10 years after devastating injury at South Carolina, Marcus Lattimore rediscovers his place in the game

Far from the bright lights of Division I football, Marcus Lattimore now mentors players at Lewis & Clark College and high schools around Portland, Oregon. Steve Gibbons/Lewis & Clark College

MARCUS LATTIMORE CLIMBED a stage in the autumn of 2019 and slipped on a black jacket. He fought the urge to rip it off and throw it away.

He looked out at his admirers assembled in Colonial Life Arena. He was now, officially, what he had long been in their hearts and minds: a member of the University of South Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame.

He'd given an entire state permission to dream big dreams. Allowed legions of fans to believe they belonged with collegiate royalty. And for a spell, they did. In the three years Lattimore was a running back for the South Carolina Gamecocks, from 2010 to 2012, they faced Clemson, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia 10 times; they were winners all but once. Lattimore ran for 2,677 yards; along the way, he inspired a string of dazzling South Carolinian high schoolers to follow him to Columbia. "Everybody wanted to know who recruited Jadeveon Clowney," says Steve Spurrier, the coach who oversaw those golden years. "Well, the biggest one was Marcus Lattimore."

The man on stage wasn't merely a Hall of Famer. He wasn't just larger than life.

"Dude, you're a god," a teenager once told Lattimore. He was at a farmer's market, years removed from his playing days, but the young man was stone-faced and solemn. "Don't say that," Lattimore implored him. "Don't ever say that."

He'd been asked to walk a bride down the aisle. To comfort a woman dying in hospice. He'd been questioned on why he would deign to frequent a place as quotidian as Dollar General. He'd been credited with pulling a man out of a severe depressive state after a chance encounter on DeBordieu Beach. He meant so much to so many that Lattimore started to suspect he -- the tangible, flesh-and-blood him -- had lost all meaning.

"You get to a point where you see people don't see you," he says.

They say that man is Marcus Lattimore. What they mean is that man used to be Marcus Lattimore.

He stood before the crowd of fawning South Carolinians, the people who knew him -- his wife, Miranda; his mother, Yolanda; his stepfather, Vernon -- and the people who thought they knew him because they once saw him run with a football tucked into the crook of his arm. He stepped to the microphone and said the right things. Important things.

"I'm reminded every day I walk outside the doors of my home what happened on Oct. 27, 2012, when I dislocated my right knee," he told them. "And for the longest time I blamed. I asked why. 'It should've been a different way. It could've been a different way.' I don't ask why anymore. It didn't happen to me, it happened for me."

He had made his peace with the catastrophic injury that ended his football career. Embraced it even, in a way he figured most of the crowd that night had not. They were, after all, convening to recognize the player he was, and the player they were certain he would have been -- should have been -- if not for the frailty of a human knee.

"They didn't know me," the 30-year-old says now, years later, as he puts together the pieces of why the October night he was coronated a Hall of Famer was the same night he felt that fame curdle. "They didn't know who I was behind closed doors, so how could they honor me? That's just honoring half a person."

You get to a point where you see people don't see you.

Three months after he stood on stage, he left the South Carolina football program, where he had spent two years as the director of player development. Three months after that, he left the state of South Carolina altogether. This place had made him who he was. He had to escape it to become who he wanted to be.

IT'S LATE AUGUST 2021, and 3,000 miles away from Columbia, in Portland, Oregon, Lattimore runs sprints along the 20-yard line at Griswold Stadium, home to the Lewis & Clark Pioneers. The ground is damp. The air is damper. The temperature has reached 63 degrees as Lattimore, Lewis & Clark's new running backs coach and director of player development, high-steps his way across the football field and back. He doesn't limp. There's no hitch in his step. No sign at all of the trauma he lived through nearly a decade earlier -- when an opposing defender's helmet dislocated his right knee; when everything ripped, the ACL and LCL and PCL; when, for a brief, terrible moment, doctors were afraid he had torn the artery to his lower leg, which could have meant losing it.

Neither is there any indication that there, cruising along the 20-yard-line, in a Division III stadium that seats less than half the number of fans as Lattimore's high school field -- and draws far fewer than that -- is one of this century's greatest collegiate running backs.

If he was a god in South Carolina, he is as good as gone from the public consciousness in Portland. Just a day earlier, a passerby walking the hallways of the athletic complex struck up a conversation with Lattimore:

"Are you on the team? No? Did you play here? No? Where'd you play?"

"South Carolina, sir."

