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USC RB Marshawn Lloyd regains confidence after ACL injury


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MarShawn Lloyd during team media day on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022 in the University of South Carolina Jerri and Steve Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility.

tglantz@thestate.com

The sign outside of MarShawn Lloyd’s new apartment complex warned of flooding: “NO PARKING.” So Lloyd parked in another space. He did the right thing, like he always does.

But life can be cruel nonetheless.

It was a stormy July 4 in Columbia. Lloyd was hanging with his neighbor and fellow South Carolina running back Christian Beal-Smith, getting ready to go eat dinner, when they peeked outside. Stunningly, like a scene out of a movie, they saw Lloyd’s prized Dodge Challenger floating down the other end of the street. The interior, the hood, the engine — all soaked with rainwater. The car was deemed a total loss.

“Did you cry?” Lloyd’s mother, Na-Shawn Lloyd, asked him over the phone a couple of hours later.

No, Lloyd told her, he wasn’t going to cry over a material object. MarShawn was calm over the phone as he told his mother that everything happens for a reason — the same words she’s told him since he was a baby. Maybe he just wasn’t meant to have that car.

“I was like, ‘You are so better than me,’ ” Na-Shawn recalled, laughing. “I’ve got a GMC Terrain; it’s not even compared to what his car was. But I would’ve cried. It’s mine. I worked hard for it. He worked hard for that, you know?

“And he was like, ‘It is what it is; we’ll figure it out.’ So he has that mindset, and I thank God that he has that mindset.”

That mindset — calmness and positivity in the face of adversity — has served Lloyd well throughout his young life. That July 4 flood wasn’t the first time he’s seen something he loved ripped away from him. Two summers ago, in late August 2020 as a freshman, Lloyd tore his ACL before he ever had the chance to play a snap of collegiate football.

Lloyd didn’t cry then, either. But his mom did.

Na-Shawn remembers crumbling at home in Delaware the moment she got off the phone with MarShawn. She had seen all the countless hours of work he had put in to get himself to South Carolina. The explosive 5-foot-9, 212-pound tailback came to Columbia as a five-star recruit, expected to compete for a starting role right away. Instead, he’d have to watch from the sidelines as he rehabbed a serious left knee injury.

Even then, MarShawn kept telling his mother that familiar line: Everything happens for a reason. “Maybe this is an opportunity for someone else,” he told her.

It was. For the past two seasons, Lloyd has seen teammates Kevin Harris and ZaQuandre White — both now in the NFL — take command of the Gamecocks backfield while he worked his way back to full health. But now it’s Lloyd’s time to take the lead role. Entering his third year at USC and Shane Beamer’s second season as head coach, Lloyd is positioned atop the depth chart, ready to fulfill the blue-chip promise he presented as a recruit out of high school.

MarShawn says he feels like a freshman again, feels like the pre-injury MarShawn. Beamer describes Lloyd as a man on a mission, someone who “realizes it’s his time.” Nothing can shake him — no distraction, no obstacle, no act of nature. Not even a flood.

“He has another car now,” Na-Shawn told The State. “And he loves that car just as much, and that’s — for lack of a better word — water under the bridge. He just moved on from that. And now he’s totally focused on the season.

“He’s ready, and he’s excited. And I’m excited for him. I know what he’s capable of when he’s 100% physically and mentally. There’s no way of stopping him, so I’m excited for the world to see what I know that MarShawn is capable of.”

Uno Athletics

A butterfly isn’t the most conventional choice. But MarShawn didn’t want to be conventional.

As Lloyd healed from his ACL tear in 2020-21, he used the time to brainstorm his own brand and clothing line. The name for the brand wasn’t difficult to come up with — Uno Athletics. Lloyd wears the No. 1 on his Gamecocks jersey. All his teammates call him “Uno,” and he loves the idea of representing oneness and self-love through that name.

But what about a symbol to go with it? Lloyd’s mom expected MarShawn to pick something ferocious and strong, like a lion or tiger. She was surprised to hear his answer.

“She was like, ‘Really? Why a butterfly?’ ” MarShawn said. “For me, when I got hurt, it’s like a butterfly, like it’s in a cocoon. And then eventually it comes out and it turns into a butterfly. There’s a cycle that it goes through.

