Have you stood lately in the South Carolina sun? On the right day it does not so much sizzle and sear as it does bully, causing grown men and women to wilt and wince and rush for the nearest cover.
It’s a June morning in Spartanburg, a town of about 38,000 not far from the North Carolina border, and it’s hot, the type of day where those standing outside can’t help but notice the time. As the noon hour closes and the sun passes straight overhead, the shadows disappear. As they go, there, too, goes any chance to find shade.
But this is the South, and no soaring temperature, certainly not one only months before the real work for the year will begin on high school and college fields across the state, can stop football.
On a patch of turf sunken between a rec center and a quiet two-lane road, some 100 kids have gathered to catch and run and learn how better to play the game. The children range in age from 5 to 16, and they seem oblivious to the heat. They laugh and shriek as they go through drills, flipping tractor tires and charging around pads laid in sequence on the field.
But one voice booms above them all. It is unrelentingly positive. It starts around 8 a.m. and does not quit until the camp itself does sometime after lunch.
“Good job!” it yells. “Great work! Good! Good! Good!”
The kids at this football camp have arrived to improve their technique and conditioning, but really many have come to see the man behind these bellows, the one who is just 23 years old and has already been something like state royalty for half a decade.
Marcus Lattimore is magnetic. Children of all backgrounds draw to him at the camp that carries his name, hanging off every word, staying late for autographs and pictures. A handshake or fist bump exchanged with the former Gamecocks running back here will become news to share with the other kids at school. Adults? They want a piece, too. Away from the camp, anywhere they play SEC football, he says, but without question all across South Carolina, Marcus cannot walk two feet without being stopped. “Are you … ?” one woman began at a restaurant last month, cocking her head while Marcus ordered his meal.
Forgive her uncertainty. Marcus has recently shorn his trademark braids, the hair he wore for years as he cut up college football one breathtaking run at a time, and so it may take some a second glance for his presence to register. Though with every signature request, every baby shoved in his hands for a spontaneous photo, Marcus greets each fan, black or white, young or old, South Carolinian or not, with warmth. This is life for him now, back home after an incomplete go at the NFL. He spends his days in the community much like a politician, even though Marcus seeks no public office.
He is a natural with his people, and returned to the state that nurtured his stardom. And yet what many he meets will fail to realize is that each smile he gives away brings something back in return. Every grin is restorative for Marcus, another moment of happiness removed from the personal anguish he so recently suffered, another opportunity to serve a new role in life.
From a distance, Marcus’ story appears to be the well-worn tale of the transcendent athlete, destined for such greatness but chopped down, instead, by injury. His legacy on the field, no matter what he achieved as a college star who was once discussed as a top Heisman Trophy candidate, is most commonly recalled by potential left unfilled, by what should have been but will never be.
Yet the untold side considers an even darker time for the one-time football savior, of the emotional torment and mental toil that came with no longer being able to play the game he once believed would define his life. For Marcus, who was on the fast track to NFL glory before he was hurt in a famously stomach-churning collision on a college field in 2012, the hardest part of his gruelling rehabilitation may not have been the squats or the strength drills or any painful balance exercise he was forced to grit through.
Instead, it was the psychological torture that almost ruined him, that threatened to bury the cheerful boy only those closest to him could see was hurting. It was one thing to fight through years of agony and frustration to get back to where Marcus could resemble at least a facsimile of his former self with the football under his arm. It was quite another matter finally to relent, to conclude that he could only fake it for so long before the world learned the one secret he had not shared with a single soul. Then, and only then, could Marcus accept it was time to move on and find his value elsewhere.
“I went out there and put a smile on my face like everything was alright,” Marcus says today of his pro football career, which ended last fall short of his ever getting to play a single down in the NFL. “But it was hell. Every day.”
There was always something different about this boy, Yolanda Smith thought, something about how her son carried himself, how he was so self-sufficient, how he seemed naturally to know what was right and what was not. “He was that kid from yesteryear,” she says. “I learned how to be a better person from watching him.”
