The play was routine, really. A rollout pass, the quarterback sprinting to the left and then throwing back across his body to the right. There was no violent tackle, no sudden hit, no contact at all. But when the play was over, so was Joe Montana's season.
One moment, he was at the top of his profession, the NFL's highest-rated career passer, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, a five-time Pro Bowl quarterback and one of the highest paid players in the game.
The next moment, his future was in question after delicate back surgery and the 49ers' season shaken.
That is the nature of sports: At any time, without warning, it can all come apart.
"In athletics, these things happen," 49er Coach Bill Walsh said. "Men do not sob in a corner when someone is taken away. The loss of any player does not change our goals and determination to do well this season. Losing Joe Montana is just part of the sport. You don't stop, you continue to go on."
One moment, Joe Theismann was guiding the Washington Redskins' offense in a Monday night NFL game.
The next moment, he was on the ground, his leg broken so badly on a crunching tackle that New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor jumped up and waved frantically at the Redskin bench. Help arrived quickly, but the compound fracture ended the quarterback's brilliant career.
One moment, Bernard King of the New York Knicks was leading the NBA in scoring.
The next moment, he was on the floor, banging the court with his hand, trying to pound away the pain from the torn anterior cruciate ligament and lateral cartilage in his right knee, injuries that required reconstructive surgery and forced him to miss the entire 1985-86 season.
"For someone who had never been injured, someone who was at the top of his game and career, it was very difficult to be flattened and not be able to lift your leg off the bed," said King, who hopes for a comeback this season.
One moment, Pedro Guerrero was the wheelhouse of the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup, coming off a .320, 33-home run season.
The next moment, he was rolling on the ground at third base in spring training, grabbing his left knee, his face contorted in pain after an aborted double steal. He had started to slide, then appeared to change his mind. His spikes caught and he tumbled over the base. Diagnosis: ruptured patella tendon. Also ruptured were the Dodgers' pennant hopes.
Guerrero was out until July 30. He came back, played six games and then went back on the disabled list. "It was uncomfortable and in retrospect, I came back too soon. I rushed myself," he said. He was not activated again until September and his mobility remains severely limited.
"There is an old adage in sports medicine," said Dr. James Parkes, the New York Mets' team physician. "Man was not made for the games he plays.
"The human body was not intended to do these things, but an athlete can cheat Mother Nature by conditioning himself."
There are, however, some injuries that no amount of conditioning could have prevented. They just seemed to be fate. How else could Atlanta's William Andrews explain what happened to him in the Falcons' 1984 training camp?
Andrews was at the top of his game with 5,772 yards gained in five pro seasons and had emerged as one of the NFL's best running backs. He was running a routine sweep during a workout when his left knee buckled as he was being tackled by Thomas Benson.
"It looked like William's left knee kind of just dipped," linebacker Buddy Curry said. "The tackle was nothing at all that should cause an injury. The guy just sort of brush-tackled him."
"It looked like a normal thing to me," running back coach Steve Crosby said, "but then he rolled over and didn't get up."
Andrews had torn the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments, damaged cartilage and stretched the peroneal nerve. He missed two seasons following surgery and spent long, lonesome hours rehabilitating his leg for his return to pro football this year.
"William is still not where he was two years ago at the end of the season," Coach Dan Henning said during training camp.
Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers saw his career shortened by knee injuries, but he said he never dwelled on the chance he took every time he suited up.
"You can't worry about injuries," he said. "No way. You're always aware of the possibility of getting hurt, but not when you're out on the field."
His right knee went first, damaged on a tackle in 1968 by Kermit Alexander. He still remembers the play, in detail.
"I was in a sweep, going right with a blocker in front of me," he said. "Kermit dove under the blocker. My leg was planted and he just caught me at the right moment. I had been hit that way many times before, but nothing ever happened, until then. That time, though, I tore everything."
Sayers came back in 1969 to lead the league in rushing again. But the stutter-step skills were clearly diminishing. "You can tell the difference," he said. "The knee never felt the same. It was stronger from a medical point of view because anytime they go in there and fix it, they strengthen it. But it felt different."
The next year, Sayers' left knee was damaged on a kickoff return in an exhibition season game. "I stretched ligaments. They went in and tightened them up, but it didn't work right," he said. He played just two games in each of the next two seasons. By 1972, his career was over, finished at age 29.
The 49ers hope that is not the prognosis for Montana, who is 30.
"We understand it was a successful operation," Walsh said. "So we're optimistic that he will be back in football, start and play next year. I think he'll return to greatness."
Andrews, Guerrero and King hope the same for themselves.