KNOXVILLE -- Between the metal plate and 11 screws holding two bones in his left ankle in place and the shoulder surgery, Herman Lathers' reasons to question the future of his football career were piling up.
All the Tennessee linebacker had to do, though, was think of what he overcame during his childhood for the assurance that the ankle he fractured in June was an obstacle he could clear.
"I didn't get here by coincidence," the junior said Sunday at UT's photo day.
Doctors diagnosed the 10-year-old Lathers with bone cancer in 1999, but after he took shots once a month for five years, the cancer went into full remission.
"That was a big relief," Lathers said. "A couple of weeks or months after that, I was able just to move around, be a normal teenage kid and do some sports like I always wanted to do."
Lathers didn't begin playing football until his sophomore year at Scotlandville High School in Baton Rouge, La. He grew up an LSU fan, but the only scholarship offers Lathers received were from UT, Baylor, Stanford and Tulane.
"I put a lot of work into those three years to just get to where I am today," Lathers said. "I don't think any schools really knew of [his cancer]. I never really talked about it during my recruiting process. I'm not sure why schools shied away.
"I was an LSU fan growing up, but they didn't offer me and I got the great opportunity to play at a great university like the University of Tennessee and I took full advantage of it."
But before Lathers could finish second on the team in tackles as a redshirt sophomore in 2010, he had to battle through a low platelet count discovered during a preseason physical his freshman year that ultimately led to the removal of his spleen.
"It took me a long time to figure out what I was going to do about it," Lathers said. "I was doing shots, getting my blood drawn almost twice a week to figure out if I was going to play that week. After a year, we decided my spleen was what was killing my platelets, so they removed my spleen. I have to get a shot once every five years just because I don't have a spleen."
As the Vols' top returning linebacker going into this season, Lathers sat out all of spring practice following shoulder surgery. But he suffered his ankle injury on the first day of summer workouts in June during a 7-on-7 drill when he collided with a teammate.
"I kind of broke on the pass and another one of our defensive backs was breaking on the same pass," Lathers recalled. "I think we saw each other at the last moment, and I tried to avoid him. I don't know exactly, maybe my foot got caught in the turf and we collided. I kind of blanked out when we collided, so I can't tell you exactly what happened. I just knew something didn't feel right.
"When I was in my right mind I was in the training room."
Lathers admitted the trauma of the clean fracture was difficult for him emotionally. He sought comfort from UT team chaplain Roger Woods, whom Lathers calls his "spiritual father," and his brother.
"Sometimes I asked myself, 'Why is it always me?' I asked God, 'Why is it always me?'" Lathers said. "I do everything right, I'm always wanting to try to lead by example and help the young guys, but yet I'm always the one who gets hurt.
"[Woods] assured me God doesn't put more on us than he thinks we can come back from, so if he puts us through it, he'll bring us from it."
It took a couple of days and a surgical procedure to insert two long screws holding two bones in his ankle together and nine permanent smaller screws holding a metal plate in place for Lathers to move past the initial emotions of a second injury.
The initial diagnosis for Lathers' full recovery was three to six months, but doctors have told Lathers he's progressed further than normal to this point. Once the two long screws are taken out in the next two or three weeks, Lathers' return becomes easier to project.
Lathers has remained close to his team during his rehab process, helping UT's young linebackers with film study and watching practice from the sidelines.
"My brother encouraging me and reminding me of things I went through as a young child and my teenage years ... the best thing you can do is not dread upon what happened," Lathers said. "Only thing you can do is get better from it and learn from it. I'm just not going to let an injury or a couple of injuries stop me from playing ball, something that I love. I'm just going to battle back from it."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...