By now you’ve seen the horrific injury suffered by South Carolina star Marcus Lattimore during the Gamecocks’ win over Tennessee two weeks ago.
You’ve looked away from highlights only to later Google the video of Tennessee cornerback Eric Gordon hurtling himself at Lattimore’s knee, in a dangerous, but fairly routine football tackle.
His knee whipped around like a rubber band, and the injury has taken a top-rated NFL Draft prospect out of the game indefinitely.
Will Lattimore play again for South Carolina? Will he ever play professionally?
The exact amount of damage is unclear, and the university is keeping a tight lid on its standout.
School officials announced Thursday that Lattimore had successful surgery the previous Friday, and that another surgery will not likely be needed. The news release added that several ligaments in his knee needed to be repaired, and there were no fractures or additional injuries.
What’s the diagnosis?
If you make a doctor cringe, it’s bad news.
Dr. Bright McConnell III, of Charleston Sports Medicine, has seen plenty of athletic-related injuries in decades of experience.
Like the rest of us who saw Lattimore’s injury, he cringed. Not good, Marcus.
“From a knee injury, it doesn’t get much worse than this,” McConnell said.
In his Daniel Island office, he replayed multiple videos with different angles, trying to point out a protruding patella, while fighting the natural reaction to admit its grotesqueness.
Through slow-motion replay, McConnell is able to offer a diagnosis–although not precise because he does not have Lattimore’s medical records–of what happened to what was certain to be an NFL player.
He said it appears that his patella was dislocated, both his cruciate ligaments - ACL and PCL–were torn, and the back lateral side of his knee was severely damaged.
McConnell fears there could have been damage to the peroneal nerve, which controls the ability to lift one’s foot. “If he had a peroneal nerve injury as well, that’s a whole other obstacle, as far as returning to high level athletics again.”
The nerve can be repaired by microscopic surgery or by transplanting another nerve to take the incompetent one’s place. When those occur, people are typically reduced to only being able to do everyday functions, not run the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds.
“If it’s the worse case scenario, and he has a completely incompetent nerve, I think that would have gotten out (in the media),” he said. “If they say, ‘we don’t think he’s going to come back,’ my guess would be that he blew his peroneal nerve.”
McConnell broke down the concerns in three issues: ligament damage to the joint, any vascular damage caused by the knee dislocation to the rest of the leg and a possible neurological injury.
“Realistically, is he getting back for (20)13? With what we’re saying here, that would be extremely unlikely,” he said. “They’re (media reports) already saying (20)14. With what they know, is it even realistic that he’ll ever get back?”
Lattimore, a junior, missed most of his sophomore season with a torn ACL injury to his left knee. But, he came back from that prolonged absence to be better than before.
This will be much more difficult to recover fully from. His ACL and most of its ligament neighbors are also torn or at least severely stretched, according to McConnell. It’s not out of the question to bypass the football conversation and try to determine if Marcus Lattimore, the person, will ever be able to have a normally functioning knee again.
“I would tell you that it’s incredibly unlikely that he would be back (athletically)
What’s more difficult: the mental recovery or the physical?
Being compared to Joe Theismann is an honor. Being compared to the infamous injury suffered by the Super Bowl winner is different. That makes people search for the injury on YouTube more than the athlete on Google.
Mike Donnalley, Wando’s offensive line and strength coach, compared Lattimore’s injury to Theismann’s. The current NFL Network analyst fractured his tibia, which is the outer bone running between the knee and ankle so horrifically that it broke through his skin. It ended his career.
Donnalley is up to speed on knee injuries. He was an All-American center at Delaware University and has a national championship ring from the 1979 season.
He said he had four knee injuries consisting of ligament sprains and meniscus damage in college, although none were as severe as Lattimore’s.
Three years ago, the 55 -year-old with 33 years of coaching experience had his right knee replaced. Injuries were treated differently then than they are today, he said.
“When you’re in the trenches, people are falling on the sides of your legs all the time. You fall down and you feel that it (knee) got pinched,” Donnalley said. “That’s something you just don’t shake off. Growing up in the late 70s, we didn’t have MRIs. You hoped that it (the pain) went away, which when it didn’t, you just had to deal with it.”
Most of the time, Donnalley said he would be substituted for a few plays and then brought back in the game.
Only Lattimore knows what he was thinking when he grabbed his knee in the injury aftermath, but Donnalley never thought his playing career could be over when he got hurt. He still remembers having to miss a game at The Citadel the second game of his junior year. “Not to make that trip was very, very depressing,”
He said the mental recovery was harder than the physical aspect. “The emotions I know any player goes through when they are a starter and a major contributor and they’re not able to play, it’s extremely depressing,”
“You wanted to feel that improvement was occurring, and when you woke up the next day and knew you couldn’t play, it was a bad feeling.”
Lattimore’s physical dominance is unquestioned. During the recovery process, his ability to stay mentally healthy will be put to the test.
(Tyler Heffernan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more sports feature stories, profiles, previews, recaps, roundups, polls and contests on our sports page.)
Charleston Sports Medicine is the preeminent center for sports medicine in South Carolina. Our orthopedic services treat the full range of muscular and skeletal issues resulting from disease or injury to bones, ligaments, joints, muscles, tendons, and nerves.