“There’s trials and tribulations that it goes through, but then eventually in the end, it always comes out to be a butterfly. Always.”

Symbolism looms large in Lloyd’s mind. A devout Christian, Lloyd pays keen attention to signs in his life, all the little moments that seem too coincidental to be coincidences. Na-Shawn texts him a different Bible verse every morning — usually before he wakes up at 5 a.m. — and she does the same for his two older sisters, DeVaune’ and Shannise.

Raised by a single mom in Wilmington, Delaware, Lloyd is fiercely protective of the women in his life. He’s thoughtful and sensitive, and almost always smiling and engaging.

But there were moments in the past two seasons when his injury would take a mental toll, times when he didn’t quite seem like himself to his teammates. He is a human being, after all.

“It’s already a tremendous mental battle participating in SEC athletics, and then going through an injury and the injury that he did, man, it was rough,” fellow running back Juju McDowell said. “I don’t know how he did it. There was days I could tell that he was off. I was willing to just always just go up to him, initiate that conversation and try to make things better for him.

“It was definitely a struggle. That’s why I’m so proud of him.”

Lloyd credited teammates like McDowell, Harris and White for keeping him involved and supporting him throughout his recovery. He didn’t get the chance to practice until last fall, and though he registered 64 carries and 228 yards last season in his first on-field action, he never quite regained full confidence in his left knee.

“Last year, I was so worried about being the guy and being the person that everyone else wanted me to be,” Lloyd said. “And that kind of threw me off because I wanted to be the best version of myself, but I also wanted to be the best version that someone else wanted me to be. And that’s not the best way to go. You got to be the best version of yourself.”

Entering this season, Lloyd feels ready to emerge from his cocoon, ready to show Gamecocks fans who he really is.

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MarShawn Lloyd with sisters, from left, DeVaune’ and Shannise Submitted photo

A Hidden Message

The day before the Gamecocks started fall practice, Lloyd emptied out his locker. It was an act of manifestation: a clean locker for a fresh start.

Lloyd scooped up all of his knee braces and brought them home, stowed them out of his sight. He doesn’t need them anymore. As soon as he made an explosive cut in USC’s spring game a few months ago — the kind of cut he hadn’t made since high school — Lloyd knew he was all the way back.

But Lloyd didn’t stop at the knee braces. He kept cleaning and eliminating clutter from his locker until he found a sheet of paper crammed all the way in the back. The sheet was dated Sept. 6, 2019, a year before Lloyd ever stepped foot on campus. He’s not sure where it came from, but he felt goosebumps the moment he read the paper’s typed message:

Let the past be the past. Your time is here now.

Lloyd took that message as a sign. Why else would that paper still be in his locker three years later? He plans to hang it up and display it, to let those words guide his season. And by all accounts, Lloyd should have the chance to make a splash in a new-look running backs room that also includes McDowell and incoming transfers Beal-Smith and Lovasea Carroll.

Running back coach Montario Hardesty didn’t recruit Lloyd; last season was his first on USC’s coaching staff. But Hardesty was always a fan of what he saw on film from Lloyd at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. And he sees that same ability in Lloyd now.

“The biggest thing about MarShawn is just being available and being all the way back and having confidence in what he’s doing,” Hardesty told The State. “This summer he was able to be a leader because he was there for everything … going through the whole spring, pretty much getting all the reps with the 1’s and making some explosive plays and getting his confidence back. The biggest thing that he’s done is just look like the old MarShawn.”

As Beamer and the Gamecocks head into Year 2 looking to build off of last year’s 7-6 showing, Lloyd figures to be a key cog of the offense. He’s been turning heads all offseason, inspiring teammates who’ve watched him battle back to full health.

“All I can say is: Picture an 18-wheeler going down the highway, and six tires blow out,” McDowell said. “He has gotten to the point where he’s gone from those six blown tires, to six brand new tires — and better tires at that.

“He’s back.”

MarShawn Lloyd is ready to let the past be the past. His time is here now.

Michael Lananna specializes in Gamecocks athletics and storytelling projects for The State. Featured in Best American Sports Writing 2018, Lananna covered college baseball nationally before moving to Columbia in 2020. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in journalism.
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