Raised in northwest South Carolina, Marcus was the youngest of three children. He lived first in the tiny town of Reidville before the family moved to Duncan, a relative metropolis where little more than 3,000 call home. Each day after school, Marcus would begin a routine devised by his own plan. He would arrive home, grab a snack, watch precisely 30 minutes of cartoons, spend precisely 30 minutes outside, and come back in for homework. He was the kind of child his parents could place on autopilot. In church, Yolanda presumed Marcus’ head was always in the clouds, never paying attention or caring to pick up his bible to read. But sure enough, if you turned to a verse and asked Marcus to recite, he often knew it to the letter.
Money was sometimes a problem for the family, especially so when Marcus was nine and his mother and father, former Spartanburg High football standout Archie Lattimore, were going through divorce. After school let out for the summer one June, Marcus, his sister, Eboni, and a nephew Yolanda was raising were forced by court order from the home they lived in, which belonged to Marcus’ father (in addition to her children, Yolanda also raised a niece and nephew as her own; she later remarried, adding two stepchildren to the mix.)
Yolanda had nowhere to turn. Her family was back in Atlanta, though to bring her children across state lines to live with relatives would have risked her losing custody. For a time they were homeless, eventually settling in with a woman who opened her basement so the four could have a place to sleep. It was six weeks before Yolanda could secure an apartment of her own.
Marcus was drawn to football early. He enjoyed other sports, like basketball and bowling, and took a quick interest in movies (his first viewing of Goodfellas was in the eighth grade), but football soon came to be the most prominent thing in his life. “What did I do when I wasn’t playing football?” Marcus asked himself recently when prompted with the question.
He was good right away, though never quite enough to his own mind. As a star running back in high school, even as a freshman receiving letters from a dream list of major college programs, Marcus was plagued with self-doubt. He would look at other backs from rival schools and marvel at their speed. It drove him. I’ve got to get faster, he demanded of himself at each workout, through each sprint drill. I’ll never be great until I get faster.
The first formal offer for Marcus’ service as a student-athlete came from Clemson in his sophomore year. Then the University of South Carolina sent one, too. “After that,” Marcus says, “it was everybody.” The recruiting trail was a wild ride for Marcus, who quickly became one of the nation’s most prized prospects. Auburn came after him hard. So did Georgia. Before the fall of the program after the sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno had Marcus to his home in State College for dinner and fresh-baked cookies. The Penn State coach was sharp and funny, Marcus thought during his visit, but, boy, he sure reminded him of some of those old capos he’d seen in the gangster movies he loved.
In high school, Marcus was transcendent on the field, scoring 104 touchdowns over four years for Duncan’s Byrnes Rebels, which he led to state titles in 2007 and 2008. During his final season, in 2009, Marcus won the South Carolina Mr. Football Award. He graduated as the nation’s finest running back recruit, according to Scout.com, but through it all he kept a level head, thanks in no small part to the women he held nearby, who never bought into his growing celebrity. His mother’s knowledge of football was so slight that she would insist Marcus wear red socks during his high school games so Yolanda could identify him on the field. When Marcus was a senior, his girlfriend Miranda Bailey noticed perfectly organized boxes in his home with folders holding the offers Marcus received from colleges across the country. Miranda couldn’t quite understand; she’d never followed football all that closely. “So you don’t have to apply for school and apply for scholarships like me?” she wondered. “You get to go for free?”
Marcus chose to become a Gamecock following a visit to his home led by South Carolina’s venerable coach, Steve Spurrier. Yolanda cooked chili and cornbread as the snow fell outside, however the dinner was initially a dud. Spurrier and Yolanda did not click right away, and Yolanda decided early that evening she did not want her to son to play under the lights in Columbia. Yet as the night went on she and Spurrier began to hit it off. All of a sudden, there was music, and the old coach soon found himself sliding to the left, sliding to the right, and taking it back now, y’all. “We were all in there trying to do the Cha Cha [Slide],” Spurrier recalls, referencing DJ Casper’s novelty dance hit. His dancing was not particularly proficient, but it was successful. “After he did that,” Marcus says now, rather enjoying the recollection of his coach’s moves, “(mom) loved him to death.”
Fame arrived readily for Marcus as he began a legendary college career in 2010. As a freshman he was such a breakthrough star that he was soon unable to attend parties or even stride through campus without being mobbed. There became two sides to Marcus: the unstoppable running back, who broke 42 tackles in a 17-6 win over Georgia on Sept. 11 and later stormed for 212 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-14 blowout of Florida on Nov. 13, or the shut-in, who was so popular at school there were times he could only sit idly by as notes and autograph requests were slipped by the handful under his dorm room door.
