Painful victory

South Carolina players pray as running back Marcus Lattimore (21) is worked on by the training staff after injuring his knee in the second quarter against Tennessee on Saturday, October 27, 2012, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT)

COLUMBIA — On Friday night at South Carolina’s team hotel, coach Steve Spurrier asked his five captains to address the team. Junior running back Marcus Lattimore stood before his teammates, the first time he spoke to them in a setting like this all season, and he talked about the perspective he gained from suffering a season-ending left knee injury last year.

Few, if any, players on the team are more beloved and revered than Lattimore. So his teammates listened, especially to the first thing he said.

“I want everybody to play hard, and I want you to play every snap like it’s your last, because you never know,” Lattimore said, as wide receiver Ace Sanders recalled. “It could be your last.”

Saturday afternoon, under overcast skies, 4:54 remained in the first half of a game against Tennessee that USC never trailed and won 38-35, though years from now, nobody will remember that. They will remember only what happened next, as Lattimore lined up in the backfield on second down and 10 at USC’s 25-yard line. He leaned forward, ready for the play.

He took the handoff from Connor Shaw, turned left and gained two yards, on the 555th carry of his career. As linebacker Herman Lathers wrapped him up from behind, cornerback Eric Gordon came from Lattimore’s left and hit his right knee as he planted.

The knee bent awkwardly and Lattimore’s leg flopped below his knee as he rolled forward. Trainers immediately rushed onto the field. Lattimore’s kneecap was out of place, pushed to the right. Lattimore leaned back, pulled off his helmet and put his hands over his face. His eyes widened. He looked terrified.

Sanders, receiver Nick Jones and tailback Kenny Miles knelt beside him. Sanders looked into Lattimore’s eyes. “Heartbroken” is how Sanders described them later. Within minutes, both sidelines emptied and almost every player encircled Lattimore. Some couldn’t bear to look at him, as trainers loaded him onto a cart. Lattimore wept.

Spurrier said he “told him we love him.” A few players offered encouragement. Others, like so many in the stands at Williams-Brice Stadium, just shook their heads in silence.

“It was hard to say anything, really, hard to know what to say to him,” said USC cornerback Victor Hampton.

This was the mortality of a football career at its cruelest, a promising future perhaps snatched away in an instant.

USC said Lattimore will be reevaluated this week. Does he have a torn ligament, like last year’s injury? Or worse? Spurrier sounded resigned that his season is finished. His college career could be, too, if he decides to turn pro.

It is too soon to speculate on whether he might ever be the same player again, the thrilling combination of power and speed who owns more rushing and total touchdowns, 38 and 41, than anybody in South Carolina history. But the thought of finality had already crossed some minds Saturday.

“He just went out there and gave us everything,” Sanders said, his voice cracking. “That might have been last snap. It’s just real sad that it had to end that way. Just sometimes, you have to just face reality.”

For a few snaps after the injury, Sanders said players “were just choked up out there on the field,” as they wondered, “Why’d it have to be Marcus again?” As receiver Bruce Ellington stood on the sideline, “I just couldn’t get it out of my head, just seeing him lying down on the ground like that,” he said.

Sanders rallied his teammates, telling them, “If you would have gotten hurt, he would have been out there busting his butt for you.” In the locker room at halftime, Spurrier told the team, “The best thing we can do is let’s win this game and give Marcus the game ball.” And after the game, after Lattimore was taken to a hospital, to learn just how damaged his knee really was, Spurrier handed the ball to team chaplain Adrian Despres, for delivery to Lattimore.

It was an important win for the 17th-ranked Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) as they rebounded from back-to-back road losses to top 10 teams and sustained their hopes of winning out and equaling last season’s 11-2 record. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, one of USC’s two best players, along with Lattimore, sealed the victory with a strip sack on USC’s 19 with 1:08 left.

But the enduring image from Saturday afternoon was that cart slowly pulling away from the crowd of players, toward the end zone, with Lattimore on the back, his right leg straightened, a towel draped over his head, tears filling his eyes. He had covered this ground so often before, while rushing for 2,677 yards in his career and taking USC’s program miles further.

The crowd of players broke up, returned to their sidelines and prepared to resume the game. The cart turned left, through the end zone, and out of sight.