COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Hours before he's set to walk across the stage for a college degree he was never sure he'd get, Marcus Lattimore sits in his living room, watching a post-NFL draft show.
As highlights of former Ohio State standout running back Ezekiel Elliott appear, Lattimore isn't sold. He likes Elliott's power and play away from the ball, but his overall speed needs work, Lattimore says, and he doesn't see him as "the complete back" yet.
"Not like Fournette," Lattimore says, speaking of LSU junior star Leonard Fournette, who will no doubt be a Heisman favorite again in 2016.
Lattimore should know. Just five years ago, he was Fournette, a record-setting freshman of the year tailback and Heisman contender for the Gamecocks with a bright NFL future ahead of him. Then came a torn left ACL as a sophomore and a catastrophic right knee injury as a junior -- dislocated kneecap, torn ligaments, nerve damage -- that effectively ended his career. He's arguably the most talented player of his generation never to play a down in the NFL.
"I think there's always those players that get put in a category like Cam Newton or Deshaun Watson who dominate the game," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "Marcus Lattimore was one of those guys in that category."
And yet he now looks upon those injuries as a blessing.
"Life is a little bit more enjoyable now because of what I've been through," Lattimore said. "... I wouldn't change a thing that happened -- put those knee injuries back in my life. I'm such a better person, overall. I'm wiser and I'm grateful for every single day that I get out of bed and I can walk, and I can run if I want to. The little things, they matter a little bit more than they did in the past."
Lattimore drifts back into football mode and sounds like an ordinary fan as he offers his opinion on multiple running backs. He gives praise and criticism, without a hint of bitterness in his voice. Lattimore loves Fournette, but wonders what Trent Richardson sees on the field sometimes. Rashad Jennings has all the tools, but his vision is questionable, which frustrates the armchair coach.
"I'm critiquing everybody," Lattimore says with a laugh. "I can do that because I don't play."
As he says that, his right hand drifts toward his right knee, rubbing over a long, vertical front scar and then a horizontal one on the outside.
These are permanent reminders of what Lattimore used to be and what he has become. Before those scars were etched into his skin, Lattimore was poised to be one of the all-time greats. He committed to Steve Spurrier as one of the Head Ball Coach's signature recruits in Columbia, and in Lattimore's second game, he broke 42 tackles as he romped for 182 yards on 37 carries in a win over Georgia. Afterward, Spurrier said Lattimore reminded him of Emmitt Smith. By the end of that season, Lattimore had set South Carolina freshman records for rushing yards (1,197), rushing touchdowns (17) and total touchdowns (19). As a sophomore, he was preseason favorite for college football's most prestigious award.
"I wanted that Heisman," says the Duncan, South Carolina, native.
And he crept closer to winning it with 779 yards and nine touchdowns through the first seven games of 2011. But during the fourth quarter against Mississippi State, Lattimore went out wide to block on a direct snap to Bruce Ellington (38 Sweep) and was hit low, tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee.
"I think there's always those players that get put in a category like Cam Newton or Deshaun Watson who dominate the game. Marcus Lattimore was one of those guys in that category." Alabama coach Nick Saban
After a full recovery, Lattimore looked like the same future NFL franchise runner, rushing for 627 yards and 10 touchdowns through eight games as a junior. The night before the Tennessee game, Lattimore stood in front of his teammates and told them to play every play against the Vols as if it was their last.
The irony is cruel.
With just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Lattimore took a handoff and sprinted left. Just as he crossed the line of scrimmage, linebacker Herman Lathers crashed into Lattimore's right knee.
Though Lattimore said he didn't feel pain, his right knee was dislocated. The right knee ligaments were torn and nerves were damaged. Doctors worried about being able to save his leg and later gave him a 20 percent chance of ever walking normally again. Famed surgeon James Andrews told Lattimore it was the worst injury he'd ever seen.
"At that point, I couldn't get any lower," Lattimore said.
Yolanda Smith, Lattimore's mother, was in the stands and remembers going cold as her son's lifeless leg dangled in front of thousands inside a silent Williams-Brice Stadium.
"That was my baby -- he is my baby -- and I protected him all his life, but I couldn't protect him on that football field," Smith said.
Flash forward to graduation day, May 6, 2016. Smith is bouncing around her son's three-bedroom house in Columbia. Lattimore's 2016 Chevy Silverado sits in the driveway and there's a back yard big enough for a small game of pickup football.
