Marurice Couch reflects on the NC State game
There stood Herman Lathers on Tuesday, answering the same ol', same ol'.
A bulky, bright orange brace incased the Tennessee senior linebacker's right knee. His left ankle, the one that shattered back in 2011, was mummified in athletic tape. Lathers' latest safeguard — a protective brace on his right shoulder — will join the team today.
That shoulder, of course, was surgically repaired back in January of 2011.
Forcing a smile through a sullied disposition, Lathers explained Tuesday that he's now toiling through a sprained acromioclavicular joint in his shoulder. He added that there's "a little separation" in the shoulder.
"It's a little sore, a little stiff," Lathers said.
The particulars of Lathers' medical chart would overwhelm a pre-med student. The underlined items are bone cancer as a child and a removed spleen in 2008. His goal of a healthy 2012 season was derailed as soon as it began.
After missing the entire 2011 season with 11 screws residing in his left ankle, the down-but-never-out Lathers returned last Friday against N.C. State. The band was blaring and the bright lights of the Georgia
Dome welcomed him back to the field. On UT's first defensive play from scrimmage, Lathers lined up alongside the teammates who call him their leader.
After registering four tackles, though, the moment ended all too familiar. Lathers landed awkwardly on his shoulder in the second quarter. He doesn't remember the exact play, just that he could feel "movement in the joint."
Lathers spent the second half tracking the sideline. The look on his face told the story.
"It was another here-we-go-again kind of deal," Lathers said Tuesday. "My main thing is just — it's never as bad as it seems."
And in this case it wasn't. The acromioclavicular joint, or AC joint, is where the collar bone meets the shoulder blade. You know the bony bit at the top of the shoulder? That's it.
Lathers didn't practice Monday or Tuesday. He said he hopes that wearing a brace will allow him to practice today.
Caution will be crucial. The Vols' opponent on Saturday (TV: pay-per-view, 4 p.m.), Georgia State of the Football Championship Subdivision, lost last Thursday, 33-6, to South Carolina State, another FCS program. Testing Lathers' shoulder seems low on Tennessee's priority list.
The fifth-year senior cares little about that, though. The four-time SEC academic honor roll member has been at UT for 50 games, but only able to dress for 25. Each chance to play is precious.
"There's no time to rest, especially when you're the leader of the defense and of the team," Lathers said. "Guys look to you for moral support and when you're not there, guys tend to fall off and not be as enthused as they are when I'm out there. It means a lot for me to get back out there and inspire the guys."
Sept. 15 brings Florida to Neyland Stadium and the Vols want their unbreakable linebacker on the field. UT coach Derek Dooley said Tuesday, "He's never going to feel 100 percent," a realization Lathers seems to have come to long ago.
"Not being able to play the game — I can't just walk away, let an injury stop me,'' he said.
Asked how he felt on the sideline last Friday when he was still flush with uncertainty about the extent of his injury, Lathers slung his head forward.
"That's a hard (question)," he responded.
His head rose gradually.
"It's tough. I'm a real big competitor. I hate sitting out. I hate being away from the game. As a young kid, not being able to play sports, it all goes back to my childhood (cancer).
"I've got to keep pushing until I can't push anymore."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn