Monday, October 29, 2012

My encounter with Marcus Lattimore

I was supposed to be at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Thanks to a power outage at Darlington High School, the top ranked Hartsville Red Foxes were on the ropes and played the second half on Saturday against the Falcons. I'm glad I wasn't in Columbia. I got to watch a thrilling come from behind victory for Hartsville and didn't get to see up close the horrific injury to Marcus Lattimore.
In 1985 I remember watching Monday Night Football and rooting like heck for the Giants defense to get after Joe Theismann. When Lawrence Taylor did just that, I'll never forget him popping up and waving frantically for the trainers to get to the field. Theismann's leg was broken and the video replays made everyone cringe. For the first time in my life, sports was put in its proper perspective. I remember feeling so bad for a guy that I was begging to throw an interception just a few minutes earlier.
When the chilling image of Marcus Lattimore's knee out of its socket was shown throughout the day on Saturday, it brought back memories of Theismann's broken leg and Willis McGahee's dislocated knee in the 2002 national championship game. I was expecting all of the talk to be about how Lattimore's loss was going to effect the Gamecocks prospects for the rest of 2012 and how the certain first round NFL draft pick may lose millions due to his injury. But instead, people across the country talked about the character and humbleness of Lattimore and the genuine remorse that such a great football player and even better person has been dealt an unfair fate.

Kirk Herbstreit @KirkHerbstreit
"One if most devastating hits I've ever seen.. So sad...Great player and better person!! Thoughts and prayers for 21..."
David Pollack @davidpollack47
"I never heard Marcus Lattimore talk about himself over the last 3 years. Unselfish & as humble as a kid as I have been around."

When it comes to Marcus Lattimore the football player, television doesn't do him justice. From the sideliens, you can really see him absorb contact and show the rare combination of power and speed. His ability to get those extra yards and fight for every inch do not look sexy in the boxscore. I marvel more at his ability to gain six yards when he should have been stopped behind the line than the long touchdown runs. But like Herbstreit and Pollock said, Lattimore's character off the field surpass his elite status on the gridiron. I witnessed it firsthand
In December of 2009, Marcus Lattimore was the top recruit in America and with his season over, the recruiting madness was reaching its peak level. I was the emcee of the South Carolina Mr. Football ceremony at Myrtle Beach High's Auditorium. As part of a statewide television special, I sat down with Marcus after he won Mr. Football on the stage. For ten minutes, I spoke with him about the recruiting process, the end of his high school career and what it felt like to be not only the best player in the state, but one of the best high school football players in all of America. I was blown away by his maturity and his selfnessness. I got in my car to hustle back to the television station thinking that whatever college was fortunate enough to get him was going to benefit so much more than simple on the field production.
When I got back to the station, I popped in the tape anxious to see what small excerpt I would run on the news that night and tease the sitdown interview that would air on Sunday across the state. But there was a big problem: the tape was clogged and the interview was not there. The panic attack set in. The North South/Mr. Football special that was about to be showcased across the entire state was now missing Mr. Football. I was able to get Byrnes head coach Chris Miller's phone number and hoped that someway, somehow I could try and find Marcus and get something to remedy this technological snafu. I get a phone call to tell me to head to a hotel in Myrtle Beach and Marcus would meet me in the lobby.
In the middle of a busy lobby, Lattimore emerged from the elevator and greeted me. I went into full apology mode and mixed in the embarassment of the tape not working along with the hope that the eight minute interview we did 45 minutes earlier was going to happen again. Here's a kid who's getting text messages and voice mails around the clock from coaches, recruiting websites and every other kind of media. He had a look on this face that said "What are you worrying about?". He looked me right in the eye and with a small grin on his face said "Don't worry about it. I bet you this interview will be even better".
He sat right down and answered every question again like a pro. I've been fortunate enough to see elite athletes in many different sports. Seeing the way Marcus Lattimore conducted himself was one of those goose bump moments when you realize that you just interacted with someone special.
He's got a long road to go in recovery and it's not just Gamecock Nation that will be behind him as he goes through a lengthy rehabilitation. He has every right to be mad at the world and take a "why me?" attitiude especially after his 2011 season was cut short by a knee injury. But that's not Marcus Lattimore. As I watched Willis McGahee get in the end zone on Sunday night football in the NFL 10 years after his terrible injury, my guess that Marcus Lattimore is going to get that small grin back on his face and his character will grow even stronger.
I haven't had a one on one encounter with Marcus since that night in 2009 and he wouldn't be able to pick me out of a lineup. But if our paths ever cross again, I'd like to say to him just one thing.
Don't worry about it. I bet the next comeback will be even better.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Remembering Ronald Rouse