After his first season, in which he scored an incredible 19 touchdowns on 1,609 yards from scrimmage, The Sporting News and CBS Sports named Marcus the national college football freshman of the year. Marcus’ signing and debut performance were a triumph for Spurrier, proof the flagging Gamecock program was turning a corner. The team won nine games in 2010 — the second-best finish in school history, and South Carolina’s most victories in a season since 2001, when Lou Holtz was still coach. The Gamecocks entered 2011 ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press preseason poll, the first time in nearly a decade the AP had acknowledged South Carolina as one of the country’s best 25 teams going into a season. The school was becoming a true contender in the SEC.
A tear of his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during a 14-12 win over Mississippi State on Oct. 15 stopped Marcus’ sophomore year in its tracks, but he returned to begin the 2012 season with 110 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 17-13 win over Vanderbilt on Aug. 30. Each game that followed added strength and mobility to his surgically repaired knee, and the Gamecocks rolled as Marcus did, surging to 6-0 to begin the year and rising as high as No. 3 in the national rankings. South Carolina dropped the next two games, falling to No. 9 LSU and No. 3 Florida. But by Oct. 27, when the team hosted Tennessee at Williams-Brice Stadium, Marcus felt whole again. Finally, he was 100 percent, feeling not only as strong as he had felt since having surgery but perhaps in the best shape of his entire life.
The night before kickoff, Marcus, the only junior voted a team captain, addressed the Gamecocks. “Guys,” he began, invigorated, “go out there and play this game like it’s your last. Because it may be your last.”
The play call came in the second quarter. South Carolina led 21-14, and Marcus had been superb to that point, rushing for more than 60 yards already, including a 28-yard touchdown. In came word for a counter to the left, a familiar play for the electric back, yet as Marcus took the ball two Volunteers defenders closed in.
Marcus had worked his way out of jams bigger than this before; that’s what made him Marcus. His coaches and teammates often marvelled at his ability to escape tacklers and make defenders whiff. Even as a freshman, Spurrier couldn’t help but compare him to Dallas Cowboys’ great Emmitt Smith, a runner with both elusive speed and power.
Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers was the first to grab Marcus as he crossed the line of scrimmage, wrapping him high while Marcus’ legs churned to break away. What happened next changed his life. As he charged forward to free himself from the tackle, cornerback Eric Gordon dove low to cut Marcus down. His helmet struck Marcus’ right knee.
The replay of the injury is difficult to watch for two reasons. The first, of course, is the violent meeting of helmet and leg, a crunch that caused Marcus’ limb to flail unnaturally over his tumbling body, leaving his entire knee dislodged and relocated to the outside of his leg. But the images that followed are more devastating to revisit: Marcus, splayed on the field with horror in his eyes. His head darted to the left and the right, his helmet off now so there was no concealing the dread coursing through his body.
Marcus felt nothing when he was hit by Gordon’s helmet. There was no pain, in fact no real sensation at all. “It just felt like something was out of place,” he says.
The emotions on the field quickly drew another picture. Long before Marcus did, others realized he was badly hurt. Players from both teams seemed to grasp the severity of the injury, emptying onto the field to pay their respects to such a revered athlete. Trainers were able to pop Marcus’ knee back in place, but by then there was no easy way to say it. “Am I done?” Marcus asked South Carolina’s team doctor, Jeffrey Guy, as he lay on the turf.
He was, and all Marcus could do was cry, his presence felt on the field long after he was carted from it into a waiting ambulance. “Both teams were really hurt by the situation,” recalls Jadeveon Clowney, Marcus’ Gamecocks teammate who would later become the top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. “A lot of guys were upset.” South Carolina won 38-35, but the team found it difficult to celebrate.
Once Marcus reached the hospital, a new reality set in. Doctors did not speak of recovery in terms of football. No one talked of getting back out there in a few weeks or even the season after. Indeed, this injury was not like his last. Marcus had torn three of the four major ligaments holding the joint together, the ACL, lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). Even worse, his dislodged knee had come in contact with an artery and the nerve in his leg. Forget carrying a football; it seemed then like a best-case scenario for Marcus was to simply walk properly again, to instead be able to carry groceries from the car to the house. Had the nerve been severed, doctors could not have saved Marcus’ leg.
