 2011 preseason Heisman list was complete without Lattimore’s name after he rushed for 1,197 yards as a freshman. But in a mid-October game against Mississippi State, Lattimore tore his ACL when an opponent rolled into his left leg as he was split out wide blocking. “So, obviously, I wish I hadn’t called that play,” Spurrier says.

There’s nothing Spurrier or Lattimore or anyone else could have done differently the next year, against Tennessee. On a power run, Lattimore cut left and was met two yards past the line of scrimmage by two Volunteers—one going high and one going low. Lattimore not only tore ligaments but dislocated his kneecap and suffered nerve damage. It was arguably the most gruesome football injury since the one Miami RB Willis McGahee suffered in the 2003 national championship game. Lattimore had rushed for 662 yards in the first nine games of the season and was on his way to a first-round selection in the next spring’s NFL draft. He wouldn’t be taken until the fourth round by the 49ers, and even that was high for a player with two ruined knees.

Before his first injury, Lattimore had gone through South Carolina’s compliance office to take out an insurance policy, which would pay out $1.8 million in the event of a catastrophic career-ending injury. The policy cost $17,000, which Lattimore paid for using a student loan that he figured he’d have no problem paying off. His college career pre-dated the current trend of players sitting out of a bowl game, or even the notion that a star player might sit out an entire season, which was hinted at when Lattimore’s teammate Jadeveon Clowney left for the pros one year later.

Lattimore couldn’t have sat out anyway. Spurrier told him in his office before his junior season that a big year meant Round 1, and coming off that ACL injury he had to get more film for NFL scouts if he wanted first-round money. Lattimore doesn’t begrudge any player—Christian McCaffrey or Leonard Fournette or anyone else—for sitting. He knows he’s the cautionary tale, but even knowing what he knows now he promises he still wouldn’t sit out.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Lattimore says. “Sit. Play. So many guys, you play the game because you love it. You’re not going to sit out a whole year of football. Most guys wouldn’t. I couldn’t do it. If I’m healthy, I’m out there. No doubt about it because I love the game of football. I wanted the game on my shoulders. If I could play quarterback I would play it.”

You’d think he’d be the guy every rising star who has a stomach-churning injury would call, from Teddy Bridgewater to Jaylon Smith. Reporters from across the country are quick to ring Lattimore when a guy they cover goes down, but the players themselves rarely, if ever, get in touch with him.

But teenage girls who tear their ACLs playing soccer? Lattimore gets those in spades. He estimates he’s responded to more than 400 girls under 15 who write his foundation looking for advice.

“I start the conversation and say, ‘Look, it happened. There’s nothing you can do now. There’s no reason for you to look back on the past; all you can do is control what you can control now. That’s your eating habits, strength training, the work you put into it. If you really want to play again you can, because look at all the success cases,’” Lattimore says. “At the end of the day it’s only going to make you stronger. Some people come back physically stronger. But going through something like that and being able to do whatever you want on the field and then it just stops out of nowhere, that’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Lattimore wasn’t ready to give up after the second injury, so he rehabbed for two seasons on San Francisco’s injured reserve. Eboni Samuel, Marcus’ sister, moved into an apartment with him when he relocated to San Francisco in July 2013. Lattimore is the baby of the family, and his mother declared that a family member had to be with Lattimore in the Bay Area; Samuel’s job flexibility meant she would be the one. They lived well together and stayed out of each other’s way, though Samuel jokes she was sometimes his maid.

Every day hurt. The 49ers’ coaches would say he looked good on a route or a cut, but his knees were aching. He hated football and loathed going to the facility. One day in 2014, he caught a pass, turned upfield and heard a pop in his knee. That was the day he decided he’d had enough.

“He wasn’t upset—or he tried not to be upset—and so I tried not to be upset as well,” Samuel says. “Of course I was hurting for him because I knew he wanted it, but I just tried to stay on his level wherever he was at with it.”

