Marcus Lattimore, between rehabilitation workouts and grateful response to well-wishers, walked into Ray Tanner's office on a December morning.

Marcus being meticulous Marcus, set up the formal meeting with South Carolina's athletic director in advance. Still, Tanner was surprised to see the familiar focused face. He was more surprised that Lattimore wanted to discuss The Decision, whether or not to leave school and enter the NFL draft.

“Marcus,” Tanner said, “why did you come visit with me?”

Tanner still was relatively new on the job, more closely associated with College World Series triumphs than football stuff.

Lattimore, deadpan: “I want to know how you feel.”

“But you have coach (Steve) Spurrier,” Tanner said. “You have your family.”

“Yes,” Lattimore said. “But I wanted to hear your perspective as well.”

It's no news around South Carolina that Lattimore is a once-in-a-generation major college athlete. He is the pride of Duncan, and most other towns in the Palmetto State. Rivals are among his biggest fans. Lattimore might run for governor someday.

The conventional wisdom of Radio City Music Hall says Lattimore goes tonight in the third round of the NFL draft, or Saturday in the fourth round.

But a team in need of a potentially good running back — that is, just about any team — should grab him earlier. Like late in the second round, or early in the third. Or face a real risk, having to play against Lattimore once or twice a season.

Before suffering a sickening knee injury against Tennessee in October, Lattimore generally was considered the best running back available for this draft. Post-surgery, he's climbed back up the ladder. NFL scouts cheered when Lattimore went through Pro Day drills in Columbia last month.

Why the Panthers

There are no absolutes in NFL prospect analyses. Picking the right Icelandic hedge fund is a much more exact science in a world in which Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell have gone bust.

The NFL, you may have heard, is a results-oriented business in which nice guys sometimes finish last in the standings and at the turnstiles.

That's the point.

Lattimore gives teams some guarantees they don't get with other players, including off-the-chart work ethic, long-haul loyalty and that rare player who has the P.R. skills to sell tickets without ever taking the field.

“Without a doubt,” Tanner said. “A general manager or an owner should know that Marcus is going to be valuable to your organization regardless of how many yards he gains in his career. Who he is can benefit an organization for many, many years.”

The Carolina Panthers are an almost perfect fit for Lattimore, no matter how many running backs they have under contract. Lattimore will make Cam Newton and other players better before he gets his first carry.

'It's incredible'

There is no erasing long-term concern. Lattimore while scoring a school-record 41 touchdowns didn't make it through any of his three seasons at South Carolina without an injury that forced him to miss critical playing time. That includes the Kentucky and Florida State losses his freshman year.

But while NFL players hit harder than college kids, Lattimore won't have the same heavy workload as a pro and already looks like he's in better shape than at any time as a Gamecock.

Of course, he'll always be a Gamecock.

“Marcus is one of those that you always put in that special category,” Tanner said. “When I use the word 'special' it's not just about performance; to get in the 'special' category it has to be the complete package. That's who Marcus is — the character, the determination, the uplifting spirit, all those things. He's the epitome of what you would want your children to be, or your student-athletes to be.

“And he's done all that in some of the most difficult circumstances. Two major injuries. It's incredible how he's been inspiring to so many people.”

That's just what Marcus Lattimore has done between a serious injury and the NFL draft. Just wait until he touches a football again.