Marcus Lattimore doesn't walk alone

On road back from injury, 49ers RB has support from family, community and beyond

Originally Published: July 11, 2014
By Bill Williamson | ESPN.com

DUNCAN, S.C. -- Marcus Lattimore always envisioned going to New York City and striding across the Radio City Music Hall stage as a first-round draft pick. After all, he was a high school and college legend in the fertile football state of South Carolina.

But, as Lattimore learned, life doesn't unfold as planned or pictured. Instead of the bright lights of the big city, Lattimore spent his draft weekend climbing a mountain in Georgia.

"The whole family, 12 of us, [many] in not-great shape, climbed to the top of Stone Mountain to celebrate the draft," said Lattimore's mother, Yolanda Smith. "We climbed to the top. We made it."

All together.

"This journey is about so much more than me," said Lattimore, who ended up being picked in the fourth round of the 2013 draft by the San Francisco 49ers. "It's about my family, [my hometown] Duncan, my state, South Carolina, everybody that helped me get back to this point. I'm doing it for all of them."

The next family destination is already determined: M&T Stadium in Baltimore.

"Aug. 7, the Baltimore Ravens," Lattimore said without looking at the 49ers' preseason schedule. "That's right there, that's going to be the biggest game. That's the one. I'm all the way back."

From celebration to devastation

Remembering exact dates has become easy for this family. Aug. 7, 2014, would simply be the first preseason game of Lattimore's second NFL season if it weren't for the events of Oct. 27, 2012.

That day started as one of celebration for Lattimore's family. It was game day in Columbia. Lattimore's South Carolina Gamecocks were playing SEC foe Tennessee in a nationally televised game.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Lattimore suffered season-ending knee injuries twice while playing for South Carolina and thought his football career might be over while being carted off the second time.

It was festive. Lattimore's family was celebrating his health and revival. Lattimore, who had torn the ACL and MCL in his left knee in October 2011, had had three 100-yard rushing games since his return, and it was his birthday weekend.

Lattimore's family and several of his teammates had planned to take advantage of the early kickoff and celebrate Lattimore's 21st birthday, which was two days away, afterward by driving go-karts at a fun park. A teammate's mother had prepared Lattimore's favorite treat, a vanilla ice cream cake.

Then "it became devastation," said Smith, who still bursts into tears at the memory.

Smith, an extroverted woman who introduces herself with hugs, admits she's not a huge football fan. Plus, she's a nervous mother. She does love being in the stands, to visit with friends and to feed her passion for photography.

It was the second quarter and the Gamecocks were winning. Smith, as she usually did when the play was going on, had her back to the field. She was taking photos of her friends. Then, the stadium hushed. Smith's eyes turned the video board, which showed her son on the ground. She then noticed all eyes were on her. Another mother told her to get down to the field.

It is still all a blur for Smith, but she remembers the concerned faces. So many dire looks. Her son being attended to gently by trainers.

The next thing she knew, she was huddled in a side room at Williams-Brice Stadium, with Marcus sobbing.

Marcus LattimoreGerry Melendez/The State/MCT/Getty ImagesPlayers from both teams surrounded Lattimore after his knee was injured against Tennessee.

"That was the hardest part," said Lattimore's stepfather, Vernon Smith. "Marcus was apologizing to his mother for getting hurt. He kept saying, 'I'm sorry, Mama.' That was hard to see."

Instead of celebrating the Gamecocks' victory with go-karts and ice cream cake, Yolanda spent the night in a Columbia hospital holding her son's hand. Doctors at first worried Lattimore might not walk again because of nerve damage.

As he lay on the turf with his right knee shredded worse than his left knee had been 54 weeks earlier, Lattimore -- who believed his football days were done -- spent the cart ride off the field thinking about post-football life. His mind drifted to another one of his dreams: attending culinary school. (Yolanda jokes that her son, who hopes to own a restaurant and admires chef/travel TV personality Anthony Bourdain, only "attempts to cook.")

Although he had torn every ligament and dislocated the knee, there was no nerve damage. By the time he had surgery in November, Lattimore knew he had a chance to continue his pursuit of the NFL. And he simply had too much support to give up.

Because of his success, his previous injury and the gruesome nature this injury in front of an ESPN audience, Lattimore became an instant national story. LeBron James, Tim Tebow and LSU coach Les Miles were among the sports figures who offered their support via Twitter.

Yolanda received a call from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who wanted to offer support "mother to mother." The office of Vice President Joe Biden contacted the family, as did several current and former NFL players, including running backs Frank Gore and Willis McGahee. Both had overcome similar injuries in college to have long, productive pro careers.

