Hopefully, NFL is next for Lattimore

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore is taken off the field in a cart after getting injured during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012 at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

As much as “unprecedented” and “rarely seen” and “first time” describe South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore’s on-field exploits, the sympathy response echoes louder.

From politicians, celebrities and fellow SEC players.

From Clemson fans.

There was a “Happy Birthday and Get Well Marcus” festival on campus Monday.

It was a fitting tribute for the engaging football player most likely to serve as governor of South Carolina.

Now it’s time for optimism: Lattimore can come back, surgically repaired knee(s) and all.

Listening again to the tape of Lattimore’s last post-game interview tugs at the heart. After Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson struggled mightily in a 44-11 loss at Florida, a typically upbeat Lattimore said both were “great quarterbacks.”

“We’ve just got to stay positive throughout the rest of the season,” the junior from Duncan said, “and we’ll be fine.”

Stay positive. He will play again, and play well.

But if this sensational, hard-luck ballcarrier returns to South Carolina, admit it, you will cringe whenever Todd Ellis or Verne Lundquist report that Lattimore has the ball.

You will wonder if a beloved star player who makes so much money for coaches, retailers, administrators, video game manufacturers, a school and a conference will ever cash out.

At least if he gets hurt in the NFL, the paychecks keep coming for a year.

No. 21 will likely wind up as a retired number at South Carolina; Lattimore is the leader of a core group of players who have helped South Carolina win its first SEC East title (2010), notch its first 11-win season (2011) and remain in the top 10 most of this year.

He is a self-appointed recruiter/public relations whiz, the best advertisement for Gamecocks football on the roster — players or coaches.

Suffering came with success. Lattimore as a freshman in 2010 didn’t play in the second half at Kentucky and was hurt early in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Florida State. The Gamecocks lost both games.

The hit to his left knee at Mississippi State last October was almost as hard to watch as the shot to his right knee Saturday, and forced Lattimore to the sidelines through the Capital One Bowl.

The Tennessee game was a financial windfall for South Carolina. It could cost Lattimore from $6 million to $10 million, based on his projected first-round slot in the 2013 NFL draft and probability that 2013 signing bonuses roughly mirror those of 2012.

Steve Spurrier deserves credit for advocating strongly over the last few years for a player payment plan. The Head Ball Coach doesn’t sound like a man trying to convince Lattimore to stay.

“He’ll make his own decisions with regard to what happens down the road,” Spurrier said when asked about Lattimore and the NFL.

If not the 2013 NFL draft, the NFL supplemental draft might be just the way for Lattimore to gradually recover and arrange for individual workouts with NFL teams. Or take it very slow and rehab on South Carolina scholarship until the 2014 draft. Or 2015.

No doubt he can do it, as a draft pick or an undrafted free agent.

Willis McGahee and Adrian Peterson have fought back after knee injuries to have productive NFL careers. Knee issues forced former Clemson star running back Terry Allen into the ninth round of the NFL draft in 1990, and he battled through more knee trouble to reach the Pro Bowl.

But Lattimore’s NFL opportunity might not last one more devastating college hit.

Which is why, after time allows for calm reflection, Lattimore and those with his best interests in mind will realize the NFL is the next logical healthy step.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.