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By Jim Wyatt, The Tennessean

Marc Mariani felt the pain. He saw and heard the other players react. They told him not to look down, but he did.

Whatthe Titans wide receiver saw was his left ankle "just kind of hangingthere." The bones in his lower left leg were shattered.

Mariani, whose underdog story made him a fan favorite, immediately wondered about his career.

"Itwas a scared feeling of, 'this could be it.' Your mind immediately goesto, 'is this the last play I'll ever play? Is this the end of mycareer?' " Mariani said Monday. "That was kind of my worry from theget-go."

He quickly snapped out of it, about the same time theteam's medical staff put the bones back in place. As he was carted offLP Field early in the preseason game against the Cardinals, he asked forhis cell phone. Morphine could wait.

"When I got in theambulance, that's the first thing I did - I called my mom," Marianisaid. "That's the only thing I could think about, and she was obviouslydistraught and in a panic. I tried to calm her down and let her know itwas going to be all right."

He immediately went into surgery atBaptist Hospital to repair the compound fracture, and three nights laterhe was home with his mother, father and girlfriend.

Mariani didnot suffer any ligament or tendon damage, but the recovery could take ayear. He's in a cast, crutches by his side, but hopes to be back on thefield for training camp in 2013.

"It all happened so fast, andI'm not going to lie, it was scary," he said. "Now I just have to havepatience and have faith that everything is going to turn out OK in thelong run."

Mariani's tibia and fibula snapped above his leftankle, and it wasn't a clean break - "It kind of exploded a little bit,"he said.

He watched a replay of the gruesome injury on YouTube.

"Ifelt it when I got stepped on, and I knew it hurt, I knew it wasn'tright," Mariani said. "And when I was laying on the ground is when Ireached down and looked at, and I saw it and it was obviously crooked.And then the reaction by some of the other guys - that's when I knew itwas gone. I felt it, and grabbed it and it kind of flopped over, andthat was beyond painful.

"... It was a scary feeling. Your ankle is not supposed to look like that.''

He's now able to find humor in the moment, however.

"Thereis a funny picture of my ankle just kind of hanging there and the ballstill high and tight in my arms," said Mariani, who was returning apunt. "I made a joke I still have ball security, even though my ankle isflopping."

Long, tough recovery

Doctors told Mariani the bones could heal and be stronger than ever, he said. A rod was placed in his lower leg during surgery.

Two orthopedic surgeons with no direct knowledge of Mariani's injury told The Tennessean that a player with such breaks could return to the field in anywhere from six months to a year.

Widereceiver Kenny Britt, who has yet to practice or play since suffering atorn ACL last September, said Mariani can expect to face challengeshe's not used to.

"It is hard. Mentally they'll tell you they areOK. I know he is going to go through some things," Britt said. "Thefirst couple of months is the hardest because you can't move around anddo things for yourself like you are used to. You just have to lean onpeople.

"It will take him time to go through rehab and learn how to walk again, but he will do it. He is tough.''

Lastyear Mariani suffered an ankle injury that nagged him throughout theseason, but he bounced back through the offseason and training camp withwhat offensive coordinator Chris Palmer called "outstanding" play.

Saidwide receiver Damian Williams: "It stinks for him, and it stinks forus. He was a big part of our team, does a lot of things for us. I wishhim a speedy recovery."

Facing his fears

When the Titans picked Mariani in the seventh round of the 2010draft, plenty of analysts scratched their heads. But the former Montanawideout had a great rookie season and made it to the Pro Bowl as areturn man.

Having already overcome long odds to remain on an NFL roster, Mariani said he's ready for the next test.

"Itis just another mountain to climb," he said. "This is a different typeof adversity than I've ever experienced before, but I know I have to bepatient and work through it. I am going to give it all I've got. I'm notafraid of battle, I'm not afraid of adversity. I just have to pickmyself up, and I know I have a lot of support."

The strongestsupporters include his mother, Julie, and father, Steve. They werewatching the game in Montana and quickly flew to Nashville. Hisgirlfriend, Carly, will serve as his nurse for several months.

"Itis a bummer and it is devastating that my year ended so soon," Marianisaid. "... But I am definitely not going to get down on myself. I am goingto have full optimism and full confidence that it's going to be back100 percent. My plan is to get back on the field."

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