COLUMBIA -- He could hear the 96,000 fans at Neyland Stadium buzzing. He could see his South Carolina teammates running around on the field with Tennessee. USC tailback Marcus Lattimore wanted so badly to be part of the whole beautiful scene. But he was stuck on the sideline, and in that moment, the reality of his season-ending knee injury felt overwhelming.
He tried to bottle his emotions, not sharing them with anybody. He still felt down on the trip home from the Gamecocks' 14-3 win at Tennessee, their first game without him. Lattimore had seen plenty of players tear up their knees or blow out their ankles. Eventually, he had to accept his situation, even if it is one he never thought he would have to face.
"I didn't think it could happen to me -- and it did," Lattimore said Tuesday, exactly one month after he injured his knee at Mississippi State.
This season was supposed to be about Lattimore chasing the Heisman Trophy by building on his prodigious freshman season of 1,197 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, and about him leading the Gamecocks back to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Instead, he is preparing for left knee surgery later this week, and the grueling rehabilitation process that will follow. He is hearing people say, wherever he goes, things like, "get better" and "praying for you." He is leafing through some of the 1,000 well-wishing letters he received from fans, including entire classes of elementary school students.
"That's really cool to me," Lattimore said.
Lattimore was on his way toward surpassing last season's numbers before he got hurt in the seventh game. In the first six, he averaged 129.8 yards (30 better than last year) and had nine touchdowns. USC's offense has not been the same without him, though his replacement, true freshman Brandon Wilds, did run for 120 and 137 yards in wins over Tennessee and Florida.
Lattimore said he is focusing more on USC being 3-1 in the three-plus games since he got hurt, rather than the offense scoring 14, 14, 21 and 17 points in those games while averaging just 278 yards. USC should put up better statistics Saturday at home against The Citadel.
Lattimore is looking even beyond that, to next year. Lattimore and Wilds will return, and so will Shon Carson, a highly-regarded freshman who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.
"The backfield is just going to be scary," Lattimore said.
Lattimore has talked often lately with another USC tailback, junior Eric Baker, who didn't play last year after hurting his knee just before the bowl game in 2009. Baker's tear of his medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments is basically "the same thing I did," Lattimore said.
"He's just been telling me to stay strong, because he said right now, his knee is stronger than it's ever been," Lattimore said. "That gives me a lot of confidence, knowing that he came back from it, and he's quicker than ever."
USC's doctors waited a month to operate on Lattimore so the swelling in his knee would go down and they could "isolate the ligament to repair it," said USC coach Steve Spurrier. With the swelling subsiding, Lattimore can now walk without crutches and is regaining knee flexibility.
Part of him accepting the injury involved watching the replay of how it happened. He ran out of the backfield to block for Bruce Ellington, only to have a Mississippi State defender fall into the front of his leg. Lattimore said he wanted to see the replay, because he wasn't sure what exactly happened. He knew it was bad, because he said he heard his knee "kind of buckle a little bit."
His mother, Yolanda Smith, feared the worst, too. She rushed toward the sideline, pushing past a security guard, to be with her son at the lowest moment of his college football career. Things would get no easier two weeks later, on that trip to Tennessee. And he spent much of the past month just waiting, and anticipating the surgery. This week, he will finally accomplish that step, the first in his long journey back to fully experiencing the sights and sounds of college football.
"I'm ready to get started," he said, "and get back as fast as I can."