- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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This story will appear in ESPN The Magazine's April 29 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
"SMALL MOVES, MARCUS. Small moves."
It is 10:45 a.m. in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Tucked behind the famously tacky sign beckoning vacationers to Pensacola Beach, famed orthopedist Dr. James Andrews' Athletes' Performance facility is filled with the desperate activities of football players on the mend -- nearly two dozen damaged dreamers, each hoping to repair both his body and his NFL draft stock.
Standing in an open garage, offensive linemen rehabbing shoulder injuries grunt their way through 440-pound dead lifts, the weights crashing to the mat with yells and clacks. On the field behind the brick building, defensive backs and wide receivers explode through 40-yard dashes, their recently repaired elbows and knees flinging sweat and cracking away scar tissue. And in the shadowed space between the lifters and the sprinters, quietly grinding it out in slow inches rather than intense bursts, is Marcus Lattimore.
The mood in the gym is resolutely positive, everyone acting as if he will become pro. Yet deep down, there's the knowledge that only a handful will actually realize that shared dream. Hell, the odds were already long. As distressed goods, their chances have been stretched even further.
"Bring that back up straighter, Marcus, just an inch or so."
Right now Lattimore is perfectly still, hands pressed against the gray cinder block wall, knees bent, ass out, legs awkwardly supporting the weight of his six-foot, 218-pound frame. This is his 11th exercise of the morning session -- the 11th of 30 -- all performed under the precision-guided eye of Athletes' Performance's tactical performance director, Russ Orr.
"Give me just a half an inch more bend in your knees, Marcus," Orr continues. "Just a half-inch more."
Lattimore appears peacefully trapped in tedium, knowing all too well that the road to healing a bum knee is a monotonous one. One year ago, he was rehabbing his left, beset by an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear that abruptly ended his sophomore season at South Carolina. "The scar on my left knee used to look so bad to people," he says, touching the telltale dots of arthroscopic surgery. "Now no one even sees that one." He smiles, speaking in a deep-throated voice that belies his gentle nature, reaching beneath the knee brace on his right leg, touching a kneecap parenthesized by two long lines of raised skin. "This one here gets all the attention now."
Five months earlier, that knee had been grotesquely dislocated, with tears in three -- ACL, LCL (lateral collateral) and PCL (posterior cruciate) -- of its four major ligaments. Now this is the knee that dominates Lattimore's life, altering pre-NFL draft chatter and dictating his worth. The degree to which it can be healed will determine the degree to which he can rekindle what seemed predestined since he was in middle school: playing football on Sundays.
The work he put in on the first knee was, in the end, merely a dress rehearsal for the second. That's how he knows that these decidedly unsexy, minimalist workouts will eventually be worth it. "This is all about activation, about rebuilding the pillar that everything else is built on," says Orr. "Crawl to walk and walk to run. We're somewhere in that first half."
Others continue to remind Lattimore of the potential payoff, of the NFL stars who have been where he is now and are now where he's always wanted to be. "This is a world where Adrian Peterson can tear two ligaments in one knee and come back to rush for 2,000 yards in the NFL eight months later," the 21-year-old says between exercises. "And this room we're in -- this is the room where he started the road back, inch by inch, just like me."
THE INJURY IS too gruesome to watch. On Oct. 27, 2012, with South Carolina leading Tennessee 21-14 late in the first half, Lattimore took the ball on a simple counter, his favorite play. As a freshman in 2010, he posted an otherworldly 1,609 total offensive yards. Before his injury in 2011, he was on pace to shatter that mark, nearly at 1,000 with six games remaining. And now, nine games into the season, Lattimore was at 835 total yards (662 rushing) in Steve Spurrier's evolving, more balanced offense. Earlier in the game, he'd scored his team-leading 11th touchdown.
Lattimore stepped up to the line and made a cut left. As he turned the corner, he was met simultaneously by two Volunteers defenders -- linebacker Herman Lathers and cornerback Eric Gordon. With Lathers wrapping up from behind, Gordon blew in from the left, gunning for the ankles. Lattimore's left leg planted, supporting the linebacker's full airborne weight. His right foot came up to step, and with that leg bent and rising, his knee slammed into Gordon's oncoming helmet, cap to crown, and collapsed between the 190-pound defensive back's torso and the grass.
When the upper half of Lattimore's body hit the ground, Lathers rolled him over and away from Gordon, who rose to chase the loose football. As Lattimore's lower extremities whipped overhead, his right leg, from the knee down, was bent strangely at a near-90-degree angle. It flapped directly over his face like a loose flag, slapping into the turf beside him. "As it went by, I saw my kneecap outside my leg, just totally in the wrong place," he says.
As nauseating as the images of the leg are, the look on the player's face as he instinctively reached out to grab his knee is even more devastating to those who knew him best. "The scariest part was the shock," says wide receiver Ace Sanders, another South Carolina NFL draft hopeful. "Anyone will tell you that our locker room looked -- still looks -- to Marcus as our leader. He's our rock. When he looked scared lying there, it shook us all."
"At that moment, I really believed I was done," Lattimore recalls. "When you look back and see what people were writing and posting on Twitter and Facebook that night, they all thought I was done too."
Digital well-wishes poured in from every corner of the sports world as he rode off the field in the flatbed of an athletic trainer's Gator, a towel covering his face. Players on both sidelines, South Carolina's and Tennessee's, wept. The story of how he'd used his time during his first ACL comeback to reach out to other injured players, even those from rival SEC teams, had quietly created a bit of a Lattimore cult within football circles.
On Sunday, Oct. 28, he was in a Columbia, S.C., hospital. "It was always going to be bad," says Gamecocks team physician Jeffrey Guy. "But when we realized that it was a dislocation and not a break, there was instantly a glimmer of hope." Not of playing football again but of walking normally.
"I just knew he was done with football," says Lattimore's mother, Yolanda Smith, an outspoken contrast to her quiet son. She gained fame with football moms everywhere when she rushed to her son's side after the first ACL tear in Starkville, Miss. "I had seen my baby hurt before. Now I had seen him hurt again. There was a part of me that said, Let this be over. But that has always been up to him. And he's always done the right thing."
That night, after Spurrier and the other visitors were gone, Lattimore wasn't sure what the right thing might be. In the background, the TV droned with an NFL game. The Broncos were thrashing the Saints 34-14, led by Willis McGahee's 122-yard rushing performance.
On Monday, Lattimore's 21st birthday, he moved into his sister Eboni's apartment. The South Carolina grad had enrolled in a graduate program in order to stay close to Marcus in Columbia. He sat silently, right leg in an immobilizer, staring at the floor, "wondering what I was going to do now." When he did look up, Monday Night Football was on. The 49ers were running over the Cardinals -- the first of their three TDs set up by a bruising set of runs from Frank Gore.
The next day, barely 72 hours after the injury, Lattimore's phone buzzed with texts from Western time zones. One was from Gore, who had also blown out both knees and joked that two injured legs were better than one. "Now you're not going to favor one or the other … you're balanced out!"
Another was from McGahee. "I just told him to keep his attitude up," says the Bronco, who suffered a "terrible triad" -- ACL, PCL and MCL (medial collateral) injury -- playing for Miami in the 2003 national title game against Ohio State. Like Lattimore, he could have returned to college but instead declared for the draft. "At first, it was hard for me not to get caught up in my status, to focus on my rehab. But I realized all of that was out of my control. What I could control was the work I had to do on my knee. That's what I told Marcus."
Also like Lattimore, McGahee was widely considered a pre-injury lock as a high-first-round pick. After the injury, labeled a "medical liability," he was projected to go as low as the fourth round. He still went in the first round, picked 23rd overall by the Bills. And though he didn't play in '03, in the nine years since, he has rushed for 1,000-plus yards four times. "Look to me and Gore," McGahee preached. "And just look at what Adrian is doing."
LATTIMORE HEARS Adrian Peterson's name more than any other. That's who friends, fans and family constantly point to as proof that a comeback isn't just possible but probable. Every media session, predraft expert analysis and chat with NFL front office personnel is peppered with Peterson mentions. Why not? After suffering ACL and MCL tears on Dec. 24, 2011, he was back in the Vikings starting lineup just over eight months later. A year after his injury, he clinched the NFL MVP award while coming within nine yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.
"All of the elements that were there with Peterson are there with Marcus," says Spurrier. "The injuries were similar. But so are their work ethics. Their reputations are solid. And Marcus is there in Florida with Dr. Andrews, just like Peterson was."
The Sunday after his injury, Lattimore watched Peterson post 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Seattle. "My mind was made up then," Lattimore recalls. "I was done with, What am I going to do? I'd moved on to, This is what I'm going to do."
