Because of the short careers and unique circumstances of college football, there are some great players who will inevitably end up more as tales of "what if" than what was. And after a devastating knee injury suffered in the Tennessee game -- the second knee injury in as many seasons -- South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore ended up being one of those players.
During his freshman season in 2010, Lattimore was a sensation. He almost single-handedly won two of South Carolina's most important games that year: against Georgia, in the second game of his college career, Lattimore rushed for 182 yards and both Gamecock touchdowns on 37 carries; in the division-clinching showdown at Florida, Lattimore ran for 212 yards and three scores on 40 rushes to help South Carolina win in the Swamp for the first time.
Then came the injury that cut short his sophomore season. But this promised to be Lattimore's breakout year. It was okay, by Lattimore's standards -- he was struggling to get on track for a 1,000-yard season after what seemed like an intentionally reduced workload in some early games, but had 11 touchdowns in the first eight games and a bit of the ninth and was averaging 4.6 yards a carry.
Then, in that ninth game against Tennessee, Lattimore went down again. While there was no official word until hours later, it was pretty clear that he would not return to the field in 2012.
What happened next was something that you rarely see for a player. The Tennessee players showed their respect for Lattimore while he was still on the field. Les Miles tweeted to wish Lattimore the best of luck. SB Nation's Georgia blog went as far as to put up a Breaking News banner offering prayers for Lattimore. It might not have been an unprecedented show of affection for a single player after what ended up being a non-career threatening injury, but it was impressive.
Of course, then we got some insight into the outpouring, stories about how Lattimore would call fellow players in similar situations after his first knee injury to encourage them. That explained a lot about the reaction to Lattimore's injury, but also a lot about Lattimore himself.
After the initial reports turned out to be true and his recovery progressed quickly, Lattimore announced he would put his name into the NFL Draft in 2013. It wasn't a shock, and if Lattimore can do what NFL teams need to see at the combine or at least at South Carolina's pro day, it's unquestionably the right decision.
But for those of us who saw him pound his way through Georgia's defense on a warm Columbia day in September 2010, or anyone who watched one of his marquee performances in the less than three full seasons he played in the SEC, there will always be the lingering questions of what he could have done had two fluke injuries not ended up being the only things that could stop him.