Flowers and cards came in from all over the world, and Haley proclaimed Oct. 29, 2012 -- Lattimore's 21st birthday -- Marcus Lattimore Day in South Carolina.

Phil Magdic, a longtime high school and college football coach in the area, remembers the overwhelming reaction to Lattimore's injury.

"The entire state was shocked," said Magdic, who recently joined the coaching staff at Byrnes High School, where Lattimore was a 2009 All-American and one of the most highly recruited players in the nation. "Clemson fans were devastated. It wasn't about the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry. It was about what a great kid Marcus was, and the entire state felt so bad for him."

Where everyone is welcome

Johna Robbins was lounging on a small sofa at Yolanda and Vernon Smith's home on a recent weekday, while Douglas Jeter casually sat on the love seat's arm.

"It's our home away from home," Robbins said.

The family moved into the comfortable home on more than an acre of land in a nice housing development in Duncan -- a tight-knit town of 2,800 close to Greenville -- when Lattimore was in ninth grade and just another player entering Byrnes, a national powerhouse. Yolanda, who was raising her three children in addition to a niece and nephew, said she had a terrible credit rating back then and probably had no business getting qualified for the house.

Marcus LattimoreJames Quantz Jr. for ESPNLattimore has impressed coaches and teammates with his diligence while rehabbing his knee.

"But God wanted us here," she said. "[The house] is not mine; it's his. Everyone is welcome."

A meal of chicken and rice simmered in the kitchen. "Help yourself," Lattimore said. It is a home founded on giving.

Just ask Robbins and Jeter. They are essentially family. Their connection to Lattimore and his parents? Bum knees.

Robbins, a Division I volleyball prospect who just graduated from nearby Dorman High, is a veteran of two torn ACLs. Jeter, a stout recent graduate of Spartanburg High, had been of interest to Clemson's football recruiters until blowing out his knee during a game last fall. They are among the beneficiaries of the Marcus Lattimore Foundation.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
James Quantz Jr. for ESPNLattimore enjoys revisiting his glory days at Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., where he won two state championships.

Lattimore long planned to be in the position to have a foundation, and last August, months after being drafted by the 49ers and still very much in the rehabilitation phase of his second ACL recovery, he and his parents decided the time was right to help young athletes dealing with the aftermath of injuries.

The foundation's goals are to assist those who might not be able to afford treatment and rehabilitation so they can resume their athletic careers. The foundation also provides support for overall health and college preparation. Vernon spends most of his time with the foundation as its president, while Yolanda is vice president. The foundation is starting to gain sponsors and recently held a gala. But it got off the ground with $15,000 in seed money from Lattimore, who signed a four-year, $2.46 million rookie deal with a modest signing bonus of about $300,000.

During a recent weekend, Lattimore took two young athletes to Pilates class, worked out with them and gave them advice on injury rehab. "I will always work with kids who are suffering from ACLs," he said. "I'll do it for the rest of my life." Lattimore's chief message to the youngsters is the same advice McGahee and Gore gave him: It's not over.

A hometown hero

Lattimore was finishing giving a tour of Byrnes High School's facilities when he saw a large group of middle school players doing summer conditioning on a distant field. After waving to groundskeepers, Lattimore made his way to the field but was content to watch the kids from the car. He reminisced about his time as a Byrnes Rebel.

Asked if he wanted to get out, Lattimore quickly said, "You want to?" Seconds later, the coach halted drills and Lattimore was at midfield, surrounded by a captivated group of preteens.

"I was you," he told the kids in an impromptu, passionate speech that centered on listening to their coaches and keeping focus.

Marcus LattimoreJames Quantz Jr. for ESPNAfter touring his high school, Lattimore stopped to speak to middle schoolers working out nearby.

As a freshman in high school, Lattimore asked his stepfather about his collegiate football prospects. Vernon told his stepson he should concentrate on high school. If Lattimore progressed, Vernon promised to call some nearby schools Lattimore's senior year.

Then, Lattimore, who was a better baseball player as a child, blossomed. He made the varsity football team as a sophomore, averaging 122 yards rushing and totaling 23 touchdowns in 11 games. The next thing the family knew, Lattimore was receiving letters and calls from all over the country.

"It was crazy," Vernon said. "We weren't expecting that when he was 14, 15."