Suddenly a shift in perspective was needed: Marcus had been lucky. Tests showed the artery and nerve were intact, so Marcus would keep his leg. Everything else, however, was not yet clear. In his hospital room that night, teammates flooded in, more tears rolling down their cheeks at what their beloved captain had become. Marcus sat there in his bed, watching his best friends shield their gaze, some only able to peer in from the hall. The mood was such that Marcus could not help but feel he was attending his own funeral. “Everybody came in there like I was dead or something,” he says.
The famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews operated to repair Marcus’ leg. For decades Dr. Andrews had been the authority on sports medicine in America, known for fixing the injuries that had once ended careers. His most miraculous patient might have been Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back who was just then, as Marcus was hurt for the second time, in the middle of his 2012 MVP season in which he rushed for 2,097 yards barely eight months after blowing out two ligaments in his knee.
Peterson set the standard for returning from harrowing injury, yet right away Dr. Andrews could see Marcus’ case was much more severe. “That was about as bad an injury as you’ll ever see in football,” he says. Once inside the knee, Dr. Andrews noticed one of Marcus’ tendons was so obliterated it had the appearance of spaghetti. “We had to figure out what went where, it was so torn up,” he says.
The surgery was successful, but what would Marcus do now? He had been cleared, at least medically, to go on, yet there was the matter of if he wanted to continue playing football, or even if he did, if he could perform at anything close to his previous level.
His mother was clear in her view. It tore her apart whenever her son was hurt; the first rehab for his shredded ACL in 2011 was so tough to be a part of that now, after her son had been hurt once more, Yolanda did not want Marcus to ever look at a football field again. “That takes a toll on a family,” she says.
Through his fame and connections in South Carolina, financially Marcus would likely have been able to hang it up then. He had taken out insurance against a catastrophic injury, and may have been able to drift into a comfortable life through any number of doors that open to a college football star in the South, particularly one as bright and charming as Marcus. But the game was his dream. He had a trio of goals in life: to get drafted into the NFL, to play in a Super Bowl, and to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If he quit now, he could say goodbye all three.
After some time, Marcus reached a decision that he would try once more to return. The odds were long, yet there had been enough positive news from his surgery to suggest his body might be able to handle football again, even at the next level.
He believed he had proved enough in college, but there was only one way to find if he was making the right choice. On Dec. 12, 2012, some six weeks after his right knee was destroyed and only 14 months after his left knee was hurt badly, too, Marcus decided to leave school early. He would enter the 2013 NFL Draft.
At the same time Marcus lay writhing on the field against Tennessee, a cruel consequence was also taking form. Once considered by talent evaluators as a top-flight first-round pick, after his second major injury Marcus now represented the one thing NFL teams try best to steer from: risk. Because he had declared for the draft did not mean an NFL career was still in his future.
Marcus met with several teams ahead of the 2013 draft, but as the event rolled around in April he still could not run, an ability professional general managers have historically preferred their running backs to have.
Trent Baalke considered Marcus from a distance. Like representatives from most teams, the 49ers GM met with him at that year’s combine, but San Francisco was not one of the clubs that flew Marcus into their facilities for a more thorough evaluation. What the 49ers had, however, were the assets to afford a gamble.
Holding 13 picks over the draft’s seven rounds, Baalke knew he had room to experiment. There was little chance each new player would make San Francisco’s roster, anyway, so the GM earmarked three or four picks for redshirting — selections to be used on players that would sit out the entire upcoming season under the promise of future payoff. A once-dynamic running back from South Carolina was worth taking a chance on.
As able-bodied backs flew off the board, Marcus watched as the millions in guaranteed money he would have earned as a top pick sailed away. Mercifully, shortly before selection No. 131 in the fourth round was announced, Marcus’s phone rang as he dined in an Atlanta restaurant.