Here's what Lattimore didn't share: By the time he was a teenager, and one of the top-ranked high school prospects in the country, he had been summoned to the University of South Carolina president's private residence for a meet-and-greet during a recruiting trip. One of the Gamecocks coaches who joined Lattimore that day thanked him for the opportunity; he'd never had the chance to meet the president before.

As a junior and one of the most exhilarating college football players in the country, his broken body also broke something fundamental in the state of South Carolina on Oct. 27, 2012. "I never felt a deflation like that in my life," says Shawn Elliott, the offensive line coach for South Carolina that day. "It drained us. And not only did it drain our team, it drained every single fan that was in the stands that day. It drained our state."

Lattimore was the hometown kid who turned that home into someplace special in the only way that has ever really mattered there: football. "You stay home, you're from home, you're forever memorialized," Lattimore said on a podcast recently. "That's something to keep in mind." A fairy tale, or perhaps a cautionary one.

In Portland, there is no pedestal. It's all he wanted when he set out west.

"I needed to get away from what felt like ..." Lattimore pauses, takes a moment to ponder exactly what it felt like to be Marcus Lattimore in South Carolina before he left. "What felt like a cage."

WHEN THEY WERE still living in Columbia, Lattimore and his wife, Miranda, had a favorite wine bar where the hostess would seat them at a small table in the back -- a gesture at a modicum of privacy, at least. The last time they stopped in, they sat down across from a small party of six, and Miranda heard one woman's whispers. ("It's like they'll whisper, but they want you to hear them say, 'Do you think that's Marcus?'" she says.)

I'm going to ask him. It's him, I'm going to ask him.

The woman walked over to their table, pulled out her phone, and regaled Lattimore with a story about the time, a few years ago, her son took a picture with him at a football camp. She began scrolling through her Facebook feed in an attempt to find said picture, then asked for a new photo. Meanwhile, another woman passing by noticed Lattimore midphoto-op, and stopped to investigate what the fuss was about.

Oh my god. Are you Marcus?

The starstruck woman's husband joined her.

Soon, one of the other couples figured if Lattimore was taking pictures, they might as well join the queue. A line of well-wishers and adoring fans was forming outside the Lattimores' table before they had even ordered appetizers.

The fawning wasn't new. Lattimore estimates he must have attended 50 children's birthday parties when he was a high schooler in Duncan, South Carolina. One year, a man named Johnny, who works at an auto dealer in nearby Lyman, called Lattimore's coach Bobby Bentley to ask if Marcus could swing by his son's celebration. Despite it being a Friday, the coach relayed the request. "That night, Marcus showed up, ate, hung out, played games with the kids," Johnny marvels all these years later. "That's just the type of guy he was."

And, eventually, the type of guy Lattimore felt forced to be.

"They thought I was a golden boy," he says. "They thought I was this guy who made no mistakes. Brought flowers to the professors. Apples. I think I'm a generous and courteous person, but I knew when to turn it on and turn it off. I hid a lot."

He mastered that art quickly because fame tentacled into Lattimore's life early. Take Exit 63 off I-85 and a pair of stately brick columns sandwiching a signpost greet your arrival, with an introduction to what matters in this nook of upstate South Carolina: high school football.

Welcome to Duncan

Home of the James F. Byrnes Rebels

Theirs was the kind of town that shuttered on Friday nights. The police force and fire department descended on Nixon Field. "It's like church on Sunday morning," Lattimore's mother, Yolanda Smith, says. "There's no other ... what are you going to do? You go to church."

And the Duncan churchgoers had been biding their time.

"Everybody in town knew this young man was coming," Bentley says.

Lattimore parlayed his first touch as a Byrnes Rebel varsity football player -- on national television, no less -- into a touchdown, and suddenly and irrevocably, churchgoers South Carolina-wide pinned their wildest football dreams on Lattimore. He rewarded their piety.

"I picked South Carolina because it was the University of South Carolina," Lattimore says. "And at that time, I felt like I was South Carolina."

In Columbia, Lattimore was a sensation. He rushed for nearly 1,200 yards as a freshman in 2010. He was crowned SEC Freshman of the Year. He led the Gamecocks to their first (and, to date, only) SEC East title. He was graceful and brutal and something of a magician. Spurrier has sworn he looked at every possible angle of one Lattimore touchdown run from the 2-yard line against LSU and just could not find the hole his running back glided through. Perhaps he levitated, Spurrier surmised.

Lattimore was a phenomenon. A superhuman. Until he became mortal.

THE PLAY WAS power right.