Nearly four years ago, Lattimore was in a dark place, with his life crumbling because the sport he thought was everything had once again been taken away from him. After declaring early for the NFL draft following his injury, Lattimore was chosen in the fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers. Halfway into his second year, Lattimore retired after pain and a lack of confidence on a ravaged knee that rendered his football ability obsolete during only a few days of practice with the 49ers.
"I'm thankful for those knee injuries," he said. "They really saved me and now I feel like I can do anything" Marcus Lattimore
"Those three days were the worst days of my life," Lattimore said.
Through all that darkness, Lattimore found light in his reinvention. His decision to give up football allowed him to start his foundation and run football camps, while affording him time to speak to those in need. It also allowed him to go back to school -- something he doesn't think would have happened if he had made it in the NFL -- to earn the degree he promised his mom he'd get.
"I'm thankful for those knee injuries," he said. "They really saved me and now I feel like I can do anything. Every time I go speak, every time I'm able to stand in front of a crowd, I heal personally."
Lattimore first thought about starting his foundation following his second injury. He thought helping others was the right direction for his life. He met with South Carolina school administrators and local Columbia businessmen, who helped him file for a 501(c)(3), which is the most common type of tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Lattimore's stepfather, Vernon Smith, would join him, becoming the president, while his mother served as vice president and treasurer.
The Marcus Lattimore Foundation, started in August 2013 with $15,000 of Lattimore's money from his NFL signing bonus, was created with the goal of helping high school athletes who might have trouble paying for treatment and rehabilitation for major injuries. It also provides college and life preparation.
Lattimore and various speakers meet with high school students to discuss topics such as NCAA rules, preparation for the ACT and SAT, how to work with school guidance counselors, how to conduct job interviews, résumé building and the importance of credit, debt and loans.
"It's fun being able to go to a city and see your work and feel the pride in what you do," he said. "I can tell you I've never had that feeling on the football field."
But Lattimore stays connected to football. He just recently took a job as assistant coach for Heathwood Hall's varsity football team in Columbia. It's welcome news after the NCAA ruled he wouldn't be allowed to serve as an assistant coach at South Carolina because his foundation gave the Gamecocks an unfair recruiting advantage. He's excited to be part of a team again, and will be able to run his foundation directly from Heathwood Hall's campus.
There are outreach programs to help the needy during the holidays, and Lattimore estimates his foundation has helped more than 3,000 student-athletes.
One of those is Johna Robbins, who suffered two ACL injuries (the second came during her senior season) while playing high school volleyball. Fearing her daughter's playing career was over, Robbins' mother, Cynthia, drove to Duncan to find Lattimore's family. She later called Lattimore, who spoke to Johna, trying to encourage her and drag her out of the brief depression caused by her injuries.
After speaking with Lattimore, Johna played out her senior season and underwent surgery afterward. She later attended Presbyterian College to play volleyball.
"Who goes to play professional ball and then takes time to call a kid you don't know?" Cynthia Robbins asked. "Anything he's set out to do is not for himself. It's unconditional [love] for others."
Lattimore speaks three to four times a month around the state, with compensation ranging from $2,000 to $7,500. On the day before his graduation, he was in North Augusta, South Carolina, speaking about his faith and football journey in front of a few hundred people on the National Day of Prayer.
People paid $12 to see Lattimore and hopefully get an autograph and picture. Some waited for an hour after he spoke.
"I don't think Elvis would have required such attention," mayor Lark Jones said.
Lattimore discussed how he went from bemoaning his injuries to thanking God for them. He praised a 9-year-old girl who helped him rediscover his faith before his sophomore season when she asked him how he balanced football, academics and his faith. Lattimore went from being a "Facebook Christian" to getting saved a week later.
"I really had to check myself and start shifting gears and doing things better," he told the crowd. "I look at that little girl as a miracle."
Another miracle came in the form of teammate Dylan Thompson, who helped Lattimore get through the death of his grandparents only months apart after his first knee injury, which threatened to derail his rehab.
"I love you, and you know God doesn't make mistakes," Thompson told Lattimore.
Lattimore's life has been full of little miracles. Some obvious, some gut-wrenching, but the biggest ones come from the close-knit people joining him on graduation day. In addition to his wife, Miranda, mother and stepfather, Lattimore is surrounded by cousin Octavius Love (who's more like a brother), close family friend Cynthia Robbins and Doretha Long, the family matriarch who took in Smith and her children years ago despite not being related by blood.