It was the 49ers. The pick was a relief to everyone, even ESPN’s television commentators, who erupted with “There he is!” as if Marcus was the very selection many were waiting on. Baalke knew right away the road that lay ahead. “The odds were not in our favor, or at best they were 50/50,” he says now of Marcus’ chances to turn a profit in the NFL. But the GM leaned on what he had uncovered about Marcus’ character and disposition in researching the prospect, about his work ethic, about how his commitment to the game was always accompanied by a smile. “If anyone was going to get back,” he says, “it was going to be a young man like that.”
Marcus agreed to a modest contract with the 49ers, with just more than $300,000 guaranteed to him. Conversely, the top back selected in 2013, the Bengals’ Giovani Bernard, signed a deal that featured $3.25 million in guaranteed money.
No matter. Marcus was headed to the NFL. Goal number one had been achieved, and now it was time to show them all.
First, the steps were small, the slow, intensive process of rebuilding the knee familiar to Marcus from his rehabilitation following sophomore year at South Carolina. But as he worked throughout his first NFL season, watching from the isolation of the non-football injury list as the 49ers fell one score short of the Super Bowl, his time neared.
Soon, it was spring, 2014. Training camp began, and now was when Marcus could dust himself off and shine, impress his coaches and nip at the heels of backfield incumbent Frank Gore, himself a comeback case from two major knee injuries in college. If he could even come close to reclaiming the physical ability he had displayed during his last year at South Carolina, Marcus pictured a future as the top back on this team.
But something was off. He hurt and ached as he tried to knock the rust off his repaired knee, but that did not concern him. He could deal with pain. What he found more difficult when it came time to ramp up intensity was that he no longer seemed like himself, no longer felt like himself. Outwardly, he could run the drills his coaches put him through, slicing and cutting and generally looking like an NFL running back. On film clips he still keeps on his phone, Marcus plants left, plants right and explodes on the green practice turf. On video and in person, he looked the part, but only Marcus knew that beneath it all there was another truth.
“My running backs coach was like, ‘Good job! Good job!’” Marcus says. “My offensive coordinator — I was catching balls out of the backfield — was like, ‘Man you look good!’ I was like, ‘You have no clue.’”
He had plateaued in his recovery, something only he could tell. The stress Marcus could put on his joints before he was hurt, the ability to cut at full speed and change directions on a dime, was too much for his new body. In late summer, while Marcus appeared to be performing well in drills and, he says, “trying to fake it the whole time” to convince himself he was still improving, he arrived at a crushing conclusion. My knee, he thought, is not made for football anymore.
What followed were the darkest months of Marcus’ life. He fought the truth of what his body was telling him every day, not willing to give into the crippling screams shooting up from his leg. Worse, he internalized everything, buckling under the weight of reality: that his dream of becoming an NFL star, the focus of his life, was slipping away.
Miranda noticed Marcus was changing. While Marcus was in San Francisco, she split her time between California and South Carolina, holding a job on either coast. That fall, as the 49ers believed Marcus was coming closer to a return, Miranda would see him each day after workouts. Normally, Marcus was gregarious. He loved talking about football, who did what in that day’s drills and how he’d performed. But now, nothing came out. “I would ask him, ‘How was your day?’” she says. “And he would just say ‘good’ and he would never elaborate.” If Marcus didn’t change the subject right away, Miranda would, asking him instead what the couple should do for dinner. But those closest to Marcus knew things weren’t right. “He put up a big front for everyone else, but I could see it in him,” his mother, Yolanda, says. “The light was gone.”
By late October, the thoughts inside Marcus’ head were directly at odds with news reports of his condition. On Oct. 29, an ESPN.com story by Paul Gutierrez detailed Marcus’ NFL practice debut. “Today is just a blessing,” Marcus said. “I feel good.” His return would have then been a welcome sight for the 49ers. The team was scuffling, a presumptive NFC West contender sitting at just 4-3, and Gore had led San Francisco’s backfield in rushing the previous two games with only 58 yards total. If all went well in Marcus’ return — the team suggested he could be added to the 49ers active roster in a few weeks and provide a needed boost — the comeback story would be complete.
The truth is Marcus hid his feelings so completely that it wasn’t only his family and friends who knew nothing of his pain. Marcus didn’t tell a soul on the 49ers about his doubts, either. As the time of his return neared, he struggled with what to do. He knew his body could no longer handle the demands of professional football, but he continued to try, no closer to admitting it to himself.
