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SANTA CLARA -- Bruce Ellington knelt, just feet from Marcus Lattimore.
Ellington was blocking on the play. His back was turned to the action. But when he saw his South Carolina teammate and friend on the ground, he knew something went horribly wrong.
“I saw his knee,” Ellington said. “I got on the ground. I broke down crying. Everybody gathered around him.”
On Wednesday, Ellington was there for the latest step in Lattimore’s return from that gruesome injury. Lattimore returned to practice this week with the 49ers. It was two years and two days after he sustained a dislocated right knee and three torn ligaments in that 2012 game against Tennessee.
“On his birthday, too,” Ellington said with a huge smile. “It’s very cool, man. God is blessing him. Even though he went through the things he went through, he stayed positive, kept working every day, coming out here, trying to get better, trying to get on the field again.
“It was a sight, seeing him out there running -- just being Marcus Lattimore.”
Ask anyone about Lattimore -- and speak to him for any length of time -- and it becomes obvious he is no ordinary 23-year-old person. His ability as an NFL player remains to be seen after working diligently to bring his comeback this far.
But there was more going on when he was on the field that day against an SEC rival. The entire South Carolina team gathered around him, many in tears, to offer support. And a large portion of the Tennessee team was out on the field, too.
“That shows the kind of respect Marcus has from all of college football, the whole world,” Ellington said. “Marcus is a great guy. Being around him, and hanging around him, he’s always going to make you laugh. He has nothing bad to say about anybody. He’s always positive, and always working hard.
“God blessed him with that ability to have that effect on other people.”
It was just the second quarter, and there was a lot of game still to be played.
“Just knowing Marcus, I know he was thinking, ‘I’m hurt, but you guys got to continue to play and do what you got to do.’ I felt that coming from him,” Ellington said.
Ellington caught six passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in South Carolina’s 38-25 victory.
Lattimore had a strong impact on Ellington from the day they arrived together on campus. It’s difficult to say, but Ellington might not be in the NFL today -- a rookie the 49ers selected in the fourth round of the draft -- if it were not for Lattimore.
Lattimore played in the South Carolina state high school football championship game. Ellington’s school also made it to the title game, but in a different classification.
A media member showed Lattimore a clip of Ellington's dazzling playmaking ability on the football field. Ellington was going to South Carolina, too. But he was not playing football. He was a basketball recruit.
“Once we went to South Carolina we started talking more and more,” Ellington said. “And he said, ‘Man, come out to the football field.’”
They saw each other every day at “The Dodie” Anderson Center, where athletes would often gather to eat together. Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery and Ace Sanders all joined in trying to convince Ellington to play football.
Early in his freshman year, Ellington was a fan in the student section when South Carolina defeated then-No. 1 Alabama in 2010. Lattimore rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was crazy,” Ellington said. “It came to me that I could play in front of this. I thought, 'I got to get out there.' Hearing those guys telling me, ‘You can play, you can play,’ built the confidence in me that I could be out there.”
Ellington ended up on football scholarship while continuing to play basketball -- his "first love," he says -- until late-December of his final season.
When asked if he ever would have given college football a shot if it weren't for Lattimore’s determined effort, Ellington answered, “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”