The bruise started near J.J. Watt's right hip, a mass of blood spreading across his massive thigh and eventually ending just above his knee. The sprawling reddish-purple mark suggested that the Houston Texans' All-Pro defensive end had walked away from a gruesome car crash instead of having spent an afternoon tangling with opposing offensive linemen. It took Watt nearly eight months to share the photo that illustrated the pain he endured in a Sept. 28 win over the Buffalo Bills. It took far less time for the world to react with both awe and horror at what lengths pro athletes will go to in order to play with pain.
The photo Watt posted on his Twitter account Wednesday was startling for two reasons. The first was that he managed to hit Bills quarterback EJ Manuel nine times and return an interception for a touchdown in that game despite sustaining that injury midway through it. The second was that the entire buzz surrounding the picture indicated how quickly fans can forget the amazing stories that revolve around injuries and athletes. Yes, Watt did something that was stunning. But we've all seen and heard about other tales that would make his playing with that thigh bruise seem as debilitating as a grinding through a hang nail.
Throwback to when this happened in the 1st half of the Bills game... pic.twitter.com/2Jspelyjnw— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) May 21, 2015
How would Twitter have exploded on the night former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, despite sutures in his ailing right ankle giving way and bloodying his sock, beat the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series? (Schilling did tweet a graphic photo of the stitched-up, battered ankle last year.) What if we would've had an image of doctors stapling the head of soccer star Abby Wambach during a 2007 World Cup game because stitches would have taken longer and forced her to leave the field? And what about hockey? While playing with Florida in the 2012 playoffs, Chicago Blackhawks right winger Kris Versteeg fought through a torn hip labrum and an impingement that callused his hip bone to the point that he had "a dead leg."
When asked how he dealt with the pain, Versteeg provided the same answer every hardcore athlete can understand. "You keep playing because I think you understand the worst of the injury is over and it's going to get taken care of after," Versteeg said. "You just play with it. You take all the Advil you can and pretty much move on. ... You see guys that play with torn shoulders and torn hips and broken hands, broken fingers. Unless it's frozen, there's really no way to fully get rid of all the pain."
Versteeg has plenty of company when it comes to such tales. Teammate Andrew Shaw played through a torn MCL for the Blackhawks during last year's postseason. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brenden Morrow broke an ankle while playing for the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of 2000 Western Conference finals and missed only two games for a team that reached the Stanley Cup finals. Morrow said that less substantial injuries actually have bothered him more: "I don't want to sound like a wuss for saying that, but I've had some major injuries I've played through, but a lot of times those ones don't hurt as bad as a sprained finger or the bursa sac on the elbow."
The NFL is filled with players who can relate to that mindset. In January 2008, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers played in the AFC Championship Game a week after tearing the ACL in his right knee and undergoing arthroscopic surgery to clean up the cartilage damage. He had reconstructive surgery in the offseason and didn't miss a game the following season.
Former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb threw four touchdown passes in a win over the Arizona Cardinals in 2002 despite breaking his right ankle on the third play. Former 49ers safety Ronnie Lott once played with a left pinky so mangled in a 1985 game that bone fragments and part of the finger wound up on the turf that day. He finished that contest, played in a wild-card playoff game the following week and then chose to have part of the damaged digit amputated rather than undergo an operation that would result in a lengthy rehabilitation.
Longtime Dallas Cowboys fans surely remember the 1993 season finale, when Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith helped his team secure a division title-clinching win over the New York Giants by finishing with 229 total yards despite playing the second half with a separated right shoulder. Giants fans also can boast of the exploits of their own relentless superstar, linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Taylor already had a great reputation for playing through pain -- trainers once had to hide his helmet from him to keep him from returning to a game with a concussion -- but he dominated the New Orleans Saints in a critical late-season victory in 1988 with seven tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles. Taylor did all that with torn shoulder ligaments and a detached pectoral muscle.
Just as Watt downplayed his toughness -- "That's kind of how the game goes when you try to play the way I play," he said -- none of these players saw any point in trying to play up their exploits. In fact, ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, a man who underwent 29 surgeries in 12 seasons as an NFL offensive lineman, summed up his response to Watt's injury with two words: "Been there." Said Schlereth: "You can feel [the kind of bruise that Watt sustained] forever. ... I'm not sure if they still do it, but they would tie your leg up while you slept. They try to tie it so [the leg is] bent because that blood sitting in your quad will make it even tighter. Or they try to stretch it by tying your leg as close to your butt as they can get it and make you sleep like that. It's miserable because it just is -- all that blood cinches up on you. It's painful to limp around like that, but you get through it. Obviously he got through it."
Football and hockey also aren't the only sports in which being battle-scarred is a matter of pride. Cycling has the story of Tyler Hamilton, who rode in the 2003 Tour de France while grappling with a double fracture of his right collarbone. Tiger Woods competed on a torn ACL in his left knee for nearly a year between 2007 and 2008 (and still finished second at the 2008 Masters and first at that year's U.S. Open).
The NBA is supposedly a noncontact sport, but that doesn't mean basketball players can't handle pain, as Golden State Warriors forward David Lee showed during a November 2010 game against the New York Knicks. A collision with Knicks guard Wilson Chandler resulted in a piece of Chandler's tooth being impaled in Lee's left arm. Lee went on to score 28 points and grab 10 rebounds against his former team.
"I finished the game; that was a mistake," Lee said. "I wrapped and finished the game, and afterwards I found out that a little piece of his tooth was in my arm. And so they gave me antibiotics, but at that point it was already behind the game. I was fine. Another day and a half, it was painful, but I was good. We were in Chicago. I remember we were done with our game early and I was watching the late game and within the course of 20 minutes it was three times the size of my normal arm. The infection had hit." Lee needed two surgeries to treat the infection. "If they wouldn't have figured out what was causing it in another five or six days, you're probably talking about, probably not losing your arm, but doing enough surgery that I don't think I would have had full function of the joint," he said.
Of course, the NBA's ultimate story of playing through pain happened in New York 45 years ago, when Knicks center Willis Reed, hobbled by his own severe thigh injury, limped out for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. That moment has become so mythic that you'd think Reed dropped 50 points and 20 rebounds that night. His main impact was simply showing up and scoring the Knicks' first two baskets on his first two shot attempts. After that, his teammates rode that energy to claim that franchise's first world championship.
There will never be a photo of Reed's leg prior to that game, nor will we ever really know what he did to reach the court that night. The only thing that is apparent is that Watt didn't show us anything new on Wednesday. He only reminded us to what extent great athletes will go to get the job done.
"You have to play through pain through the game," Shaw said. "But I feel like once you're (in the game), you're caught up in the emotion ... and the pain kind of fades a little bit."
ESPN.com's Scott Powers, Pierre Lebrun, Scott Burnside, Ashley Fox and Ethan Sherwood Strauss contributed to this report.