Marcus was desperate for something, anything, to mask the agony of his knee. On more than 30 occasions during 2014, he says, without the knowledge of San Francisco team doctors or anyone else, he used the powerful and highly addictive pain killer oxycodone, which had been prescribed to him years earlier to use as he recovered from surgery. Sometimes the pills worked. Often they did not.
It was a lonely time. Because he was unwilling to open up about the turmoil he felt, what lay inside Marcus’ head could only build without release. He began to fear that if he failed to return to football, he would disappoint everyone who had supported him along the way: his mother; his siblings; Miranda; his coaches; his agents. He was concerned, too, about the people home in South Carolina. They had hollered and cheered and supported him through it all, but would they still love him if he could no longer make them proud on the field? Football players are not raised to think about quitting. “I’m too young not to play,” he worried. “What are people gonna think?”
The decision came on Oct. 31. Miranda was back in South Carolina, working her Friday night shift serving at a restaurant near her home, when her phone buzzed. She couldn’t answer, but moments later she saw a text from Marcus. Call me when you can, it read.
Miranda excused herself to the bathroom, where she dialled Marcus. “Hey, are you busy?” he said on the other end of the line. “I just talked to the team. I retired.”
“What?” she pleaded. The words came as a shock until he spoke them again.
The final sign had come for Marcus following workouts the day before. After practice, as his presumed return to the field neared, his knee throbbed. That night, he prayed. “God,” he asked, “what do you want me to do?” When he woke the next morning and could barely walk under his own power, he knew. He had turned 23 just two days earlier, but he was finished.
Marcus arrived at the 49ers facility Friday morning for his final meetings as a member of the team. Before the day’s practice could begin, he pulled aside San Francisco’s vice president of football operations and former head athletic trainer, Jeff Ferguson, and told him the news. Then, he delivered it to head coach Jim Harbaugh and later the rest of the organization. Until that moment, not a single person had any idea he was quitting.
The break was clean, even clinical. Marcus made no appearances following his retirement, and held no press conference to explain his choice. He offered no comment, in fact, other than to release a short statement. “After prayer and careful consideration, I have decided it’s time to end my professional football career,” it read in part. “Unfortunately, getting my knee fully back to the level the NFL demands has proven to be insurmountable.”
And then he was gone. Without ceremony, he vanished from the NFL radar as another season came and went without him. San Francisco, after reaching the NFC Championship Game a year earlier, stumbled to a .500 record in 2014, and 49ers fans couldn’t help but wonder about their young running back. He seemed so close to a return near mid-season, but then suddenly disappeared. What happened to Marcus Lattimore?
Until now, before he agreed to an interview last month, the answer to that, the most unkind chapter in Marcus’ life, was largely a secret.
At first, when he considered how his world might look without football, Marcus became sour. Personally, he wasn’t sure what he would do in life, but also he feared he would grow jealous, watching his friends and peers excelling at the sport in which he once held nearly unmatched skill.
Then a funny thing happened. “I was relieved,” he says. The light in his eyes was returning.
He had no regrets. He found he kept no animosity in his soul, not toward teammates he wished he could be playing alongside or toward his own body, which had emerged from a nightmare of injury strong but just not strong enough to play professional football.
Marcus arrived back in South Carolina, and to the university where he plans to finish his degree in public health and try soon for his Masters, not certain of the welcome he would receive. When he had been hurt in college, after all, he noticed how things could change based on his own fortunes in football; people that once wanted to be close to him, be they fans, hangers-on or prospective agents, seemed to suddenly disappear.
The reaction in South Carolina has been the opposite of what he feared. There was a time Marcus worried that by not making it in the NFL he would have let the people in this state down. Instead, the community has embraced his decision and swarms to Marcus now as much as it ever did.
Already, Marcus has accomplished enough to coast for a lifetime as an idol to those in South Carolina. However, he has no plans to do only that. Where Marcus once saw uncertainty in his life after football, now he sees a growing opportunity. He talks today of using the degree he will earn to help local athletes, to train and strengthen their bodies and minds under the roof of one facility. In fact, he has already begun much of the work. Through his charity, the Marcus Lattimore Foundation/DREAMS, Marcus and his family run outreach programs for youths in his home state.
