SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Marcus Lattimore's bad right wheel isn't up to full speed, but the wheels in his head are spinning in overdrive.
"I'll be better than I was when I was playing at 100%, no doubt," said Lattimore, a South Carolina running back drafted in the fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers in April.
Lattimore, who suffered a catastrophic knee injury last fall, feels he's capable of participating in training camp. But he also respects the 49ers' decision not to rush his recovery. He's on the active/non-football injury list, meaning he counts against the 90-man roster limit and can be activated at any time before final cuts. Still, he's expected to miss most of his rookie season, if not all.
"I could play now, without question," he said after a recent workout with a team trainer. "I probably wouldn't look my best. But if I was called upon, it could happen."
Heading into last season, Lattimore was college football's top running back prospect and on track to be an NFL first-rounder. At 5 feet, 111/2 inches and 232 pounds, he had size to go with his speed. But on Oct. 27 — with millions of viewers covering their eyes for the replays — his right knee bent the wrong way, dislocated, and left him with three torn ligaments.
The likable Lattimore had recently recovered from an injury to his left knee the season before, but this one was much worse. His football future was in doubt, a jolting reminder that even the most promising of careers can end on a given play.
Among the first wave of sympathetic callers was 49ers running back Frank Gore, who didn't know him personally but had overcome two major knee injuries in college. Mike Chasanoff in 49ers public relations tracked down a number for Lattimore, handed Gore the phone, and a wounded-knee brotherhood was born.
"I went through it too," Gore said. "You have something like that, and everybody starts questioning you about something you love to do. It messes with your head. You think about it: Is this for you? Do you still want to play? You've got to have a strong mind."
Lattimore, who had 41 touchdowns in his college career, concedes he had moments of hopelessness after the injury, even after his knee was repaired in November by renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews. The road to recovery was long and tortuous.
His persistence paid off and won him even more respect among NFL evaluators. After his pro day in March, he got a standing ovation from the coaches and scouts in attendance.
Now, with an additional four months of recovery, he's beginning to feel normal again.
"The first six, seven months, you've got a lot of stiffness when you wake up in the morning or when you're sitting in the car a long time," he said. "But it comes around. After eight or nine months, my knee was feeling real good. Honestly, when you walk around I wouldn't feel it. Of course I have to warm up and give my knee a good stretch when I'm about to run, and after I do that it feels natural."
That doesn't mean the 49ers are in a hurry to get him back on the field. They have a top-shelf running back in Gore, and have the luxury to bring him along gradually with no absolute timetable for his return.
"We're going to slow things down for him physically," Coach Jim Harbaugh said in May. "I love his mental approach to it — the aggressive mental approach that he's taken though this whole process. But we're going to slow the aggressive physical down and make sure Marcus is going to be 100% healthy before he's out there on the field. I told him that, and shared that with his mother."
Added Harbaugh: "If he doesn't play this year, then he doesn't play this year. I think if anybody can overcome what he's been through, it's him."
That's got to be a relief and a frustration for Lattimore, who's not accustomed to taking his foot off the accelerator. He has seen Minnesota's Adrian Peterson return from a devastating injury in less than a year, rush for 2,000 yards, and win the NFL's most-valuable-player award. And this season, he sees Washington's Robert Griffin III on the same freakishly fast recovery path.
"Those guys are inspirations to me," Lattimore said.
As for his recovery, Lattimore is trying to stay patient, but he cannot envision sitting out the entire season.
"My best-case scenario is in Week 10 something like that, I get out there and will be full speed and ready to go," he said.
Meanwhile, he knows that people in the sports world are keeping an eye on his comeback.
"I guess America is a country of stories like this," he said. "Just going through adversity and being able to get back up. People gravitate toward that, I feel, because just when you're on your job and you don't feel like getting back up, you think about that."
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