Peterson and Lattimore have never talked directly. Not yet. But Peterson continues to send words of encouragement through mutual friends, including the Athletes' Performance staff. "My message is pretty simple," Peterson says. "This can be done. You can do it. So do it."
Yet for NFL talent evaluators, the Peterson comparison is a two-sided hill. They want to believe such a recovery can happen again, especially with a player who is universally liked. "I love that kid," says new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who met with Lattimore in
Philadelphia on March 14 and 15. "I recruited him so hard at Oregon, as much because of his character as his ability."
But the injury is still catastrophic. Lattimore says that when he holds those meetings with NFL executives, they never ask him about his knees. "They want to talk X's and O's and my family life. Everything but the injury. They call Dr. Andrews about that." Still, the player can't help but notice that when he enters each room, eye contact and handshakes are punctuated by glances down to evaluate his gait and peek at that scar.
"There is no doubt that the AP story creates more confidence in Lattimore's situation," admitted an NFL scout shortly after watching Lattimore's workout at South Carolina's pro day on March 27. He didn't run, but he did catch balls from a standing position. In a testament to how his comeback story has struck a chord throughout the league, the completion of his gym exercises was met with a round of applause and handshakes from the audience of reps from 31 NFL teams. "It is such an inspiring thing to watch, just like Peterson," the scout says. "But what I have to remind my people on draft day is that the Peterson story is special because it's one in a million. Until Marcus is running real football drills, there's no way of knowing if he's going to be two in a million."
There is also wariness among NFL player-personnel types that their growing confidence in injury-recovery science could easily become overconfidence. Advancements over the past four decades, led by Andrews, are inarguably remarkable. Andrews was among the first surgeons to take sports medicine seriously and in the 1980s went against common practice, forgoing traditional blade-first surgery for less invasive arthroscopic methods. And progress in the past decade has been at light speed compared to the years before it, especially in after-treatment and recovery.
"But this is not a magic wand," says Andrews, who admits having developed an atypical closeness with Lattimore. "We are better as doctors. The bodies we work on are better now. Through genetics and nutrition, today's athletes are built to recover. I am proud of what we did with Adrian, but I've also never seen a knee that clean before we'd even touched it. It looked like a newborn's knee, not someone who had been playing football his whole life. And even as recovery times decrease overall, there are only a few superhumans. Bo Jackson, Adrian, Robert Griffin III. Those are extraordinary cases. Marcus might be in there. But there is still the challenge of preaching patience. These things still take time."
"The goal of any orthopedic procedure is to repair an injury to the point that it is as good as it was before," explains Stephania Bell, a physical therapist and ESPN injury analyst who spent extensive time with Lattimore over the winter. "If you were extraordinary physically before, then fully healed you should be extraordinary again. These are all extraordinary athletes. Not everyone is. But even those special cases have to practice patience."
When Andrews and Bell urge caution, they aren't just addressing NFL front offices. They are talking to their patients, including
Andrews' charge Griffin, who let a Week 14 LCL sprain deteriorate into a torn MCL and ACL because he bypassed Andrews
and re-entered the game instead of being properly examined.
Griffin had surgery on Jan. 9 and a few weeks later was in an Athletes' Performance swimming pool alongside Lattimore, repeating the patience mantra. "RG3 just keeps telling me that the player I was is still in here," Lattimore recalls. "He said to not get into a hurry. Just to keep working on the small stuff, and when that player inside me is ready to come back out, he will. But not until he's ready."
BACK BEHIND THE building in Gulf Breeze, now on exercise 20, Lattimore and that player inside are playing hide-and-seek. He's really sweating now, standing atop a 1-foot-tall metal-frame box. His left leg is planted straight while he brings his right leg off the ground and pulls it up into a bend, holding it at a 90-degree angle. Up to this point, every exercise has gone smoothly, according to plan. But suddenly, for the first time, there is a bobble. The left knee gives, not a lot but just a touch. The running back looks down at it, confused, and appears perturbed and a little betrayed.
"Okay, okay," Orr says, clapping his hands as he runs to the player's side to offer up a shoulder to lean on. Lattimore refuses. "We found that limit right there. Make a note. I'll make a note. And tomorrow we'll be ready for it. Ready to move past it."
As Orr steps away to write on his clipboard, Lattimore watches him. The moment the trainer looks away, the player sneaks in one more rep. This time it goes off without a hitch.
He hops down off the box and winks. "I couldn't wait until tomorrow."
2dDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information