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National Columnist

Marcus Lattimore's injury makes you look past the great player and see a great person

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Until the injury, I didn't know about Marcus Lattimore.

Well, not this Marcus Lattimore. The good student, great guy, tireless volunteer? Nope. Didn't know about him. All I knew was Marcus Lattimore, football player, and believe me that was impressive enough. He has been one of the best running backs in the country since 2010, when he ran for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman.

Lattimore gained 182 yards against Georgia in his SEC debut, and that wasn't a surprise -- not to people who knew Marcus Lattimore, football player. He was the top-rated running back in the class of 2010, said by some to be the No. 1 recruit at any position.

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We knew about that guy.

But did you know about this one? This All-American candidate who's at the stadium at dawn to run stairs with teammates serving a team punishment -- even though Lattimore hadn't gotten into trouble himself?

I didn't know about that guy -- who inspired an entire state to celebrate his 21st birthday on Monday, two days after his brutal injury. Gov. Nikki Haley declared it "Marcus Lattimore Day" around the state, a cheesy move that takes on more heft when you understand Nikki Haley is a diehard Clemson fan. Then again, no less a Clemson fan than Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Lattimore's injury "breaks my heart."

People in and around South Carolina? They knew all about Marcus Lattimore. The rest of us are figuring it out, but it's bittersweet knowledge. The only reason I know about Marcus Lattimore, person, is because of that devastating knee injury he suffered Saturday against Tennessee.

The first clue came when Lattimore went down. Have you ever seen anything like what happened next? With Lattimore laying there in agony, his teammates surrounded him -- and not just the rest of the South Carolina offense. I mean, all of his teammates. They left the sideline to be with him.

Tennessee's players were there, too. And not just the Tennessee defense, but half the Tennessee team. They walked off the sideline and onto the field and they stood there out of respect, out of concern, out of character.

See, this just doesn't happen.

Unless the injured player is Marcus Lattimore.

And then it happens, because the players at Tennessee knew about Marcus Lattimore. Competing coaches knew, too. Swinney made his comments. At Georgia, Mark Richt gathered his players to pray for a running back who had bullied the Bulldogs for 467 rushing yards in three career games.

"What a great football player," Richt said, "and a guy we all have a lot of respect for as a person, as well."

Lots of us didn't know, but part of that is Lattimore's fault. He's not one of those guys who tells everyone how great he is. What kind of guy is Lattimore? This kind: He's from the northwest part of South Carolina known as the Upstate, and last year he heard about another USC student from the Upstate who was badly injured after being hit by a car. Unprompted and uninvited, Lattimore showed up at the kid's hospital room. Just to check on the kid and visit with the family. The only reason anyone found out was because the kid's mother gushed about it on social media. Lattimore's coaches found out from reporters.

Lattimore didn't tell his coaches what he was doing because, well, sometimes they stop him -- and not because his coaches are heartless. That's not the point of this anecdote. The point is, his coaches try to limit his volunteering engagements because Lattimore spreads himself thin.

A Columbia church asked Lattimore to speak on Nov. 14, 2010, the morning after the Gamecocks were playing Florida. Lattimore carried the ball 40 times for 212 yards and three touchdowns to help the Gamecocks beat Florida 36-14 to clinch the school's first SEC East title -- and sure enough, on Sunday morning Lattimore was at the church.

Oh, that game on Saturday? It was in Gainesville, Fla. Maybe Lattimore slept a few hours on the plane home. Maybe not. All I know is, he spoke at the church on Sunday morning.

This is the kind of stuff I've learned in the last few days while researching Marcus Lattimore, person. Hospitals, church groups, elementary schools, you name it: Lattimore has spoken to them. Here's video of Lattimore visiting a third grade classroom. At the five-minute mark, he explains why he does it.

Stuff like that, and stuff like this -- Lattimore at a Second Chance luncheon for kids fighting cancer -- are why Lattimore was one of 10 SEC players nominated for the 2012 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.

Lattimore also is a reigning member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll, and this past spring he was named the Dr. Harris Pastides Scholar-Athlete for USC football. Those were things I found easily enough, online, but I wanted to know more about Marcus Lattimore, person. So I emailed our college football writers and got two stories right away.

From Jeremy Fowler: "After the Georgia game he answered a gazillion questions at the podium, and then he was glad to speak with me alone, on the side. He had to be practically pulled away by the [school's] PR staff."

From Tony Barnhart: "Two years ago, coming off his freshman season, [Lattimore] came up to me at SEC media days in Birmingham and introduced himself. He wanted to talk about television and how it worked. He was curious to know more about the media and what made it click. Very impressive guy."

Josh Kendall, the USC beat writer for The State in Columbia, S.C., told me something odd -- that Marcus Lattimore has been turning down more after-practice interview requests than usual this season. Then he told me something odder.

"Nobody takes it personally," Kendall said. "It's a focus issue. Because it's Marcus, there's not even a whiff of anyone saying, 'He's a prima donna, and he's blowing us off.' Because of who he is, you give him the benefit of the doubt."

Because of who he is ...

About time I figured it out. Marcus Lattimore? So glad to know you.

And so sorry about these circumstances.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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