Sitting in an auditorium in Lewis & Clark's athletics building, Lattimore rubs at his right leg, where a latticework of scars run the length and width of the kneecap, his skin still puckered from trauma. Then he stands up, assuming his position, because he still knows by heart, all these years later, how that play on Oct. 27, 2012, unfolded. How it all unraveled.

He was meant to follow the guard into the hole, but he didn't see any daylight, so he cut back, took off to his left, and saw one defender heading his way. He never saw the other defender, whose helmet launched onto his right knee. The impact was so cataclysmic, pieces of that helmet were still lodged into Lattimore's knee when he lay prostrate on the ground.

Harris Pastides, the university president who had hosted Lattimore on his recruiting visit years earlier, was on the sideline that day, and 10 years later, he still can't shake the silence of the stadium in that moment. "Look, we always feel compassionate about any injured football player," he says. "But it was Marcus. Marcus."

It's hard to overstate just how certain Lattimore's future felt until that moment; how easy it was to see the arc of his football tale, like it was a movie everyone had already watched and loved. He was the country's preeminent running back, barreling toward first-round glory. He was the NFL's next great rusher, as sure a fate as gravity. Which is why, in his most fallible, human moment, the deification of Marcus Lattimore -- already a god to the thousands of shell-shocked mourners in the stadium, to the millions more grieving at home across the state -- began anew, and with new vigor.

The masses girded themselves for the comeback story to outshine all comeback stories. Sure, Dr. James Andrews called the destruction inflicted on Lattimore's right knee one of the worst, most complex injuries he'd ever had to operate on. (It's a statement the renowned orthopedic surgeon says holds true, even now, a decade later.) Sure, doctors told Yolanda at one point in the hazy, nauseating aftermath of his injury, that Lattimore might have a 10 percent chance of ever walking again. Sure, he was barely a year removed from tearing and rehabbing the ACL in his other knee.

But it was Marcus. Marcus.

He would "shock the world," Andrews proclaimed.

"He'll be fine. He'll be back to same old Marcus," Bentley knew in his bones.

"This is going to be a great story," Lattimore said then. "I promise you that."

It very nearly was. The 49ers drafted Lattimore in the fourth round in 2013 -- when all he was known to be bringing to San Francisco for sure was a recently decimated right knee. He spent his first season as a Niner on the non-football injury list and the beginning of his second confronting a grim reality: He was not, and would never be, the same player. When he planted his foot on the ground, a handful of Oxycodone pills would often follow, just to make the pain bearable. When he took the field during a scout-team kickoff, and Joe Staley -- offensive lineman Joe Staley -- joined the coverage unit in a fit of practice tomfoolery and outran Lattimore as they sprinted downfield, he knew it was over.

He returned to South Carolina, now beloved martyr. At the time, Lattimore "would have died before he quit football." He didn't lose his limb, just his rightful place in the game. In lieu of NFL stardom, he became a high school football coach. Then he joined the Gamecocks football program as the director of player development. Along the way, he spoke to all manner of audiences -- high schoolers and college athletes and people not affiliated with football at all -- about his journey. And at every stop, he felt the weight of who he used to be. Lattimore was no longer the same player the state had raised, but South Carolina was still the same state that had raised him.

"The pressure just kept building every year. More pressure, more pressure," he says. "And even when I retired, I still felt pressured to be something, to be this person for everybody. I was so focused on how people viewed me. And people viewed me as this hero.

"I had to put on a cape every day."

He knew who they wanted him to be.

The devout Christian ... even though his faith was beginning to fray. "Rarely did I come across people who said they were Christian, but also talked and walked like one," he says.

The role model ... even though he filled the hole left by football with destructive habits. Smoking. Drinking. "I was lost," he says.

The favorite son ... even though he never felt right despite the entire state telling him he could do no wrong. While then-Gov. Nikki Haley was proclaiming his birthday, Oct. 29, Marcus Lattimore Day in South Carolina, he was wrestling with why. "I know I ran the ball for your favorite team, and I appreciate your support," he says. "But if you knew who I really was, would you still be a fan?"

He had known only fame and fawning since he was 16 years old and he clung to that even as he began to reject the premise of it.

"I just wanted people to know I'm human," he says. "And I didn't feel human."

"HE'S A VERY special human being," says Jay Locey, the head coach of Lewis & Clark. "He cares about you. He cares about us."

