KNOXVILLE — Given everything else he's faced, Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers had reasons to doubt the pain in his left ankle ever would subside.
At 15, he overcame bone cancer after taking shots every day for five years.
In 2009, a blood condition forced him to have spleen-removal surgery.
And one year ago today, he fractured that ankle so severely that it required the insertion of 11 screws, forced him to miss all of the 2011 season and made him doubt he'd ever get back to his old self on the field.
Four weeks and 15 practices in March and April changed the mind of the Volunteers' senior.
"Physically I definitely took more steps than I thought I would," Lathers told the Times Free Press in April. "I didn't think I was going to make it this far on my ankle, but my ankle's been pretty good the whole spring. I think a little rest is going to help it even more."
Lathers got that rest after the end of the spring semester, though he's hardly been inactive. He received his degree in sport management during the May 9 graduation ceremony. Two days before that, Lathers joined Vol for Life coordinator and former UT defensive back Andre Lott in speaking at a local middle school.
Even when he wasn't playing so often during the past year, Lathers was still a valuable voice in UT's linebacker room, and several teammates noted how helpful he was while sidelined. Having his voice back on the field in the middle of the Vols' transitioning defense might be even more valuable.
If the 6-foot, 225-pound Louisiana native can complete the long trek back to his 2010 form, it'd be even better news for UT.
"He's an older person who has a tremendous amount of respect on this football team," coach Derek Dooley said, "because of what he's been through and overcome, he's a very good football player and his commitment level to being good.
"Because of that, he's got a real presence out there that you can't create with a new player."
Lathers is aware of his presence and place in UT's defense, as evidenced by the initiative he took leading up to spring. When some UT linebackers would gather for video work, Lathers typically was the orchestrator. It's likely a role he'll continue to fill during the summer months.
"A lot of guys look to me for moral support and just for questions with any answer," he said. "My role basically is just continue to push this team. We've got a lot of great players and a lot of great coaches here now, so the standard is real high for us now.
"My role is to push the team harder than we've ever been pushed. We can do some great things this fall and surprise some people. We're looking forward to it."
Following his injury, which occurred when he collided with a teammate during a 7-on-7 drill, Lathers has had to take a new approach, especially to his rehabilitation. He said he would do rehab exercises once before practice and twice after practice during the spring. He required a lot of icing, too, but the mental block and the typical pounding in live action were the biggest obstacles.
"I'm learning to push through it and just knowing that if I don't push through it, then I'll never know how much it can take," he said.
"There's definitely times I question myself: 'Do I still want to play this game?' Those are thoughts that everybody has at times. Just going through as many things as I've been through, I know what it feels like to be here and I know what it takes from that point."
It's that mental hurdle that had Dooley concerned entering spring and Lathers' first live action in more than nine months.
"I was concerned, and I was really more concerned about his mental state than his physical capabilities," Dooley said. "I was worried that his mental state was going to limit him more than it should and it was going to linger. I think he surprised himself.
"I think he cleared a big hurdle this spring mentally, and hopefully he'll build on that this summer."
Said defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri: "It's unbelievable. The kid's a had a great spring. A healthy Herman Lathers is good for the University of Tennessee."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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