Sept. 14, 2012
By Brian Rice
All Herman Lathers wanted to do was play football.
That is a statement that can be used to describe many years in the senior linebacker's life. It was as applicable in 2011 as it was as a 10-year old in 1999. Through all of the obstacles that have kept him of off the field, Lathers' resolve and perseverance have always put him back on it. Now, as a fifth-year senior, Lathers is ready to use his experiences on and off the field to lead the Volunteers.
An Early Challenge
The state of Louisiana is as football-crazed as any other in the Southeastern Conference's footprint, and like most kids growing up in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Lathers dreamed of taking the field to play organized football. But at 10 years old, Lathers was diagnosed with bone cancer.
"It was rough," Lathers remembered. "I wasn't able to grow up like a normal kid and play youth sports. It was always my dream to play `bitty-ball' football and I wasn't able to do it because of the bone cancer."
The disease and the painful treatments kept him out of organized sports, including football. The treatments included monthly shots in his back for five years. As his sophomore year of high school approached, Lathers received the news he had been waiting five years to hear: His cancer was in full remission, and he could heed the call of a helmet and shoulder pads.
"Finally, when I was 15 I was able to start playing football," he said. "Dream come true. From there, I put in a lot of work to get to the point where I am today and I'm grateful for it, glad my brother and my family pushed me to be great. It's been a long road and a long process and I'm glad I can continue to build on that process."
It didn't take Lathers long to establish himself on the field. As a junior at Istrouma High School, in just his second year of organized football, Lathers became a force, recording 96 tackles and 14 sacks. He moved to Scotlandville High School for his senior year, and the legend grew larger. Lathers was named All-State, All-Metro and All-District 5-5A as senior in 2007 after tallying 114 tackles, 18 tackles-for-loss and five sacks.
Lathers was recruited to Tennessee for the 2008 season by former head coach Philip Fulmer and redshirted during his initial year on campus. He earned a spot on the SEC Freshman Academic Honor Roll while working through the redshirt year off the field, while his development on the field was slowed by a tonsillectomy and other nagging injuries.
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, a blood disorder caused him to have his spleen removed. Still, he persevered and started the final five games of the season at middle linebacker. Lathers was named to the Freshman All-SEC squad after recording 52 tackles, 43 of those coming in the final five games. He set a career-high with 12 tackles against Vanderbilt and matched the mark in the Chick-fil-a Bowl against Virginia Tech.
A year later, Lathers finished second on the team with 75 tackles after starting all 12 games in which he appeared, missing the UAB game due to injury. Following the season, he underwent shoulder surgery and was limited in spring practice, but looked forward to leading the Tennessee defense in 2011. A plate and eleven screws in his ankle following an injury suffered during off-season workouts changed that.
"It was devastating," Lathers said of the injury that ultimately cost him the entire 2011 season. "I thought I was going into my last year and I was going to lead the team and put a stamp on my time here at Tennessee.
"When you're a cancer survivor, you don't dwell on things such as broken ankles for long. I've just been through a lot, so I know what to expect sometimes. I'm a positive guy and a Christian guy, and I believe God never puts you through more than you can handle. That's what helped me out."
Despite the injury, Lathers was determined to make a difference in the 2011 season, and he did it by acting as a mentor to the young linebacking corps that stepped up to fill his void. It was a role that he relished.
"My main thing was to help those young guys learn plays, game installs, game plans, situations on the field that they've never seen before," Lathers said. "I had to keep guys motivated and keep their spirits up, even though we were having a rough year."
"He's a great leader," sophomore A.J. Johnson said of Lathers. "It shows not just us, but everybody in the program, what it takes. He fought through a lot and he came through a lot and became a better leader."
Fellow sophomore Curt Maggitt said Lathers has given him a greater appreciation of the game.
"He's taught me not just to learn my position, but to learn the defense," Maggitt said. "It's about understanding the scheme and putting the extra work in, watching the extra film and how to get better.
Lathers said the combo of Johnson and Maggitt has put the work in to make Tennessee's group one of the top linebacking corps in the country. But above and beyond what they have done on the field, they have become even closer off the field.
"I saw a lot of potential in those guys last year, but as freshmen, they didn't have the chance to learn the defense like they needed to," Lathers said. "Since last year ended, I saw guys that were willing and eager to learn and stayed hungry and humble and put in the work they needed to. We all studied together and spent a lot of time together. Those guys are real special to me. I'm glad I met them, glad I get to play with them, and they'll be life-long friends."
Lathers earned his degree in Sports Management in May and is pursuing a master's degree in Agricultural Leadership and Education. In addition to the academic honor as a freshman, he has earned Academic All-SEC honors each of the last three seasons. With a degree in hand and the young players he has mentored at his side, Lathers is ready to use everything he has been through to make an impact in 2012 and to see the view from one more mountain.
"My pastor always tells me you have to go down through the valley to get to the next mountain, which is always a high mountain," Lathers said of the challenges that have shaped him. "I'm happy to say I'm here, and happy that I have worked to get to the point that I am today. I persevered through a lot and that means a lot to me and a lot to fans, family and friends."