INDIANAPOLIS — Much like the quarterback position in the 2013 NFL draft, the running backs are a subject of great debate.
As in, who is the best?
Some like the power of Alabama’s Eddie Lacy. Others like the vision and production of Wisconsin’s Montee Ball. Clemson’s Andre Ellington might be among the fastest backs. Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor might be the most polished all-around.
But there is no more intriguing prospect for a host of reasons than South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore.
Lattimore comes to the Combine with one primary goal that trumps all others: Prove to NFL teams that he is well on his way back from what was a gruesome knee injury that ended his season.
Fans of college football no doubt saw the hit in the Tennessee game that caused his torn ACL, LCL and PCL, and Lattimore made the tough decision to forgo his senior season to enter this year’s draft. Inspired by Broncos RB Willis McGahee, who suffered a similar injury in his final college game at Miami, and emboldened by the remarkable comeback of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who overcame ACL and PCL injuries to make a run at the NFL’s all-time rushing mark, Lattimore has similar aspirations. He wants to shock the football world with how fast he heals.
“This is not Marcus Lattimore,” said the NFL’s Gil Brandt, as he introduced Lattimore to the Combine lectern. “This is medical history.”
Lattimore admitted he thought a lot about what might have been.
"Yeah, I used to. The day after it happened, of course,” he said. “I was thinking about what could have been, what could have happened, but I don't think about that anymore. It happened for a reason. The reason for me to come back inspired a lot of people."
For four hours on Friday, NFL team officials and doctors from all 32 teams inspected the knee and gauged his progress. Some liked what they saw. Other teams encouraged him to keep working hard to rehab. Lattimore knows it’s part of the drill.
"They're investing a lot of money into you, so I understand the process, and why they have to make sure everything's OK, everything's progressing," he said.
Lattimore has said he hopes to play this NFL season. Part of the frustration — and the debate — on coming back is that it can require a serious test of patience. Coming back too quickly can be just as damaging as being too passive or safe in rehab.
“Definitely, it's very tough,” Lattimore said. “You get frustrated. But you know it's the right thing for you, the right thing for your future. I have to think about long term. Rushing back may not be the right thing to do, but if I'm ready, I'm ready.
“Just like (Redskins QB Robert Griffin III) said — he won't put his career in jeopardy if he's not ready."
Griffin and Lattimore are attempting to match the precedent set by Peterson, who suffered his injury on Christmas Eve 2011 and yet was able to start last season in Week One. Coming up only nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time mark only made the comeback that much more remarkable. But Lattimore showed his maturity for such a young man by knowing he can’t try to be Peterson and that every situation is unique. Still, it’s one of many forms of motivation he’ll use day by day to return to the field.
"He's a different kind of person. There'll never be another Adrian Peterson,” Lattimore said. “That definitely gives me a lot of motivation, knowing that he came back from it the way he did (and that) he came back better.
“And that's what I plan on doing, just coming back better. Seeing him do what he did this year, I think about that all the time."
Lattimore’s story has hit home for the other prospects at the Combine.
“The first thing I said to him was ‘How’s your knee?’” Taylor said. “I remember when it happened. I felt sick to my stomach because he’s a great player. Even though I didn’t know him, all I heard was good things about him. It seemed like he had a good attitude and good character and things like that. You always root for that type of player.
“You never want to see somebody like that, playing at the caliber he was playing, to be injured like that, especially in the knee, or both knees. So, of course, I’m rooting for him. Meeting him in this process, he’s backed up everything I thought. He’s a good guy, a humble guy, a big guy with a deep voice. I’m praying for him, for his comeback. And I think he’ll be very successful.”
McGahee has called Lattimore for support. And Lattimore has worked with current Giants CB Terrell Thomas, whose past two seasons have come to premature ends because of torn ACLs, at the Andrews Institute (of Dr. James Andrews fame) in Pensacola, Florida. The soon-to-be rookie says he’s trying to motivate Thomas just as much as Thomas — and seemingly everyone else who knows Lattimore’s story — is helping the kid.
"Every time I see (Thomas) work out, he gets better and better. I feel like he'll be ready,” Lattimore said. “All those guys just give me a lot of good advice. They motivate me, and I'm making them better at the same time by working and competing. (They tell me), 'Trust in God.'
“They all give me the same message. It's a thing that, you have to stay positive, or you're not going to come back from it. You just have to keep working hard and keep going."
Being a first-round pick, as McGahee was after his injury, might not be in the cards for Lattimore. But he knows no matter what, he will have a chance to come back even stronger with whatever team drafts him.
"At this point, it really doesn't matter where I get drafted, because I'm going to go in there and work hard, I'm going to do what I do, I'm going to do what I've been doing my whole career, and that's just being myself,” Lattimore said. “If I get a chance to play this year, I'm going to make the most out of it. And I feel like I will."
Lattimore has been lifted throughout the rehab process by some amazing and unexpected sources. Not just other knee-injury victims — but also a school in Kentucky of complete strangers who just want to see him get better.
“It was an elementary school in Kentucky,” Lattimore said. “They got on the field and made the '21' (Lattimore’s uniform number) with the whole school full of students, and that really touched me. They say that in the end, it's not about football, it's about the person you are, so that touched me."
If Lattimore makes as strong an impression on NFL teams as he did the assembled media, his draft stock is almost certain to rebound with force. But right now, his goal is to make the most of the process and remind himself just how lucky he is. Yes, lucky.
"It's a blessing to be here, no doubt,” he said. “I would not take this opportunity for granted, that I have to be at the combine. Me and (Georgia WR) Tavares King, we were just talking about it in our room last night, how blessed we are to be here.
“I just think about guys who are less fortunate than me, guys who would kill to be in my shoes, even with the injury. That's what keeps me going, that's what keeps me motivated, knowing that people would kill to be in my shoes right now."