COLUMBIA, S.C. — Much as he'd already done 10 other times this gray and blustery Saturday afternoon, South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore took the football late in the second quarter and headed into the teeth of the Tennessee defense.
Most of his other carries had met with great success -- 63 total yards, a 28-yard touchdown gallop, a sense that he was getting closer and closer to the stunning back who had run for 1,149 yards and 17 touchdowns two years ago as a freshman before an injury to his left knee sidelined him for the final half of the 2011 season.
But now he was on the ground and he wasn't getting up after being sandwiched by UT linebacker Herman Lathers and defensive back Eric Gordon.
Replays swiftly showed that something horrible had happened to his right leg, bent in an unnatural angle and clearly serious. Think former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's career-ending broken leg in 1985 and you have a rough reference point.
"I didn't hear anything," Lathers said after the 38-35 South Carolina win. "But I saw his leg. It kind of turned my stomach. It looked bad. Real bad."
Added Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw: "His knee was kind of facing the other way. He was holding it; he couldn't get his feet off the ground."
Exactly how bad Lattimore is injured won't be known for several days. Maybe even weeks or months. Swelling must subside. A multitude of tests must be run. Surgery must be performed. Perhaps multiple surgeries.
"Obviously, Marcus has a severe knee injury," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said afterward. "A guy came knifing in there [Lathers]; the other guy hit him low [Gordon]. We'll all pray for him. Hopefully he'll be back. Maybe he'll be back next year."
But it was what happened as Lattimore lay on the Williams-Brice Stadium playing surface, a green-and-gold cart preparing to whisk him to the hospital, that so many among the crowd of 80,250 may remember for years to come.
As medical personnel attempted to keep Lattimore from glancing at his leg, a number of UT players returned to the field to offer encouragement and to say they were sorry he was hurt.
"We knew his leg was messed up pretty bad," said defensive lineman Daniel McCullers. "We're going to pray for him. It's just a college football game. You hope he'll be OK."
Said Lathers: "You've got to have sportsmanship. I've been there, hurt and sick, missing games. You don't want that to happen to anybody."
So with less than five minutes to go in the first half, Vols and Gamecocks surrounded Lattimore, at least 130 players standing over and around him to tell him to remain strong, to tell him they were thinking of him and praying for him.
"I'm not sure if I've quite seen one like that," Spurrier said. "It was touching. Us coaches all say before a game that let's hope nobody gets hurt today. Injuries sometimes occur, but players don't try to hurt other players in our league."
But hoping not to hurt is not the same as trying to help and comfort.
As Gamecocks wide receiver Ace Sanders discussed both his injured teammate and the game, he said of the spontaneous show of concern from the Vols: "I think it picked him up more than it picked us up. I think it meant a lot to him. Until this happened, I don't think everybody who doesn't play college football realized how much respect everybody who does has for Marcus. He's special."
The bitter irony in all this is that after two straight losses at LSU and Florida the past two weeks had taken some of the luster off a 6-0 start, Lattimore had asked to address the entire South Carolina team Friday night.
"He told us, 'Play every game as if it is your last,'" sophomore tight end Justice Cunningham said. "It is really sad and it's opened a lot of people's eyes."
Not to mention a lot of hearts.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...