Playing in youth football leagues leading up to his days at Byrnes molded Lattimore and gave him a goal. Now, just months from reaching his NFL dream, Lattimore cherishes his high school days. "It was extreme 'Friday Night Lights,'" he said.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
James Quantz Jr. for ESPNVernon Smith (right) was surprised when his stepson blossomed into a star running back during his sophomore year of high school.

Lattimore's name is plastered all over the athletic department at Byrnes. His jersey, his records, his All-America honors are to be forever displayed at the school. Yet, it's only part of the story.

"Marcus is so hard to explain in so few words," said Robert Keels, a dentist who got to know Lattimore as a high school player and who has developed into a close family friend. "What stuck out to me, more than anything, were his manners."

Spend time in Duncan with Lattimore and you see a polite young man with a Southern ease about him and a quick laugh. As soon as he greeted his visitors in his parents' driveway with "Welcome to my hometown," it was clear this is his safe haven.

Lattimore zips through town, waving to passers-by and chatting freely with friends. He is solidly built at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, and shows no signs of his injuries other than the scars on his knees. Not even a limp.

An ideal morning during the NFL's vacation before training camp was spent with his best friend since age 7, Creighton Frost. Now a firefighter in Duncan, Frost was Lattimore's fullback at Byrnes. The former state champions now bond by target-shooting in the woods just outside of town.

"There's nothing like this place for me," Lattimore said.

'Ready to get hit again'

Yolanda Smith had a feeling about 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. An amateur matchmaker, she was watching a pre-Super Bowl interview featuring Harbaugh and his brother, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, in February 2013. Lattimore's mother thought the 49ers coach would be a perfect match for one of her friends. A self-described "Google queen," she researched him.

"He had to go and mess the whole thing up by being married," Yolanda said with a laugh.

But that connection was only beginning. Less than three months later, Harbaugh was on the other end of the phone telling Yolanda he was drafting Lattimore in the fourth round. Harbaugh told her the 49ers would take good care of her son and not rush him to the field.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuThe 49ers only recently allowed Lattimore to practice at full speed.

The 49ers kept their word. They protected Lattimore from himself and kept him on a strict rehab schedule. For the first six months of his NFL career, he attended meetings and was part of the team on a daily basis, doing everything except practicing. Lattimore watched the 49ers' first regular-season game, at San Francisco, from the sideline. Afterward, his mother called him and told him how good he looked, which Lattimore took as an insult -- and motivation to get back on the field. The coaching staff had him concentrate on the playbook and learning the team's pass protections. Lattimore said his primary goal was to keep his head down and work hard, and teammates and coaches raved about his determination.

"It's going to be great to see Marcus out there and show what he can do," said fellow 2103 draft pick Tank Carradine, who spent time with Lattimore last season rehabbing from his own torn ACL.

Lattimore was finally able to practice for a three-week window in November. He said that on the day of his first practice, he had tears in his eyes. It was only in recent weeks that the 49ers have let him practice fully.

They won't rush Lattimore this season either. Gore, 31, who is entering the final year of his contract, is the unquestioned starter. And in this year's draft, San Francisco selected Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, who unexpectedly slid to the second round. At a shade under 6 feet and nearly 240 pounds, Hyde has a skill set similar to what Lattimore's was at South Carolina: a slashing runner with the ability to burst out of cuts and better-than-average receiving skills.

Lattimore, who insists he is back to his pre-2012-injury speed and explosion, should eventually get a shot at replacing Gore -- something he couldn't have expected 18 months ago.

But there are no promises.

Although Lattimore says he has no doubts he will have a successful pro career, the fact remains that few athletes have come back from that severe of a knee injury.

"People forget that with his first knee injury, Marcus tore both his ACL and his MCL," said South Carolina team physician Dr. Jeffrey Guy, who led Lattimore's medical team. "Coming back from a second multi-ligament injury to return to the NFL takes a level of physical and mental commitment that few athletes possess at any level of sport. But watch out. Marcus Lattimore does."

Until he actually plays, Lattimore has asked his family not to wear his No. 38 Niners jersey. He recently told his stepfather that he was being "lame" when he played a Madden game with Lattimore in a San Francisco uniform. His real debut can't come soon enough.

"It's the perfect place for me," Lattimore said of San Francisco. "I probably wouldn't be there if I didn't get hurt. Of course, I'm not glad I got hurt, but a lot of great things have happened as a result. Being a 49er is one of them. It's time to reward them. I'm ready. All that's left is the first hit.

"I'm ready to get hit again ... and then move on."

The next time Lattimore's family gathers, Aug. 7 in Baltimore, he will be back. And then they will move on.

ESPN medical analyst Stephania Bell contributed to this report.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter

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