It's the waning days of the summer in 2021 and Locey, in what will be his final season before he retires, stands on a pool deck in Happy Valley, Oregon, in the idyllic outskirts of Portland, officially welcoming Lattimore to the Pioneers football program.

The whole team has assembled at the home of an assistant coach for Happy Valley Olympics -- the Pioneers' annual day of summer-camp-adjacent games and food and everything but football. Before all that, Lattimore rises from his perch on a deck chair to greet the masses.

"I'm just honored to be here," he says. "You have a vision in your head, but rarely does it ever come true. Rarely does it ever happen. And this is what I envisioned."

Lattimore actually joined Lewis & Clark in 2020, but because the pandemic shut down the Pioneers' season that fall, he's only now fully immersing himself with the team. There were no strings that pulled him to Lewis & Clark, no shared experience with this football program from a tiny liberal arts college on the West Coast. Lattimore and his wife had planned to move to France in March 2020; they had a cottage to rent in the countryside and sold their home in Columbia, their car, most of their possessions, in fact. But when COVID scuttled that plan, they rerouted to Portland, a city they had visited once before but seemed like as good a place as any for a fresh start, which is really what they were after. Lattimore researched football programs in the area, stumbled upon Lewis & Clark, and reached out to Locey out of the blue, with little preamble and even less pomp.

The coach arrived to his computer to find an email waiting.

Coach Locey, this is Marcus Lattimore. I'm interested in working with the football program.

"I'm going, 'Is this Lattimore ... like South Carolina Lattimore?'" Locey says. "He didn't identify himself."

Locey didn't have an opening on the staff, at least not one that paid. But because a salaried position was not a dealbreaker for Lattimore, the two hatched a plan: Lattimore would join their ranks to focus on player development, and especially, freshmen.

He would meet one-on-one with the newcomers, to work on their schedules as they inevitably stumbled through freshman road bumps. He would talk to them about "taboo topics," like feelings and masculinity. He would help foster relationships, and in time, internships for athletes exploring career opportunities. He would offer himself as an open book, talking through one player's imposter syndrome by explaining his own. Even at his peak, even at his most revered, he confessed, "I just could not wrap my head around what people were seeing."

And he would deliver his most vital message the first time he spoke to them: "We don't suffer in silence here." Hiding was a skill he knew well from South Carolina. Hiding was not what he wanted for his new charges.

When the running backs coaching position and its $5,000 stipend did eventually become available, Lattimore took it, but it was the development of players that tugged at him. That's the vision he spoke about at the Happy Valley Olympics.

(It wasn't his vision alone. Spurrier, always excitable, sounds downright ecstatic to learn of Lattimore's latest endeavor. "Is that right? Lewis & Clark? I did not know that, but that doesn't surprise me. That's him. That's his calling in life.")

So much so that after the 2021 football season, he decided developing players was really all he wanted to do, at least when it came to football. He let go of his running back responsibilities, and his official title and affiliation with the school as director of player development. Then he assumed the role of team mentor, continuing to work with the Pioneers for half the week while expanding his mentorship role to high schools in the Portland area.

His new role as unofficial mentor offers Lattimore and his wife the freedom of time to dive into other passions. Writing (for him) and yoga (for her) and travel (for both) and blossoming in this place that has given them the space to grow into newer, bigger versions of themselves. Even if he's not earning an income, his patchwork of savings is enough for now. The small percent of insurance coverage he was able to secure after his injury; the rookie contract he was able to sign; the marketing and speaking opportunities that he earned simply because his name was Marcus Lattimore and his home was South Carolina; the two years he spent making six figures with the Gamecocks. Football and fame ate away at who he could be; it's now giving him the time and safety net to find out who he is.

This is what Oregon has become for Lattimore. He provides sanctuary to teenagers and young men, and the state is a sanctuary to him. He can breathe here. "I'm not always waiting for somebody to come up. I don't always have to be on. To be Marcus the player."

That man didn't used to be Marcus Lattimore. That man is Marcus Lattimore.

Marcus Lattimore can write every day. Poetry and fiction and a manual for young football stars on how to navigate all that stardom. His work-in-progress is called "Landmines." Marcus Lattimore can travel to Crater Lake, a place that dazzled him. "How a place can be so destructive at the time -- catastrophic -- could be so beautiful now," he says.

Marcus Lattimore has rediscovered his love for football, a zeal for the game that was flagging in his last years in South Carolina. What he discovered on the other side of South Carolina football -- not as a player, but a Division I employee -- was a militarization of the game that he could not and did not want to understand. The money and the politics and the way football wound up feeling like an afterthought.

