An injury bad enough to threaten, if not outright end, an athlete's career is often as visibly gruesome as its devastating impact on the man or woman's future. However, for every horrific compound fracture or terrifying moment when an athlete lies motionless on the ground, a subtle pop can just as easily spell doom.
Whether it's a blown ACL or series of concussions, the future is murky; and while the athlete, their fans, teammates and family hope for the best, they also prepare for the worst—even if they vow never to discuss it.
That split second when something snaps, dislocates or tears has often denoted the end of a promising future or at least significantly dampened it. But, that's not always the case.
Among the athletes who doubled-down on not being defeated and worked their way back to competing again, there are some stunning, inspiring and...yes...inexplicable recoveries that remind us that the worst-case scenario is never guaranteed.
Here are a few of the best-case scenarios.
Who: Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
Injury: Torn Achilles
Recovery: In May 2012, tough-as-nails Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs suffered a partial tear of his Achilles tendon during a conditioning drill. On average, the injury takes an NFL player 11 months to return to the field.
Which is why many were skeptical when Suggs was so adamant that he'd return in four to six months.
He said all the doubters would "make it so much sweeter" when he returned and proved everyone wrong.
Of course we should all know better than to doubt Suggs. He said he'd return in four to six months, and he did it in five.
He returned to practice in mid-October and practiced for just three days before returning to game action.
Who: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Injury: Torn UCL (elbow)
Recovery: A tear in the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) for a pitcher is one of the most devastating injuries in all of sports. A torn UCL used to be a surefire career killer prior to "Tommy John surgery," which is a fairly radical procedure that replaces damaged ligaments in the elbow with one from another part of the body.
Medical advancements aside, when Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg suffered the devastating injury in August 2010, there wasn't a lot of positivity. In fact, many sports columns discussing the injury read like obituaries of a career that would never be. But he would return to the mound in Washington for the 2012 season and just recently pitched the first complete game of his career.
Who: Adam Taliaferro, Penn State Nittany Lions
Injury: Broken neck
Recovery: Near the end of a blowout loss to Ohio State in September 2000, Penn State's Adam Taliaferro—just a true freshman at the time—lunged to tackle the Buckeyes tailback when his head struck the opposing player's knee. He instantly shattered a vertebra in his neck and bruised his spinal cord, which paralyzed him from the neck down.
Given little chance to walk again, a year later he led the Nittany Lions out of the tunnel for their first home game of the 2001 season. His football career was over, but his whole life was ahead.
Who: Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
Injury: Torn triceps
Recovery: In October 2012, longtime Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis suffered a torn triceps late in a game against the Dallas Cowboys. It was one of just a handful of times in his 17-year career that he looked to be in visible pain. Of course that didn't stop him from playing five more snaps in the tight game as time wound down to the two-minute mark.
A torn triceps is a rare injury and far more impactful and limiting than a biceps tear, which is fairly common. There's no exact timetable for return from this injury, but for athletes not named Ray Lewis, it's almost always season-ending.
Lewis was not only back on the field less than three months later, he started every playoff game on the way to the Ravens' Super Bowl victory.
Who: Janos Baranyai, Hungarian Olympic weightlifter
Injury: Dislocated elbow; torn tendons and muscle
Recovery: It's hard to look at—real hard—but perhaps no image absent a monstrous coastal algae bloom was more memorable from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Hungarian weightlifter Janos Baranyai was attempting to lift 326 pounds over his 170-pound body when his elbow exploded out of its socket.
He severely dislocated his elbow, tearing tendons and muscle tissue for good measure. Somehow, the agonizing injury didn't require surgery, and after intense rehab, his elbow was deemed ready to roll for the 2010 European Championships.
He didn't win, but he also didn't re-injure his arm.
Who: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Injury: Torn MCL and ACL
Recovery: For better or worse, Vikings superstar running back Adrian Peterson set the new bar for returning from major surgery last year. And he set it very high.
