Write about college football for more than three decades like yours truly, and there are a few times when you become jaded.
For me, those moments usually come when athletes, despite being surrounded by teammates, coaches and support staff, make terrible off-the-field decisions. Their selfish motives reflect badly on the remaining 99.9 percent of the people in that program who do all the right things daily.
It’s upsetting when athletes treat their scholarships as a right, not a privilege, knowing there are thousands of kids who dream of getting a chance to play college sports.
My disgust increases when I see fans say and do things so irreprehensible that they create an unhealthy culture of negativity way past the bounds of common human decency. I begin questioning if anyone has retained a shred of perspective.
But every so often, you come across an athlete that restores your faith in the sport, someone who isn’t an entitled “look-at-me” selfish knucklehead, but an enormously talented yet gracious person.
Someone who puts in time and sweat. Someone who doesn’t cheat his talent. Someone who respects the game. Someone who’s the biggest deal in the room but doesn’t think he’s the biggest deal. Someone who demands and earns respect through his actions, not by running his mouth or pounding his chest.
The few times I have met and interviewed South Carolina junior running back Marcus Lattimore, I knew he was this guy. He made me feel good just being around him.
Here was someone regarded as the nation’s No. 1 high school running back as a high school senior in 2009 at Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes High, where he ran for 6,375 yards and 104 touchdowns in his prep career. Yet he didn't utter a dissenting peep when South Carolina coach Spurrier chose not to start him in his first college game against Southern Mississippi.
Spurrier said he didn’t start Latttimore, because he didn’t want people to think he was able to sign him because he promised he would start from day one.
"I told Marcus why I wasn't starting him," Spurrier said, "and he said, 'I understand, coach, just put me in early.' “ A game later, Lattimore ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries in his first SEC game against Georgia.
From there, he was off to the races, finishing third in the league in rushing in 2010 with 1,197 yards and 17 TDs and being named first-team All-SEC and national Freshman of the Year.
As much brag as you’d get out of Marcus was, “I’ll carry it as many times as they need me. That’s what I did in high school.”
That was really wasn’t bragging, just fact. Because Marcus has always understood one of the things that I believe truly defines a great athlete and person.
It is simply this: If you’re one of the best in your field, you never have to tell anybody. They already know.
“Usually in a game, there’s a little mouthing going,” Spurrier says. “You’ll hear guys say `You can’t tackle me, you ain’t tough.’ I’ve never seen anybody do any trash talking with Marcus, because he never says anything. He runs as hard as he can every time he touches the ball, and does anything coaches ask him to do. He has a mutual respect from teammates and opponents. I think he’s the most popular player ever to play at South Carolina.”
That was never more apparent then last Saturday when just moments after he scooted 28 yards against Tennessee for the 41st touchdown of his career, Marcus sustained a season-ending knee injury for the second straight year.
As a hush came over Williams-Brice Stadium, 80,250 hearts silently ached at once when they saw the anguish on Marcus’s face and that of his teammates, something remarkable happened.
Both teams gathered around Marcus as he was gingerly placed on a cart and taken off the field.
“We knew he came off a knee injury and for this to happen to him is bad," says Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter, back this season in top form after missing most of last year with torn anterior cruciate knee ligaments. "The whole team just wanted to go out and show support."
But just as amazing as the scene on the field was the chatter on Twitter.
There are times where social media is hurtful and deceitful. Twitter can be nothing but short bursts of venom and hate being hurled back and forth.
Yet Saturday afternoon, even before Marcus had exited the field, the outpouring of sympathy on Twitter for his terrible luck was astonishing and totally unpredictable.
Players from half of the 14 teams in the SEC wished Marcus the best and extended prayers and sympathy. So did three Heisman Trophy winners (Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram and Robert Griffin III), the best basketball player on the planet (LeBron James) of the Miami Heat, four Olympic gold medalists, players from Michigan State and Oklahoma and more than a dozen NFL players.
Clemson, South Carolina’s in-state rival, tweeted on its football account, “I know South Carolina is our rival but our prayers go out to Marcus Lattimore. It’s bigger than football. I hope this kid gets to play football again after that injury.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt and his team prayed for Marcus on Sunday, because “he’s a great football player, and a guy we all have a lot of respect for as a person, as well," Richt says.
One of the first coaches to tweet after Marcus’ injury was LSU coach Les Miles, who got to know Marcus while trying to recruit him.
“I really respected what his goals were and who he was as a young man, his want to earn a degree, his want to do academics,” Miles says of Marcus. “When he went down (with a knee injury last season), I just knew he would fight back and do all the things he needed. You just root for a guy who puts that much in it for all the right things – his team, his family.
“The tough thing about this sport is you have quality people aspiring to win championships, to get their degrees, and the unknown factor is how an injury can affect a career. It’s the toughest part of football, the part that makes the commitment to the sport the greatest but also the saddest.”
LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, who has also overcome career-threatening injuries, says he plans to scribble Marcus’s jersey No. 21 somewhere on his purple-and-gold uniform for the rest of the season as a tribute.
On Monday, which was Marcus’ 21st birthday, there was a campus rally for him that was attended by approximately 1,000 people. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an unabashed Clemson fan, declared the day “Marcus Lattimore Day” around the state.
Gov. Haley tweeted just after Marcus’ injury, “Michael and I ask that you join us and our children as we lift up in prayer Marcus Lattimore and his mother Yolanda Smith in prayer as they go through this challenging time. He has been more than just a USC football player but a great role model for our state. May God bless him and his family during this time.”
Gov. Haley wasn’t playing politics. And she didn’t toss out the phrase “role model” lightly.
She knew that Marcus once showed unannounced to visit a fellow USC student who was in a hospital after being hit by a car. She was familiar with Marcus who has always given his time to public service, such as his love for speaking anywhere he believes his positive message will resonate. She’s heard the stories of how Marcus would pull himself out of bed around sunrise to run stadium steps with teammates who were being disciplined.
It’s no wonder that a governor of a state takes time to pray for Marcus and declare a day in his honor, because it’s more than just about Marcus crashing through defenses and winning football games.
It’s about him touching hearts with his character and his deeds.
Hopefully, the cross-section of people who reacted to Marcus’ injury on Twitter, especially players from across the SEC, will throw a blanket of perspective on the oft-overenthusiastic zeal of fans who don’t understand the term “healthy competition.”
If the 18-to-22-year olds who play the game on fall Saturdays have this matured balanced view, why can’t the rest of us?
Looks like Marcus scored again.
(Note to readers: You can send a card to Marcus at: Rice Athletics Center 1304 Heyward Street Columbia, SC 29208