COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier led the cheers of more than 1,000 people who turned out Monday to wish injured star Marcus Lattiimore a quick recovery and a happy 21st birthday.
"This is not a memorial service," Spurrier said. "This is a happy birthday to Marcus and an appreciation for everything he's done and is going to continue to do for South Carolina."
And then Spurrier gave out a gift of hope to worried Gamecock fans.
"The message he gave me was, 'I'll be back,'" Spurrier said. "So he's coming back."
That was the last thing on anyone's mind after watching Lattimore's devastating injury. His right knee was dislocated and sustained significant ligament damage requiring surgery and maybe needing more than a year of rehabilitation. Lattimore was released from the hospital Sunday night.
Playing again, though, wasn't what Monday's gathering was about. Fans filled the area in front of the McKissick Museum on the school's historic Horseshoe, many wearing Lattimore's No. 21. They signed large cards of support, brought birthday balloons and sang "Happy Birthday" to their beloved star.
"I told somebody, he might be the most popular Gamecock player ever," Spurrier said.
The respect for Lattimore was evident on the field Saturday when Tennessee's players came over to show support as he was carted off the field.
Georgia coach Mark Richt said he and Bulldogs prayed for Lattimore's recovery after their session Sunday. Rival Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who heavily recruited the Lattimore before he chose the Gamecocks, said the player was everything that's right about college football.
"Regardless of what happens, he's been a great representative of the game of football and a great representative for his university," Swinney said.
Lattimore has gotten messages of support on Twitter from a "Who's Who" of sports stars and other celebrities like Miami Heat star LeBron James, New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow and Hootie and the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker.
"I've never met anyone who says they dislike Marcus Lattimore," Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson, who's known the running back since childhood.
On Monday, the tributes continued. Gov. Nikki Haley — an unabashed Clemson fan — declared it "Marcus Lattimore Day" in the state.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, brought a bi-partisan letter from the state Congressional delegation about the wonderful influence Lattimore's had on South Carolina.
University President Harris Pastides shared words of good wishes from Vice President Joe Biden, whose personal aide is former South Carolina player Fran Person.
Lattimore was watching the ceremony on the Internet, Pastides said.
Seth Rose, a former South Carolina tennis player, brought his 16-month-old son Cole dressed in a Lattimore jersey. Rose recalled this summer running into Lattimore near the school's athletic complex and the star athlete graciously posed for a photo with the toddler.
"He really is a great person and a great role model," Rose said.
Lattimore electrified the university from the minute he pulled out his South Carolina cap in February 2010 to end a heated recruiting battle for the state's "Mr. Football" winner.
He made his mark quickly, rushing for 182 yards and two touchdowns in his first Southeastern Conference game, a 17-6 victory over Georgia. The Gamecocks haven't lost to the Bulldogs since.
Lattimore helped South Carolina to its first SEC East Division title in 2010. He tore ligaments in his left knee midway through last season and missed South Carolina's final six games.
The running back spent six months recovering from surgery to make it back to the field this year and he didn't appear to have lost a step. Lattimore had the Gamecocks in the hunt for a national title this fall at 6-0 and No. 3 in the rankings. South Carolina slid out of the top 10 with a pair of losses at LSU and Florida as Lattimore rushed for 48 yards combined.
He finished the season with 662 yards and 11 touchdowns, both team highs. Lattimore has a school record of 41 career touchdowns. If everything goes well, Spurrier believes Lattimore might add to that total.
"Can't wait until that 21 is playing out there at Williams-Brice real soon," Spurrier said.