COLUMBIA — Shon Carson lay on the turf at Sanford Stadium looking up into a cloudless blue sky and wondering why him.
Shon Carson File
Position: Running Back
Ht: 5-8. Wt: 220 pounds
High School: Lake City
The Skinny: Is only third player in South Carolina High School history to score more than 100 TDs during his career at Lake City. Has missed 23 games due to injuries in his first two seasons with the Gamecocks. Batted .194 in 18 games for baseball team last spring.
It was his second game as a South Carolina Gamecocks football player and only his third collegiate rushing attempt.
A routine toss sweep around the right side of the formation. A play the true freshman had run a thousand times since putting on pads as a kid in Lake City.
The former Lake City High School star planted his left foot into the turf to cut upfield when the Georgia defender’s helmet made contact.
Carson, now a redshirt sophomore, heard a pop, felt a stinging pain in his knee, and fell to the ground, clutching at his injured joint. He knew immediately it was bad. He had never felt pain like that before.
“I know God has a plan for everyone,” Carson said. “But at that moment, I wondered, why me? Why did He let this happen?”
South Carolina trainers rushed onto the field. The doctors looked at his knee and he was taken off the field.
Later, as his teammates began to stream into the locker room, celebrating their 45-42 victory over Georgia, Carson remained in the training room, wanting to hide from everyone. Marcus Lattimore finally found him in the team’s training room, a huge bag of ice taped over his knee. Carson looked up at Lattimore and began to weep. They embraced as Lattimore whispered a few soft words into Carson’s ear, telling the young running back to keep his head up and things would turn out OK. Ironically, a month later, it would be Carson consoling Lattimore after his 2011 season ended with a knee injury against Mississippi State.
“Marcus was like a big brother to me,” Carson said. “He really looked out for me and we did a lot of our rehab together. I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without him.”
For Carson, the Class AA running back of the year in 2010, his first college season had ended even before it had begun. He had come to South Carolina to play baseball — he was taken in the 44th round of the major league draft by the Cincinnati Reds — and football. Carson had dominated the Class AA level, becoming only the third player in state history to score more than 100 touchdowns during his high school career. The other two being Lattimore and Lexington’s Demetris Summers, another South Carolina running back.
Carson didn’t expect to play his freshman year. He had run out of single wing formation in high school and had never played in a single-back offense before coming to Columbia. And besides, the Gamecocks had plenty of depth at running back, which included Lattimore, who had nearly single-handedly led the Gamecocks to the SEC title game the year before.
“I thought I was going to redshirt my freshman year,” he said. “There were a lot of good running backs ahead of me.”
But as preseason camp went on, Carson picked up the offense, including the complex blocking schemes in pass protection. He began to inch up the depth chart and actually got a couple of carries in the Gamecocks’ season opener against East Carolina.
“I just kept working hard,” Carson said. “That was the key.”
All that came to a crashing halt against Georgia.
It took nine arduous months of rehabilitation to get his knee back into form. He spent hours in the gym, trying to break through the scar tissue and get the strength and flexibility back.
“It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Carson said.
He was ready to go when preseason camp rolled around in August 2012. But a few days into camp, he injured his wrist on a fluke play. He was forced to have surgery and missed the entire regular season. Carson didn’t pout this time. For some reason, this injury didn’t take the emotional toll that his knee injury did.
“He was more mature about it this time,” said running backs coach Everette Sands. “Shon’s attitude was great. He just kept working to get back on the field.”
Carson thought about applying for a hardship season with the NCAA to get a sixth-year of eligibility, but decided against it. He played in the bowl game against Michigan, catching two passes against the Wolverines.
In the spring, he turned his attention to baseball, hitting .194 in 18 games.
What many thought would be a battle between Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds to replace Lattimore has turned into a three-man race as Carson has emerged as a legitimate option.
“Shon has done well,” Sands said. “He’s pretty close to being back to the form before he got hurt. He’s done some impressive things. I’m pretty excited about him. He’s got a chance to really help us this year.”
The speed and cutting ability have returned for Carson. At 5-8 and nearly 220 pounds, Carson has a low running style, which makes him more powerful and difficult to tackle.
“He’s a combination of Mike and Brandon,” Sands said. “He can take on tackles because of his leg strength, but he’s quick enough to make a tackler miss. He’s a good receiver too, so he’s got the complete package. He just needs to get some reps and he’ll be fine.”