With Heisman Trophy talk and records to be broken, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore is about to start what is an extremely promising sophomore season. His stepfather Vernon Smith, who has raised him along with his mother Yolanda, spoke about his stepson, giving rare insight into his success both on and off the field.
Growing up, Marcus Lattimore was never the star of his youth league football teams. It was always current Gamecock wide receiver Nick Jones, according to Lattimore's stepfather Vernon Smith.
I know you are all very family oriented and close, that being said, what do you do as a family to help get your son ready to play? Do you have anything special that you like to do to cheer him on?
“I think basically what always helped Marcus the most was knowing that he was being supported. With a lot of kids it seems like they just want somebody to be in the stands. His mother and I would be at every game, but he used to like for me to even be at his practice. I would get off work and go watch and after he would ask me “did you see this play?” or “should I have cut this way?” and he was always excited when I actually saw it. That was all he ever seemed to really need.”
Lets talk about the recruiting process. From the beginning, did Marcus know he was going wind up at a major Division I school in such a high-profile conference? What did you do to help Marcus with the process?
“Growing up, Marcus was never really the star of the football team. Actually it was always (current Gamecock receiver) Nick Jones. Eventually, though, Marcus started to grow a little bigger and he started to play running back in the eighth grade (at Florence Chapel Middle School in Duncan, S.C.) Then, when he was in ninth grade (at Byrnes High in Duncan, S.C.) the coaches were impressed with his size, I think he was about 5-feet, 10 inches tall and 190 pounds, so they moved him to varsity.
“That year, Byrnes played its first nationally televised game against Glades Central (Fla.). I remember they had players like (current Miami players) Travis Benjamin, Damien Berry, and a host of other guys who all went D1. I remember that morning dropping Marcus off at school and him saying to me “Yeah, I think I’ll be on TV tonight”. His mother told him “when the camera rolls by make sure you wave then!” because we didn’t really think he would end up playing. He was really excited and said, “I’ll do that!” Well, Byrnes’ first string running back got hurt, the second stringer had cramps, and third stringer got moved to defense, so they put Marcus in. It was his first or second handoff that he busted up the field and scored a touchdown. I remember the announcers saying, “oh man, he’s just a freshman.” They said the defense must have been really tired. The fourth quarter comes around and he scores again. After that game, I remember he said to me “I wanna be great” and I told him “while you’re talking about it, somebody else is doing it.
“A little while later Marcus asked me “do you think if I worked hard, I could go to college?” I said that I thought so, but he had a long way to go and a lot of work to do. He asked me if I thought he could go to Presbyterian or Newberry. At the time, his old coach (at Byrnes) Bobby Bentley was coaching at Presbyterian, I told him that when he got into his senior year of high school I would start calling schools and seeing if he could try out for the teams. I never had to do that.
“When it came to the recruitment process, it really just seemed to explode overnight. Marcus would say to me “man, did you hear what they are saying about me?” We had so many schools contacting us that we had to come up with some way to organize it all. We actually had a system where we knew everything there was to know about every school. We had color-coded folders for each school packed with information. We would meet with recruiters and tell them what their children’s names were and where they went to school. They could never pull anything fast on us. It was such an organized process that I can tell you Marcus never loses any sleep over his decision.”
Talk to me about all this Heisman hype. When did Marcus come to the conclusion that was his goal?
Marcus Lattimore has been very honest about wanting to win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore. In 2007, former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won it as a sophomore and in 2009, former Alabama running back Mark Ingram did.
“The first time he ever mentioned the Heisman was after the Florida State game (a 26-17 loss in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season where Lattimore was knocked out of the game in the first half). We always made sure that every year we would set goals. I remember moving him into his dorm last year and I said “Marcus, we need to set the goals for this year before we leave.” He said, “Yeah, I was thinking 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns.” I told him he needed to scale it back a bit! He was coming in third string and we didn’t even know for sure if he would play. He said he could do it though and sure enough he did.
“After he got hurt in the bowl game, his mother left with him on the ambulance. I got the car and drove there and I was nervous for him. He always hated letting people down, especially his team. When I walked into the room though he just smiled at me and I knew he was ok. I said “you good?” He said “Yeah, who we got first game next year?” I told him ECU and asked him why and he said, “I want to go to New York.”
“His mom didn’t know what he meant, but I did. I told him it’s going to be a lot of hard work and he said he told me he knows, but that is what he wants. This offseason, he has worked for it too. He always wants to run and catch balls and does the little things all the time. When he finds out what he can do to improve himself, he does it. He was always lifting his lineman this offseason, building up his friendship with them. Those boys would die for each other.”
Marcus seems to do a lot of motivational public speaking at events, why do you feel that is something he does so frequently?