"Just D-I in itself," he says. "It's just too big now. It's too big for me, at least."

Compare: The Pioneers' coaching staff watches film in classrooms in the academic building just behind the football facility -- whichever room is open works for them. The locker room is pan-sport, and if players would like the luxury of their own locker for the season, they have to sign up to reserve one.

"We have enough," he says, in a way that sounds like he's mounting a defense. "We have what we need. But, I mean, it's just like playing in the mud. It feels like I'm back in Duncan, South Carolina." Back when football, even if it was just an illusion, felt purer, unsullied.

Even when he is running away from home, he's running toward it too.

IT'S A DISTINCTLY un-South Carolinian-like night back home in early November. The temperature has dipped into the low 40s, so every time the horde of fans who have assembled to watch the Byrnes Rebels in their first-round Class AAAAA playoff game at Nixon Field holler about a play on the field, their breaths puff out in short, foggy bursts. There's a lot of fog in the air.

Ott Sizemore, sitting at the 50-yard-line, is a Byrnes lifer. He played quarterback and linebacker here in the late '60s and early '70s, worked in education for 40-some years and is now a bit like the mayor of Nixon Field, shaking hands with any number of fans as they snake their way up the bleacher steps. When he does, the state championship ring on his right hand glints under the Friday night lights. The ring, featuring a brilliant blue backdrop and a ruby-red B, is from Lattimore's era. Over Sizemore's shoulder, the banners of Lattimore's championship-winning days in Duncan stand guard.

"Oh, Marcus is one of our favorite sons," he says. Like most everyone in this town, Sizemore knows Lattimore, or at least feels like he does. His friend's 10-year-old son once invited Lattimore to his birthday party and he showed up. He knows Yolanda too, since she works in the school system.

Sizemore didn't miss a single game when Lattimore was a Rebel -- announced them, in fact, as the radio analyst -- and hardly missed any games in Columbia, where he has sat in the 14th row in the north end zone for four decades. He saw Lattimore go down in the game against Tennessee, which means he saw the last time Lattimore played an official down of football.

"Something died inside," he says, then clutches at his heart.

Byrnes goes on to win its playoff game 30-20 over Mauldin. The next day, in its penultimate game of the 2021 season, Lewis & Clark will lose handily to George Fox at home. The losing aside, this is all fine by Lattimore. Refreshing, even.

"I don't miss the circus at all," he says.

By his own admission, Lattimore needed to leave South Carolina so that the people there could see him with fresh eyes. What he discovered was that when did so -- when he left South Carolina behind -- he saw South Carolina, itself, with fresh eyes too. Not just the circus of football, though that's part of it.

He saw, with fresh eyes, that he had played for the Byrnes Rebels without ever interrogating the nature of that name or the banner under which they played. James F. Byrnes, his alma mater's namesake, was a staunch segregationist who once wrote that "unless we find a legal way of preventing the mixing of races in the schools, it will mark the beginning of the end of civilization in the South as we have known it."

He saw, with fresh eyes, how -- on the rare occasion back in high school when he wasn't immediately recognized -- if he walked into a restaurant, the white person at the counter turned obsequious only once it became clear he wasn't just another Black teenager; he was a football player, and an exceptional one, at that.

He saw, with fresh eyes, the bounds of his admirers' good will once he shrugged his football persona all the way off, like an old sweater that grew stretched out and misshapen. When Lattimore publicly challenged one longtime Byrnes employee -- a former coach of his -- on his vocal support for Donald Trump in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, he was resigned to, but hurt by, the fallout. "I lost a lot of fans," he says. "It was ... new, not to be loved by everybody."

He sees his home with clearer eyes now. And he sees his home in his future.

Not yet. Probably not anytime soon. He and Miranda are exactly where they need to be. "Who we are here, we love," he says. "We're just a lot more comfortable here. Comfortable with who we are."

When he does return, he'll have Portland to thank for the fortitude to walk that long journey home. The quiet he found there. The resilience he built there.

"I can handle living anywhere now," he says. Even the home he had to leave.

He'll pack up all these different parts of him -- the peace he has found in Portland; his writing; his self-reflection; but also the black Hall of Fame jacket he once wanted to rip off, that now lives in a corner of his closet, because that's a part of his story too. Yes, he can see it.

"It's a vision," he says. "I know that there will be an opportunity where I can lead something for the betterment of the community in South Carolina. I'll have that opportunity one day, and that's when I'll go back. That's home. That's roots."