When Marcus Lattimore cried, I cried, too. That’s the way I always feel when I see a spirit momentarily crushed and a life instantly changed. But when that spirit awakens and that person rises and runs again, I run with them. Yeah, I know it’s schmaltzy, corny even. But that’s how I get down. Not ashamed either. When one climbs from the abyss, we all do.
In pursuing those stories I’ve learned some things about people and their bodies. It’s a relationship that is in many ways, governed by rules that are just as fickle, personal, and peculiar as any liaison.
I’d set out to do a story on Terry Allen. He was a running back who been a teammate of mine with the Redskins. In addition to his knack for running the ball between the tackles, Allen was known for his ability to overcome very serious knee injuries. He had torn his ACL ligaments in both knees and not only lived to tell about it, but to run again. And to run well.
But when I got him on the phone, he said one thing: “I don’t talk about my knees.”
A similar thing happened when I called Reggie Brown. One day in ’97, Brown was a linebacker for the Detroit Lions. He was a marvelous specimen, and had been a first round pick the spring before. In the final game of the season against the Jets he made a tackle then lay on the field. Brown had hurt his spinal cord and his heart stopped beating. You may remember this moment as this sort of thing doesn’t happen much in ‘ball.
Brown was revived but he never played again. A few years later, I thought I might speak to him about it. He didn’t want to. He said he was happy where he was—breathing and walking and living—and had no desire to revisit a place where couldn’t do any of those things.
I was disappointed, but I understood. It’s true that being a former athlete will allow you to establish a rapport with other athletes. Sometimes guys will tell me things—usually off the record—that they would never utter in a public forum. But there are some things that can’t be shared, not even in confidence. For many athletes, that thing which keeps them from being an athlete is a sacred topic, a mystic one even. I remembered what Kevin Hardy, former linebacker for the Jaguars had once told me, “There are just some things guys won’t tell you, no matter who you are.”
My friend David Shields wrote a book called the Body Politic. In it he speaks about our relationship to our bodies. He says, “Whenever we talk about the body, we inevitably lie, but the body itself never lies. Our bodies betray us—always tell us what we’re really feeling (desire, fear, hatred, rapture).
It’s true. And it’s the worst kind of betrayal because it always occurs at a time when the spirit is most willing, most able. You can ignore it, I guess. You can choose to disregard the signs—from God, from the universe, from your gut. You can take something, or inject something into your body to briefly change its composition. You can do anything at your disposal to delay the inevitable.
In 2009, Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis heard the signs. Seven games into the season he tore the ACL in his right knee. He came back. In 2010, he tore it again. He came back again. In 2011, two games into the season, Davis’ right knee once again told him he was meant for something else.
But what happens when it’s not the athlete who refuses to listen? What if those around you ignore the obvious signs?
US PRESSWIREIf Marcus Lattimore has any chance to return he must ignore the fact that the odds are against him.
Recently deposed Carolina Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney did some questionable things during his time in Carolina. But he did one thing that can’t be argued with now, not today. Hurney took a risk and gave Thomas another chance. Then he gave him a six million dollars bonus to prove it. This was after Thomas Davis had torn his ACL for the second time and before he had torn it a third time.
I saw Thomas Davis at camp. I was on my way to out of the cafeteria when he came in. I had another appointment but I really wanted to talk to him because I’d heard Davis talks about his knees. He has a lot to talk about. But I’d have to wait.
In the meantime, I could watch him. I knew what to watch for—quickness. Davis is known for that. Davis didn’t start on Monday night preseason game against the Jets, but when he came in with the nickel group, it was apparent the Panthers’ staff wanted to see if that famous ligament could fire like it once did back in 2008. On his first play, a third and twelve, Davis lined up wide and blitzed from the edge. He didn’t get there, but he was quick and sound.
On the next series, a third and seven, Davis lined up in the guard-center gap. On the snap, he held a count then looped around the defensive end. He pushed off his right leg, accelerated and ran right through Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
A series later, on third and goal, Davis dropped to the hook. When Sanchez took off downfield, Davis wrapped him up in a solid open field tackle. When Davis walked off the field that evening all he’d heard was his teammates’ applause.
This past Sunday, Thomas Davis was a starter again. Before the Panthers relinquished their grip on Chicago, Davis was doing things recently thought not possible. On passing downs, one of his tasks was to cover Matt Forte whenever the running back left the backfield. In the fourth quarter, Forte drifted to the flat and Davis squared him up and dropped him in his tracks for no gain. On the play, Davis didn’t resemble someone who had been remade. He looked like the original version.
We can put it in the books because it’s official: the Thomas Davis story is a good one. The Marcus Lattimore story is in that hopeful phase, that dreamy state where everything is possible. His coach, Steve Spurrier, not known for pleasant optimism, flatly stated Lattimore’s future includes a return to the South Carolina team. It’s a great statement, one that his best player and people like me need to hear.
Of course no one can make it through his entire life hearing only the things he wants to hear.
But now and then you gotta just cover your ears.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter @AlanGrant_NFL