Lattimore never played an official down of football again after the second injury, but the policy never paid off fully. He said his $1.8 million policy paid out 15% because he had still gone on to sign an NFL contract. A former Heisman candidate who helped give South Carolina its best three years of football ever, he estimates he made $330,000 after taxes in salary for the sum of his playing days, on top of the $270,000 his policy paid off.

Despite overtures to join the staffs of a handful of college programs in the southeast this summer, Lattimore decided to stay at Heathwood Hall.

When Lattimore got the Heathwood Hall job last fall, Mikhyah Grant was a rising senior defensive back for Dutch Fork High, a public school located about 30 miles north of Heathwood Hall that has won two state titles since Lattimore went pro.

Grant had participated in some of Lattimore’s camps over the years, in spite of his Clemson fandom. The Grants even hired the camp’s athletic conditioning trainer for private lessons. As a coach at a private school, Lattimore doesn’t have to tiptoe around recruiting kids to come play for him, so he let Grant know that if he came to Heathwood, he’d be the Jabrill Peppers of the defense, getting his specific package early in the week and roaming where needed for the Highlanders’ defense on Friday nights.

“At first it was a difficult transition in reference to the caliber of people that he’s accustomed to playing football with,” says Mikhyah’s mother Melinda, “and Marcus just let him know that, ‘I’m going to get you guys prepared for whatever you need to be prepared for, be it on or off the field. You have my full attention and I’m going to try to do as much as possible to keep you focused.’

“When he first heard about going to Heathwood and the football team, he did that solely on Marcus’s recommendation.”

Lattimore could have been almost anything other than a coach. His alma mater, with its enrollment of more than 30,000, is churning out alumni every year in every professional field who love Lattimore for his place in Gamecocks history. He rattles off job offers as if he were Bubba talking about shrimp: commercial real estate, hospital wellness coordinator, project manager in HR, director of recreation, banking, something with the South Carolina state lottery, medical sales—matter of fact, just about anything regarding sales.

He was set to join Will Muschamp’s staff at South Carolina as a player personnel director—a sort of liaison between the players and coaches—in 2016 when the NCAA ruled his foundation and its camps were seen as a recruiting advantage that couldn’t be held by a staff member. He chose his foundation and kept looking for work.

“While a lot of people were probably falling over themselves to connect with Marcus, [Heathwood Hall athletic director] Jeff [Whalen] was saying, ‘Hey, we have a great school here and it could be a great place for you to get started, but I don’t want to put the pressure on you,’ ” said headmaster Chris Hinchey. “Jeff kind of laid off, and maybe that happens so infrequently to Marcus that he really pursued that.”

Last year he signed on to coach the middle school team and led it to Columbia’s inaugural middle school championship, which pits the city’s four private schools against each other. After helping with the varsity team, Lattimore was tabbed as the new head coach in November when the former coach stepped down due to family reasons. He fielded offers this summer to be a player personnel director for at least three southern college programs, but Lattimore kept his commitment to Heathwood.

On this spring practice day, Lattimore works with the JV team specifically on offensive line protections. He explains what the A, B and C gaps are and how the center should identify the Mike linebacker. His offense will be an inspiration of Spurrier, Jim Harbaugh and his high school coach Bobby Bentley, but Lattimore doesn’t know “what we’re going to run until I know what we can do.”

He tells the right tackle not to chase the blitzer because he’s going to be coming to him. He has to remind the defensive line to go 50% because they’re just trying to get the right look. When the running back picks up the blitzing linebacker, Lattimore exclaims “That’s it!” before delivering a high-five. He has to remember patience in the job he struggled at first to accept.

Lattimore had all of Columbia and most of the state at his fingertips, and it took him two weeks last fall before he embraced a chance to start at square one in a sport that had rewarded his talent so cruelly the first time around.

“I was scared,” Lattimore says. “I was asking myself every day, is this really what I want to do? Or do I want to go get one of those jobs and be comfortable? Hang out and get my three weeks paid vacation and do that continuous cycle for the rest of my life or do I want to live and challenge myself and fail?

“I want Columbia to see me fail. I want to see my name in the paper where Marcus lost a game. I want to show the community how I respond to that.”

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