Perhaps there is greater need for them now than ever before. Just two nights after the June 17 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine people dead and underscored the centuries-old tension between blacks and whites in the state, Marcus visited Charleston. By a stroke of fate, he was due in the city for a scheduled football camp that weekend, but Marcus arrived early, a visible and important face joining a group thousands strong outside the church Friday night.
He was struck by the weight of the moment, unable to grasp that he was in the same place where so much harm had so recently been done. Yet the mood at the church stirred him. This was not Ferguson or Baltimore, where tempers had flared into citywide violence. In Charleston, Marcus listened as gospel songs filled the air and the community vowed to pick itself back up again. “It was powerful to see that,” he says. The next day on the field, the spirits was so positive and uplifting that Yolanda, who acts as the smiling matriarch of her son’s camps, said it was among her favorite experiences ever in football.
Marcus is not outwardly political, but as a personality beloved by all cultures in South Carolina his views strike a chord, especially in the wake of tragedy. Much of the dialogue following the Charleston killings has focused on the Confederate flag, which has long been considered a symbol dividing the South along racial lines. Marcus believes its presence hinders social progress in his state. “It’s not a fact of the flag being for racial showing or racial power or anything like that,” he says. “I just feel like, white or black, it’s holding both of us back from moving forward.”
He feels differently about home since he left the NFL. “Before I was injured, I didn’t appreciate South Carolina,” he says. “I didn’t appreciate the beauty we had in this state. Now, I go to small towns to speak, and it’s like, Man, I love this state. I love the people here. They love me. I know I can make a difference here. I want to help this state until the day I die.”
Marcus has discovered there is currency in lending a hand, in being kind and courteous to others. Before he was drafted, NFL personnel researched each inch of his life, interviewing almost every teacher or coach he ever had. Deep down, he can reveal now, Marcus believes he was picked by the 49ers more for the person he is than for his ability to run with a football. “I mean, why would you take a running back with two horrible knee injuries?” Marcus wonders. “I did pretty good, I played good in college, but if I’m a GM I don’t think I would do it.”
Baalke isn’t quite ready to concede this point — he still hoped for the day Marcus would become a focal point of his San Francisco offense — but there can be no shading the fondness felt by those Marcus has passed alongside in life. “He’s one of those kids,” says Dr. Andrews, “I’d do anything in the world for him.”
Already, the University of South Carolina has recruited Marcus once again, this time to serve as a kind of ambassador to the school and program he helped establish on the map. Before Marcus arrived as a student in 2010, the football team had been middling, winning seven, sometimes six, games a year and failing to consistently draw the region’s finest recruits. “When you get a star player like Marcus, then that helps you get the next really big star player,” says Spurrier, whose Gamecocks won 31 games in Marcus’ three seasons with the team. “He changed the face of South Carolina football.”
Retirement is busy for Marcus. His days are packed with so much school and so many appearances and charitable events he hasn’t had time, or perhaps the inclination, to help much with the planning of his wedding to Miranda, who he asked to marry him in the spring. Not that his fiancé has let him off the hook. “He’s in charge of the honeymoon,” Miranda says.
Last month at his football camp in Spartanburg, Marcus stalked around the field, surveying the kids running about. “Good hands!” he would exclaim when a receiver made a catch. If the ball was dropped, Marcus had words for that, too: “Good route!” For the running back, working with youths has been illuminating. “I feel like I found what I’m supposed to do after football,” he says.
Over his legs, covering the dark scars of surgery, Marcus wore gray compression tights that ran down to his calves. On this day, nobody asked to see the wounds, nor did they speak of his injuries or a pro career scuttled away. On this day, no one seemed to care.
It wasn’t long ago Marcus had to fake it in San Francisco, hiding the pain in his life from even those closest to him. That time is over. At camp, as Marcus rose from a huddle of kids he had just led in a rousing cheer, he emerged with a toothy grin that seemed impossible to counterfeit. The smile was real, unable to betray the two most important words he would offer later that day: “I’m happy.”
After their wedding in December, Marcus and Miranda will get away. First, on their honeymoon, though later to all the places on their travel wish list, the destinations a busy life in football has kept them from so far.
But there is no question where they will settle. Their roots are down now, Marcus’ time in the community today a sign of what will come tomorrow. They will continue to live in South Carolina.
Home will always be South Carolina.