On December 24, 2011, he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee. On September 9, 2012, he started in the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, scoring two touchdowns and running for 84 yards.
AD didn't just return from an injury that once spelled doom for players at his position. Somehow, he returned bigger and badder than ever. He topped the best season of his career by more than 300 yards and came up just nine yards short of Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record, which has stood for nearly 30 years.
Who: Clint Malarchuk, Buffalo Sabres
Injury: Severed jugular vein
Recovery: During a game against the Blues in March 1989, Buffalo Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in modern sports history. In a moment of just freak bad luck, the blade of Blues forward Steve Tuttle's skate caught Malarchuk in the neck, severing his jugular vein, which sent blood spraying onto the ice.
The scene was so horrifying that it sickened many fans in the stands, two of whom actually suffered heart attacks from the stress of the scene. Malarchuk was mere seconds away from dying, but thanks to quick action by the team's trainer, a Vietnam veteran, he lived and was back on the ice in a week.
Who: Bryshon Nellum, U.S. Olympic men's track and field
Injury: Gunshot wounds to both legs
Recovery: In October 2008, Southern Cal track star Bryshon Nellum was walking home from a Halloween party when a stranger emerged from a car and blasted his legs with a shotgun. Though his life was spared, his dream of being an Olympian was crushed by the pellets that ripped through the thighs of both his legs.
Or so it seemed.
Enduring months of pain, surgeries and rehabilitation, he found a way to recapture the elite speed most believed was stolen in a random act of violence. Not only did he qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London, he won a silver medal in the 4x400m and carried the U.S. flag during the closing ceremony.
Who: Terrell Owens, Philadelphia Eagles
Injury: Broken leg, torn ankle ligament
Recovery: Former Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens was in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career when he was seriously injured early in the third quarter of a game against the Cowboys on December 19, 2004. The broken leg and ligament tear in his ankle required immediate surgery.
Just seven weeks passed between his surgery and the championship game against the New England Patriots, which didn't seem like a reasonable timetable to return.
T.O. was a long shot at best to play in the Super Bowl—the rest of the playoffs were out of the question. When the game rolled around, Owens' surgeon wouldn't clear him to play, but he's never been big on following advice.
T.O. decided to play in the game—not just suit up and provide an emotional boost with his presence but like really play in the game. He played in 62 of 72 offensive snaps and caught nine passes for 122 yards.
Who: Monique van der Vorst, women's Para-Olympic cycling
Injury: Severe nerve damage and spinal cord injury
Recovery: At just 13 years old, Dutch Para-Olympic cyclist Monique van der Vorst had botched ankle surgery that left her paralyzed from the hips down. Despite such a tragic turn of events, she seized the opportunity to train as a Para-Olympic cyclist, winning silver in the 2008 Games in Beijing.
However, the fickle hand of fate was not done with her yet—not long after Beijing, she suffered a spinal cord injury when she was struck by a car while training. Showing the kind of tenacity that would elude most people by that point, she continued to train for the 2012 Olympics in London.
This is where it gets weird—awesome for her, but real weird—while training, she was struck again, when another cyclist crashed into her. Instead of injuring van der Vorst further, the collision reversed the paralysis caused by the first injury and exacerbated by the second.
No one really understands how or why it happened, but she isn't complaining.
Who: D.J. Hayden, Oakland Raiders
Injury: Torn vein in heart
Recovery: In November 2012, talented University of Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden was defending a pass during a typical practice when his teammate lunged to make a play on the ball, striking Hayden in the chest with his knee.
What looked like run-of-the-mill contact quickly escalated into a life-and-death situation. The collision tore the inferior vena cava vein of his heart—an event that's usually a death sentence.
Saved by the quick action of the team medical staff as well as one of the best surgeons in the country, he recovered. Just six months later, he heard his name called by the Raiders with the 12th overall pick of the NFL draft.