Nothing's been easy for Herman Lathers this year, so it's only fitting that how he plans to end a tumultuous 2011 remains uncertain and tenuous.
Make no mistake: Lathers, a Tennessee redshirt junior linebacker who broke his ankle during the summer, wants to play. He cried for days after suffering the injury, considered quitting after undergoing his second surgical procedure of the year — he missed spring practice because of shoulder surgery — but ultimately decided that the months of painful rehab were worth it just to have a chance to build off a productive sophomore campaign.
It just might not be worth it for Lathers to return this season.
Lathers already used a redshirt season when he enrolled in 2008, but his case for a medical hardship waiver, which would allow him to extend his college career one more year after 2012, certainly seems compelling enough on the surface. There are no certainties when players petition the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility — "no black and white answers," as defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said after Wednesday's practice — but any chance he has at one goes immediately out the window if he plays a single snap in UT's four remaining regular-season games or a potential bowl game.
Lathers has been ruled out for Saturday's game (TV: FSTN, 7 p.m.) against Middle Tennessee State and his status for a Nov. 12 trip to Arkansas appears extremely doubtful. If he's not feeling close to his old self by then, Lathers said he's prepared to move on to 2012.
"I guess if it goes well, I'll continue to press forward and see what I get," Lathers said Wednesday in his first interview since August. "If not, then I'll have a decision to make."
The NCAA has seemingly softened its stance on requests for a sixth year of eligibility in recent years. According to NCAA bylaws, a waiver is granted "based upon objective evidence for reasons that are beyond the control of the student-athlete or
the institution, which deprive the student-athlete of the opportunity to participate for more than one season in his/her sport within the five-year period."
Those clear-cut cases, though, aren't the ones that garner national attention. Ones like Houston quarterback Case Keenum's, which unexpectedly provided him a sixth year of eligibility for the 2011 season, are more common. Those go before the Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement, which can overlook the "more-than-one-year criteria" because of "circumstances of extraordinary or extreme hardship."
The last UT player to receive a sixth year of eligibility was defensive back Antonio Gaines (2008), who suffered multiple season-ending injuries throughout his career.
"When the time comes that he's 100 percent cleared, then we can sit down and have a talk," Wilcox said of Lathers. "That's something you've got to sit down with all the people that work in the department that have an expertise in that and decide."
Lathers, of course, knows a thing or two about hardships.
At 10, Lathers was diagnosed with bone cancer. He survived it, but was forced to take shots for years and it prevented him from playing football until his sophomore year of high school. As a redshirt freshman in 2009, Lathers dealt with an undisclosed blood condition that ultimately prompted him to have his spleen removed.
All of that made 2010, when he was second on the team with 75 tackles, all the more rewarding. And that's why 2011 has been all the more crushing.
"It was tough, just having a freak accident the way I did," Lathers said. "It was tough on me because I was ready to quit. I was wondering why it was always me that was getting injured."
Lathers had 11 screws inserted in his left ankle after he collided with a UT defensive back on the very first play of voluntary seven-on-seven drills this summer. He blacked out from the pain when it happened, but he hasn't had that luxury throughout a grueling rehabilitation process that only recently allowed him to start jogging around the practice field.
That is, perhaps, why the first two days of contact have been tough on Lathers, who said he feels pain all around the ankle after long sessions like Wednesday's.
"I'm just not at 100 percent right now," Lathers said. "It's part of my progress getting back at practice and getting back in the swing of things."
With the emergence of freshmen Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson and consistently strong play from senior Austin Johnson, UT has been surprisingly productive at the linebacker position this season, so it's unlikely that Lathers would immediately be plopped back into his old starting role whenever he's fully recovered. It's a rare situation that's allowed the Vols to show off some depth and not force Lathers into an even tougher decision.
"Hopeful is a good word, but I don't expect him to (come back this season)," coach Derek Dooley said. "So, we'll just see, we'll take it week to week."
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