It’s now or never for Marcus Lattimore. The college football running back appears to have played his last game for the South Carolina Gamecocks and will enter the NFL draft. This is a good move for Lattimore and while the Gamecocks were likely counting on Lattimore’s return next season, both sides do benefit from this, though it may not be clearly visible to either side right now.
Lattimore’s 2012 season came to an abrupt end when he suffered his second major knee injury in as many seasons. Last year, it was a torn knee ligament that ended Lattimore’s season early. This season it was, according to Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier, a dislocated right knee while CBS Sports cited unnamed sources saying it was a similar injury to the one that Willis McGahee suffered in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, McGahee’s final college football game.
It’s funny that McGahee’s injury was mentioned alongside Lattimore’s because Lattimore will face the same challenge that McGahee did: making a career in pro football while already being damaged goods.
It’s not impossible, as McGahee has proven, to have a good and productive pro football career after suffering major knee injuries in college and/or high school. However, Lattimore will never know if he can have that kind of success in the NFL unless he goes to the NFL. The timing may not be right, but this is something that Lattimore has to do. And the Gamecocks now don’t need to wonder if they will have their top running back for a full season or not, something they must have been wondering before this season and would have been wondering going into next season if Lattimore had decided to stay with the Gamecocks for another year.
While he hasn’t been able to give the Gamecocks the full worth of his talents, Lattimore has given the Gamecocks everything they can expect out of him. When he’s been on the field, he’s done good his entire time there. When he’s been 100%, he’s played great and like the player Gamecocks fans had been hoping he would be. Unfortunately, these two injuries are a guarantee that Lattimore will have a “What if?” attached to him as far as the Gamecocks’ football history is concerned. He could have easily been right up with George Rogers, the Gamecocks’ only Heisman Trophy winner (1980). Now Lattimore will be up there, but with the stigma of someone whose full body of work was never seen while he was a Gamecock.
But such is life, especially the life of a football player. It’s good for a player to plan ahead, but there are those things in life that you can’t prepare for and can only react to. This is Lattimore’s life as a football player right now as two years of injuries have crippled his draft stock, meaning that Lattimore is going to be coming back from his most recent injury at the highest level of his profession, but will be starting that highest level from the bottom looking up. It’s almost back to square one, but even that could be a silver lining for Lattimore.
I’d like to take this moment to point out my use of “highest level” and “pro football” because those are keywords as to why Lattimore’s apparent decision is a good thing. He is now going to at least get the opportunity to test his skills among the best that play the game. He will also have the best facilities and best access to medical technology that a football player can get. And he now has a chance to at least come out of the game with a little money. It’s one thing to suffer the kinds of injuries Lattimore has suffered at the college level, but suffering them at the pro level means you’re at least getting paid before you get hurt. This is the key for Lattimore at this point: he is only one major injury from likely retirement, but he is oh so close to getting that first paycheck for playing the game he has dedicated his life to. Sadly, because of his injuries, that first paycheck won’t be nearly as much as it could have been. However, that first paycheck would carry with it the possibility of a bigger one if Lattimore can stay healthy. And from there, possible greatness.
Every great pro career needs to have its beginning and Lattimore seems to have set in motion the beginning of his, not wanting to chance never getting to play at that level if another injury were to occur.