I thought I didn't know the name Ronald Rouse. When it comes to TV, it seems as if the air time is all for the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. You'll see a few defensive plays here and there, but for the guys in the trenches it's all hard work and no glory - no press clippings in the paper and no highlights on the Zone. Defensive lineman Ronald Rouse collapsed during Hartsville's game against Crestwood and when I first saw it on Twitter, my stomach sank to the bottom of my feet. Our news department deals with tragedy on a regular basis and I consider myself fortunate that it doesn't cross over to local sports nearly as much.
Hags and I have been covering high school sports for the better part of 15 years around here and we mean it when we say we have a true connection to the communities we cover. When I think of Hartsville, my memories flood back to so many happy times: when I nearly fell out of my chair when Jordan Lyles was drafted 38th overall by the Houston Astros in the MLB Draft, standing on the floor in Columbia when the Foxes won a state basketball title and making the trip to Chapin to see an 8th grader hit one of the longest home runs I've seen in a state championship softball game. Sadly, the night Ronald Rouse died is now in my Hartsville memory bank.
Ryan Naquin is a news reporter at WPDE, but a huge help on the Friday night football show. He asked me if he could start going to one game and giving extended highlights and post-game reaction. We were excited and joked about how he would bring a little Sal Palontonio ESPN flare to the show. We had a skull session on Thursday with talking points about Hartsville's unbelievable run game and how a win over Crestwood would put them in the driver's seat for a region crown. The last thing Ryan wanted to do was turn his sports hat in for a news hat.
Doing the Friday night show was not fun and it usually is (even if it gets a little stressful). Talking at the beginning of the show and reporting on a tragedy gave me an unpleasant feeling. What hurt the most is that there was nothing I could do to take away the pain that so many people were feeling. WATCH VIDEO: Beginning of October 5th Chevy End Zone 
Friday night's are a blur. I get the same feeling that the players and coaches when they are out on the field. It's the one night where we can reach and out and literally be a part of each community in the Pee Dee and the Grand Strand. We cringe at any little mistake we make in a show, just like players beat themselves up for a fumble or a miscue. To sum it up simply, we want to get it right.
So how do I get Ronald Rouse right? How can I give him a proper tribute? When I heard he had two sacks this season, I was desperate to find a clip of him. I started scouring through our archives hoping that I could find big #74 making a play. For the entire night, I was thinking of Ronald as a defensive lineman. When the show ended, Hags told me that he might have gotten a game ball. And he was right. Last year, we gave the entire Hartsville offensive line an HTC Game Ball and sure enough, the center on the 2011 Red Foxes was Ronald Rouse.
Then I stumbled onto one of the early games of the 2011 season. Due to a tropical storm wiping out most of the Friday night football schedule, there were only a small handful of games that still played. I got to make a long road trip to Hartsville to see the Red Foxes host Lamar. I get excited when I can venture a little further away from the nest. Hags and I make it a habit to shoot video of linemen who catch our eye. We just isolate on some big earth movers and throw them at the end of our highlights, never to see the air.  Ronald Rouse caught my eye. He was so much bigger than everyone on either side of the line. My camera pointed on his big cleats and I panned up NFL Films style. Rouse bounced up and down getting ready to go back in the trenches.
Over the next few days, television stations and newspapers will be showing images of an ambulance leaving Kelleytown Stadium with Ronald Rouse. I hope that people can click on the link below and see the Ronald Rouse I got to see - the unsung hero who got a game ball and the mountain of a young man with so much bounce in his step getting ready to play the game he loved. It seems I knew who Ronald Rouse was after all.