No one who saw it will forget it: Marcus Lattimore on a routine run around the left end, South Carolina’s right guard pulling to lead the way. Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers wrapped him up and spun him to the ground, but something wasn’t right. The lower half of Lattimore’s right leg spun like a whirligig as if his knee were little more than a universal joint holding nothing in place.
Some people reportedly fainted when they saw the Oct. 27 play in slow motion. More than a few got nauseated. Not since Laurence Taylor broke Joe Theismann’s leg, a hit that happened five years before current Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was born but one we will ever forget, has a football injury caused so many to yell, "Oh my God, don’t show it again!"
So it is good news that Lattimore is walking without crutches a little more than six weeks later. And it is not a surprise that the South Carolina junior reportedly will announce on Wednesday that he is putting his name into consideration for the NFL Draft, thus ending a college career marked by its brilliance and marred by its brevity.
After a breakout freshman season in which Lattimore rushed for 1,197 yards and was named national freshman of the year by several publications, Lattimore entered his sophomore campaign as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Then, he tore the ACL in his left knee on Oct. 15 against Mississippi State.
But the rehab of injury No. 1 seemed successful. Some of the flash was gone, but Lattimore still amassed 662 rushing yards through eight and a half games. And he was well on his way to another 100-plus-yard outing against Tennessee when the right knee buckled and the college football world gasped.
Now, Lattimore can only hope that his career will mirror that of Willis McGahee, who also suffered a seemingly devastating knee injury only to come back and have a productive NFL career.
No one, not even Steve Spurrier, can begrudge him taking his chances by turning pro. If anything, it is Lattimore who should be disgruntled, not by the injuries themselves, but by a system that wouldn’t allow him to market his skills earlier in his career.
If, for example, he had announced for the draft after his freshman year, when he led the SEC in yards after contact, he most likely would have gone high in the first round, maybe in the first handful of picks overall.
Even after his sophomore season and the one knee injury, Lattimore was still a likely first-round pick. But none of that was possible, because the NFL and NCAA collude in an outrageous restraint of trade that would be deemed illegal on its face in any other industry. By saying that a player cannot enter the draft before being out of high school three years, the NCAA can make millions off its "student-athletes" while the NFL has free de facto farm teams throughout the country.
The only people hurt in the deal are the players who are forbidden from selling their skills in the free market. They must remain, for lack of a better analogy, indentured servants to the NCAA until their three-year apprenticeship is up. During that time, they risk the kinds of injuries that probably will cost Marcus Lattimore millions.
He could stay in school and take a medical redshirt next season, coming back in fall 2013 in the hope that his stock will rise. But he also could twist an ankle or bang a shoulder and fall completely off the NFL radar for good.
This way, Lattimore can work with NFL doctors to rehab this latest injury. Then, he will go the NFL Scouting Combine in February to meet with scouts and player personnel executives, but he won’t be ready to play. In March, maybe, and then only to catch a few passes.
There is a good chance Lattimore will be out for a full year before he can put on shoulder pads and make another run. Hopefully he can come back as strong the second time as he did the first.
And hopefully an NFL owner gives him a decent shot. After three years of adhering to their rules and playing for free, the kid deserves that much.