“I think he realizes that this is bigger than him. I know when a lot of the stuff was going on and he was starting to get a lot of recognition and kids wanting autographs he used to run away from it. He would be really upset about it and told me he didn’t want to be in the spotlight. It was his mother who told him that she didn’t understand what was going on either, but that it was something God wanted to do with him and gave him the platform of football to do it. He started to embrace it from then on out and tried to use his popularity for good. We would get calls from people telling us that their children wouldn’t listen and ask if Marcus would speak to them. He always would, then a few weeks later we would get another call saying “Thank you! My son is doing so much better in school now! Once that happened he started to really love to help people and the trophies didn’t really matter anymore. He realized that they don’t really mean anything unless you have a purpose. “
What are Marcus’s goals outside of his football career? If Marcus wasn’t a football player, what do you think he would do?
“Marcus switched his major to Public Health because he wants to go around and help people. I remember one day he came to me and told me that the STD rate for teens in South Carolina is among the highest in the country. I think that is what he will do if football didn’t happen.
“Also, growing up Marcus was actually better at baseball than football. His playing style actually reminds me of Jacking Bradley Jr. I can’t remember a time when I actually saw him strike out. His mom used to love watching him play baseball.”
What is something that Marcus has taught you?
Lattimore was actually a very skilled baseball player growing up. Stepfather Vernon Smith says that he and Marcus' mother Yolanda used to "love watching him play" the game of baseball and compared his style of play to former Gamecock Jackie Bradley Jr.
“Marcus taught me that no matter how many people say something is impossible, you just have to go out and do it. When I watch him, it amazes me. I’ll be in awe sometimes at some of the plays he makes.”
We selected five questions from members of TheBigSpur.com to ask Smith
Air-Chicken: Where does Marcus’s competitiveness come from?
“My wife always set a standard in the house and explained to all the children that you are not entitled to anything in life and everything you get you have to work for. She is a “not impressed” type of mom. She sets the standard very high and expects him to do great, and she never lets him know she is satisfied with what she has done. Deep down though, she is, she just won’t ever tell him that.
“I remember one day he came home and he was telling us how Spurrier was getting on him in the film room even though he thought he did pretty good and he said “Man mom, coach is just like you! Ya’ll are never satisfied!”
Cockymike1: Do you think Marcus will stay at USC for his senior year in pursuit of a Heisman trophy?
“I can’t really tell you what will happen tomorrow, let alone two years form now. As far as him staying or leaving, I will say this, my wife raised five kids, three of them were hers. All of them now have college degrees. Marcus isn’t’ the type of person to let anyone get a leg up on him for anything, especially his siblings. I’ll tell you that much.”
Wigiatcock: Who has served as Marcus's best mentor in his life and why?
While on a recruiting trip to Penn State, Yolanda Smith, Marcus Lattimore's mother, got to meet and take this photo with Ryan Seacrest of American Idol and E! fame.
“You could definitely say his mother, but you could always say his older siblings. He would always look at everybody else and try and learn from there mistakes so when it was his turn, he would make the right decision.”
AmenCornercock: Is it true that after the late bus ride back from Gainesville, when I'm sure all the players were up late celebrating the school's first SEC EAST title, the star of the game was at church the very next morning bright and early?
“We have a rule that no matter what happens Saturday night, you are in church the next morning. No matter what. It’s a rule we even followed when we would go on recruiting trips. We would scout churches together. Every place we went we had a church to go to. Churches even played into recruiting some.”
Jaustin520: What is the most over-the-top thing that happened during recruitment?
“For my wife, it was meeting Ryan Seacrest at Penn State. She is a big American Idol fan and when we were on the sidelines she pointed him out and asked him to take a picture. After she got that picture she was satisfied and she was even ready to leave!”
Note from Justin: It was at this point that we started to have a conversation about some of the crazy things that happened in recruiting. I told him how I watched Marcus’s commitment ceremony while I was sitting in class, and how there must have been four or five other students who had it on their computers playing where the professor couldn’t see.
Vernon then told me how (USC defensive line coach) Brad Lawing called him the day after Marcus’s commitment. He said that (USC president) Harris Pastides was in the State House watching some bills being voted on when he noticed that everyone stopped paying attention and started checking their phones and high-fiving. He asked what was going on and someone told me that Marcus Lattimore just picked South Carolina. Lawing always joked that Marcus stopped a bill from being passed.
Then he told me his favorite recruiting moment, though he had a hard time talking because he kept laughing...
“For me the funniest moment was when Marcus was in 10th or 11th grade. We went to visit coach Spurrier and it was the first time meeting him. Marcus brought along a few of his teammates; Nick Jones, Corey Miller, and a few others. We were in there and Spurrier has a bunch of his footballs on the wall. He was telling us the story of them; “This is my ACC Championship ball from Duke, this is my SEC Championship ball from Florida” and he went on and on. Well my wife, because she loves to take pictures, interrupted him. She jumped up and said “Hey coach, can I take a picture of your balls?” Spurrier turned scarlet and Marcus and I just looked at each other and busted out laughing. Funny thing is she didn’t even get why we were laughing until about a week later.”