Mettle beyond measure

Which NFL player has played through the most injuries?

Is it Brett Favre -- assuming he's still a player -- who has started a record 269 straight regular-season games? Or Peyton Manning, who ranks second with 176 consecutive starts? How about LaDainian Tomlinson, whose per-game average of 24.9 touches is best among active players? What about all linemen, who by Week 4 are wrapped in ice and bandages like mummies?

Problem is, we'll never know. The structure and culture of the league doesn't allow for it. Fans unknowingly witness gutsy performances every week.

By October, every player is nursing something. By December, every player is battling something. Because of that, injuries are rarely discussed in locker rooms. Nothing will undo a player's reputation for toughness faster than him telling his teammates about it.

"If you're walking around the locker room talking about how hurt you are," says Texans tackle Eric Winston, "it doesn't make you sound tough."

The weekly injury reports teams release contain half-truths and distortions, mocked every week by coaches who want to preserve a competitive advantage by not announcing who's injured and where it hurts. Mike Shanahan, Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson -- coaches whose collective Super Bowl rings wouldn't fit on one hand -- have been fined by the league for injury-report shenanigans.

During halftime of a 2003 game against the San Diego Chargers, then-Denver Broncos coach Shanahan lied to a television sideline reporter about then-quarterback Jake Plummer sustaining a "concussion." Plummer actually had a separated shoulder, but the coach didn't want his opponents to know.

The league expects its injury reports to be as accurate as possible, but it's always going to be a cat-and-mouse game.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been listed as injured on every report going back to 2001, but that doesn't do him justice. At least three times he's sucked it up through eye-watering pain: In 2002, he played with a separated right (throwing) shoulder; in 2005, he had a hernia on the right side of his stomach and a left shin injury that, according to "Moving the Chains" by Charles Pierce, was put in an air cast; in 2008 against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, his right ankle was far worse than anyone would allow.

Even when fans know a player is hurt, the injury's severity is often revealed only after the fact. Manning did two hours of rehab on his injured left knee every day last season, but we learned that only after the season. Tomlinson had to come out and say that he had a detached tendon in his groin, because his reputation was taking a hit, what with the injury report listing his groin as merely "strained."

Remember, LT was a victim of the injury culture in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, when he tried to play with a second-degree sprained left MCL, which was underplayed during the game. Tomlinson later told me that the night after the game, when he was alone with his wife, Torsha, he didn't take much solace when she said: "Baby, you tried to play. You don't want to end your career trying to play. You did everything you could."

After all, he knew. It was the rest of the football world that didn't.

It's sad. Part of the joy of rooting for heroes is knowing when they're most heroic. The secrecy is understandable, but by and large the emotional impact of everyone knowing when a guy is sucking it up is limited.

Never was the resonance of playing injured more apparent than in that AFC Championship. An hour after the game, Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo stood at his locker, still in uniform, still sweaty and filthy, his eyes soaked and face glossy.

Castillo wasn't weeping because he played through his own pain: a cracked rib and high ankle sprain. No, he was moved because of his quarterback, Philip Rivers, who didn't lead the Chargers to an upset win or even play particularly well. Castillo cried just because Rivers played.

Against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional playoffs a week earlier, Rivers was tackled from behind in the second quarter and felt a strain in his right knee. He later left the game. At 1 a.m. Monday -- after backup Billy Volek led the Chargers to a win -- Rivers was at the team complex, contemplating his options. An MRI revealed a torn ACL and cartilage damage. If meniscus wasn't scoped out of Rivers' knee, his season was over. He went home, prayed with his wife, Tiffany, and returned to the facility at 7 a.m. to undergo surgery. Every night that week Rivers alternated sleeping in two machines -- one that bent his knee and another that iced it -- just so he could play.

"He's the most courageous man I have ever seen," Castillo said in the locker room. "Seeing him Monday, seeing how bad that was, the things he went through all week -- but I still never doubted for one second he wouldn't be out there for all 60 minutes. That's courage. Nobody will ever comprehend what that means."

But we do -- when we know.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.