Willis McGahee c/o Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High
1701 Mile High Stadium Circle
Denver, CO 80204
First of all, a happy belated 31st birthday. It makes me happy to see you still trucking along with the pigskin in your hands one decade after you first exploded onto the scene with a record-breaking 2002 season at “The U.” Many happy returns.
Of course, neither I nor any other college football fan (most likely) can look back on your ridiculous redshirt sophomore year — 282 carries for 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns — without remembering how it ended: You on the Sun Devil Stadium turf during the 2003 Fiesta Bowl after suffering a devastating left knee injury that resulted in tears to your ACL, PCL and MCL.
For many, including myself, it was the worst injury I had ever witnessed while watching a college football game. Until this past Saturday.
Chances are that you have heard of Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina’s Mack Truck of a running back who was widely regarded as the top prospect at his position for the 2013 NFL Draft. Two days before celebrating his 21st birthday, Lattimore’s junior season ended in gruesome and heartbreaking fashion.
How gruesome, you may ask? Based on the release that the Gamecocks issued on Sunday, it sounds like he tore the ACL, MCL, PCL and LCL in his right knee. And that’s an upgrade from initial reports that listed him with a broken femur in addition to those aforementioned ligament tears.
What made Lattimore’s injury equally heartbreaking was that he was almost at 100% after a season-ending injury to his left knee in 2011. This was supposed to be the season that he solidified himself as an NFL team’s top draft pick.
Now his future is filled with doubt. Doubt about whether he can work his way back to health and play in the NFL as he was previously destined for. Doubt about whether NFL general managers are willing to take a chance on him after such a devastating setback.
It’s a set of challenges that you can relate to more than anyone else. And now more than ever, Lattimore needs you to impart your wisdom and your experience on him.
When I saw Lattimore lying in pain on the turf of Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, I thought of you not just because you had been supplanted for “Most Horrific Injury in College Football History.” I thought of you because, as has been previously pointed out, you represent the best possible trajectory for Lattimore’s career.
At an age when most NFL running backs have already hit the wall, there you were on Sunday night gashing the Saints for 122 rushing yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. You’re well on your way to your fifth season of 1,000 yards or more.
And we all know your professional success wasn’t handed to you. It required patience on your part throughout a long rehabilitation process that cost you your entire rookie season, in 2003. It required you to change your game from being a burner to being a power back.
All that hard work has made you one of the more successful comeback stories in recent NFL history. As Lattimore begins another long road to recovery, he’d no doubt cherish your mentorship and your support as he tries to duplicate what you’ve accomplished.
And believe me, he’s worthy of your time. Physically, he was NFL-ready as a true freshman in 2010, but he never let that natural talent go to his head. In workmanlike fashion, he has taken the ball from whichever quarterback has handed it off to him and toted it for over 2,600 yards and 38 touchdowns.
The manner in which he returned to near-full strength following his first knee injury demonstrated his penchant and willingness for putting in the time to be great. He’ll no doubt take that same mindset and apply it to his latest rehabilitation.
The uphill climb he faces is eerily reminiscent of the one you faced a decade ago. Suffice to say, you have silenced all the naysayers who worried that you would never be able to fulfill your pre-injury NFL expectations.
With your guidance and your support, you can help give Lattimore a chance to do the same.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.