Herman Lathers an inspiration for Vols

Just seeing No. 34 out there on the practice field this spring was a major pick-me-up for everybody associated with Tennessee’s football team.

And, yes, it had been a long time coming for Herman Lathers.

“It seemed like forever since I’d really played football,” said Lathers, the Vols’ fifth-year senior middle linebacker, who missed all of last season with a fractured ankle.

“When you go through some of the things I’ve gone through, you soak up every second you’re out there and make the most of it.”

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Lathers, whose career has been riddled with injuries, is that he’s not a “Why me?” guy. Rather, he’s an “I’m going to persevere guy,” and it goes all the way back to his childhood.

Lathers was diagnosed with bone cancer when he was 10. While other kids were out playing football and basketball and just being normal kids, he was undergoing a painful treatment process that included a needle being stuck in his back once a month for five years.

“That’s a lot of shots, and I was really limited as a kid,” said Lathers, who didn’t start playing football until his sophomore year of high school. “I wasn’t’ able to go outside a lot and move around. Most of the time, I was in the house lying down with my feet propped up and heating pads on my back.”

Now cancer-free, Lathers has still had to fight through a litany of injuries.

Soon after arriving at Tennessee, Lathers had his spleen removed after tests revealed that he had a low platelet count. He redshirted in 2008, but bounced back to play some quality football over the next two seasons. He was an SEC All-Freshman performer in 2009, and finished second on the team with 75 total tackles in 2010.

Toward the end of the 2010 season, Lathers hurt his shoulder and played through the injury in the bowl game. But he had shoulder surgery in January following the bowl game and missed spring practice. The most crippling blow, though, came a few months later to open summer workouts when he collided with another teammate while breaking on a pass.

His left ankle was fractured, and doctors had to insert 11 screws to repair it. Lathers tried to come back and practice during the latter part of the 2011 season, but he simply couldn’t move well enough to play.

“It was my worst injury since I’ve been here, more mentally draining than anything else,” Lathers said. “It was hard to understand why all this was happening to me, but it’s like our chaplain used to always say, ‘God never puts more on you than you can bear.’ ”

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said there’s no way to put a value on what having Lathers back means to the team.

“He’s not just an inspiration from a leadership standpoint, but he’s a really good football player,” Dooley said. “When we went into the spring, I was really nervous how much we were going to get out of him coming off the injuries that he’s had. When I saw him early on in the spring, it kind of hit us all that most of what he’s fighting really is clearing this mental hurdle, that he’s OK.

“I think he pulled the pin more than he ever dreamed that he would have in our scrimmages and in the spring game.”

Lathers admits that he didn’t have much confidence in his ankle to begin spring practice and was tentative.

“I just didn’t know how much it could withstand,” he said.

But each day, he played a little faster and a little more instinctively, and as his teammates were fond of saying, was back to the “old Herm.”

Dooley said it’s critical that Lathers stays healthy, too. The Vols aren’t very deep at linebacker, and with the transition to the 3-4 defense, they need somebody with Lathers’ experience patrolling the middle.

“I believe he came out of the spring with a lot of confidence that he’s ready to go and he can be a real difference-maker for us in the front seven, and we need him to be,” Dooley said.

Lathers feels like he will only get stronger this summer, and that his range of motion in the knee will only get better. He’s also going to make sure he doesn’t overdo it.

He doesn’t have to play a game in June. It’s September when he wants to be at full speed.

“That’s when I want to put the kind of stamp on this team and my time here that I know I can,” said Lathers, who will explore the possibility of getting a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.

“This team has been through a lot. We’ve all been through a lot. Adversity is just something you have to fight through. I think all that’s behind us now, and that we’re going to go out and do some great things this year.”