Chance plays a part in every life. Marcus Lattimore has been terribly unlucky. He has also had amazing good fortune. He is the perfect story for the NFL draft, which is three days of guesses and gambles. Nothing in football is a sure thing. As Lattimore can testify.
He wasn't picked in the first round of the draft Thursday. Most projections have him going in the third round (on Friday) or the fourth (Saturday). He was an NFL prospect from the moment he stepped on the field at South Carolina three years ago. But given what happened after that, it's a wonder he's in the draft pool at all.
In 2010, as a freshman, he played 13 games for the Gamecocks and ran for 1,197 yards. In 2011, in the seventh game against Mississippi State, he tore the ACL in his left knee and missed the rest of the season. Last year, in the ninth game against Tennessee, his right leg got sandwiched between two defenders. It was there with the Kevin Ware injury as something you need to see only once, and wish you hadn't seen it at all. Lattimore's right knee was dislocated, and all three major ligaments were torn. Forget football. You wondered if he would ever walk the same again.
If you play a lot of football, you will eventually get hurt. If you play running back, it's guaranteed. But Lattimore's injuries seemed especially cruel. He had led South Carolina football back into the Top Ten. The coaches talked about him like an extra son. Steve Spurrier, the head ball coach, said: "He's going to be a success at whatever he does because of the kind of person he is."
Except, after that Tennessee injury, it didn't seem possible that he'd still play football.
But Dr. James Andrews, the famous orthopedic surgeon, was able to put Lattimore's knee back together. And Lattimore was willing to go through rehab one more time. After his pro-day workout in Columbia last month, he got an ovation from the NFL scouts. Scouts do not generally give ovations.
Lattimore did the work. But he also got lucky. He played at a school that could get someone like James Andrews to do the surgery. He's playing in a time when science and medicine have figured more successful and less invasive ways to do knee surgery. (You want to talk about unlucky? Gale Sayers was unlucky.)
I wonder if we now believe in the miracles of knee reconstruction a little too much. There's a low hum among NBA fans about Derrick Rose, who is still not ready to play after tearing his ACL a year ago. Fans compare him not just to Ricky Rubio, who came back faster from his knee surgery, but Adrian Peterson, who returned less than nine months after ACL surgery and stomped a mudhole in the NFL. Chicago is in the playoffs again, Rose isn't there, and some fans wonder if that reveals some kind of flaw inside him.
But we're not built the same. The parts of our bodies fit together in a different way for everyone, and when we get hurt, the injury is like a fingerprint. That's why the doctor always predicts healing time as a range ("you'll be laid up for six to eight weeks"). We think of people who come back fast from an injury as tougher than the rest. Maybe they are. Maybe they're luckier, too.
Marcus Lattimore has always reminded me of Emmitt Smith. He's not super fast, doesn't have great moves, but he finds the right hole and he's hard to bring down. He will 8- and 9-yard you to death. That's a valuable skill in the NFL. Lattimore also benefits from the recent trend of teams splitting time at running back. Not many teams give one guy the ball 30 times a game anymore. That has helped backs like Willis McGahee (another player with multiple knee operations) build long careers in the league.
This past season, Thomas Davis played linebacker for the Carolina Panthers after coming off the third ACL surgery on his right knee. The Panthers are my team, and at the beginning of the season, I held my breath every time he made a tackle or dived into a pile. But after a few games, he was just a player again. That's what I hope for Marcus Lattimore -- that he becomes just a player again. He has shown the guts to come back. Now it'll take some luck.