HOOVER, Ala. — Herman Lathers can be forgiven for a moment of weakness.
Sitting in the Tennessee Volunteers’ training room last June, looking at an X-ray of his fractured ankle, he cried.
Earlier that day, the Baton Rouge native had been playing in a 7-on-7 drill, preparing for his third season as a linebacker. He remembers the pass going up, breaking on the ball and seeing a defensive back out of the corner of his eye.
His memory is fuzzy after that, but the ensuing collision left his ankle in need of 11 screws and months of rehab, which caused him to miss the season.
It was the latest in a long line of setbacks for the former Scotlandville High standout.
“But I got over it,” Lathers said.
Getting over things is somewhat of a specialty for Lathers, whose positive and resilient attitude is at the heart of the Vols’ mission to restore the program to prominence. UT has certainly been through its share of tough times, with a 23-27 record in the last four years. But that pales compared to the path Lathers took to this point.
When he was 10 years old, he woke up one morning, tried to stand and fell to the floor — the warning shot of a battle with bone cancer.
“Being a 10-year-old kid, you kind of relate cancer to dying and don’t expect to live, so it was a really scary experience for me,” Lathers said.
But thanks to treatment and monthly shots, he was cancer-free at 15. He started playing football as a sophomore at Istrouma High, then later transferred to Scotlandville. Despite the late start, he was an all-state selection as a senior at Scotlandville and earned a scholarship to Tennessee.
But his trials weren’t over.
Once in Knoxville, Tenn., a low platelet count meant the removal of his spleen and a redshirt. Then, after a debut that landed him a spot on the 2009 Freshman All-SEC team, he started all 12 games in 2010 and finished second on the team with 75 tackles.
But a shoulder injury meant surgery and no spring practice — and when he returned for summer workouts, the ankle injury hit.
Since then, and since his brief breakdown, Lathers has revisited that training room often for rehab. That’s where right tackle Ja’Wuan James sees him most often: “with a smile on his face, just working.”
“I respect Herman so much. He has been through a lot, but not once has Herman talked down on anyone or complained,” James said. “If you have a little bruise or something and you’re complaining, you look at Herm, and he’s gone through broken ankles and all other type of stuff. He’s just out here working, so you can’t do anything but work.”
And Lathers has certainly put in work.
He said he’s back to full speed and trying to get his ankle as strong as possible before the season.
He also beefed up, adding about 17 pounds to his 6-foot frame since the spring to reach his current weight of 233 pounds, and he has served as a much-needed leader from the middle linebacker spot.
“Herman is such a great presence for our football team for a lot of reasons,” coach Derek Dooley said. “He’s extremely committed to having a great season, but also for this team to have a great season. That has permeated throughout the team.”
With his career coming to a close — he graduated with a degree in sports management and is pursuing a master’s in agricultural leadership — Lathers’ focus is on finishing strong, and he has no regrets about the way things panned out.
“I worked my butt off to get a scholarship to a big SEC school. Thankfully Tennessee offered me, and it’s been a blessing so far,” Lathers said.
“I haven’t played in almost a year and a half, so there are going to be a lot of doubters about how I’m going to come back after an injury like that. I’m ready to prove myself, and this team is ready to prove itself.”