Love tells stories about a younger Lattimore who was too slow for Love's liking, so he tripped him one day and hoped Lattimore would chase him.
"Did you feel faster?" Love asked.
"Yeah," Lattimore replied.
"Well, you need to run like that. Run with a little bit of anger in you. Go a little harder."
Love also talks about the determined youngster who played a football video game for days until bedtime just so he could beat Love. When Lattimore finally won, Love retired from facing a smarter, more seasoned little brother.
"I haven't played any football games against him ever since," Love said.
On the ride to Lattimore's graduation, his sister, Eboni Samuel, FaceTimes in from Germany. She can't be there, but she's still watching over him -- protecting him -- just like she did when they were growing up.
"At the end of the day, family's all you got," Lattimore said.
Strutting into the Colonial Life Center on the outskirts of South Carolina's campus a few minutes past 3 p.m., Lattimore's family sits four rows from the stage, prime location to see their baby get his diploma.
It takes nearly two hours before Lattimore reaches the stage and calmly strolls across to shake President Harris Pastides' hand. The announcer barely says the word "Marcus" before the crowd of about 19,000 erupts in cheers and applause.
Lattimore receives a 20-second standing ovation; tears stream down his mother's face.
"He's one of the most important people who represents the integrity and passion and joy of our university," Pastides said after the ceremony.
"We'll be following this man for a long, long time. As much as I loved him [in] No. 21, I preferred seeing him in a black cap and a black gown today."
Lattimore's graduation is fulfillment for Smith, who grew up in the East Atlanta projects and has now seen four of her children earn degrees. It's a gift for the woman who sometimes crammed seven people into a two-bedroom apartment and sacrificed every Christmas. After raising her children to have better lives than she did, Smith has validation for everything that happened to her youngest.
"Nothing in our lives has been by far any way that I planned it, but everything so far has been everything I've hoped it would be," Smith said.
It certainly wasn't easy getting to this point. Football stressed her out. She even threatened to pull out Lattimore after his tooth was knocked out during a game in high school. College was frightening, she said. The threat of injury was everywhere. While she says she never missed a game, the fear of her son getting hurt caused her to never watch him play in real time, opting to take pictures (22,000 she estimates), talk with friends and watch replays.
"I never saw my son run [in] a touchdown," she said. "I saw the replay, but to watch the field, I couldn't do it."
So when Lattimore ended his playing career, Smith was relieved. She knew her son would miss playing, but she soon saw his happiness grow as he drifted away from the field.
Lattimore fulfilled his graduation promise to his mother. All the what-ifs and anguish that came from his two knee injuries and eventual retirement washed away.
"The thing that satisfies me the most is knowing that my mom is proud of what I've done and what I've become," he said.
The Original Pancake House down the street from his house is busy, but as Lattimore attempts to finish off a plate of scrambled eggs next to three pieces of bacon and a plate of buttermilk pancakes, just about everyone approaches him.
It reminds him of his second knee injury and the compassion showed by both South Carolina and Tennessee players who rushed from their respective sidelines to crowd him and deliver one last salute while he was carted off the field.
That lets him know he did things the right way, and people respected him for that.
Miranda doesn't care for the attention, but welcomes the love and support for her husband. It helped both of them when they struggled to get past his injuries. It reminds her of Lattimore's increasing happiness. She knows he has found solace in charitable efforts, especially when he's running around with kids at his football camps on his tattered knee.
"Here he is, inspiring 150 kids at each camp and all of them are looking up to him," Miranda said. "I'm looking at him like this is true happiness here."
He has joined a kickball league and tends to his foundation every day. And if his positivity dips, Lattimore thinks back to the athletes he has helped and the estimated 250,000 letters of support he has received from fans over the years. On the morning of his graduation, Lattimore received an email from an aspiring football player in England who suffered a similar knee injury. He wanted Lattimore to know how much he inspires him.
After finishing breakfast, Lattimore heads outside, finding fans everywhere. He speaks quietly with one before a group of women swarm him for a picture. He happily obliges; they thank him and offer more congratulations. A few photos later, he departs.
It's just another day in the happier life of Marcus Lattimore. Things move a little slower now, but he couldn't be more thrilled with where his life is. Unexpected turns have put him on the path to peace.
"There's always light on the other side of the tunnel," he said. "I'm living proof of it."