The first thing Da'Quan Bowers thought was that his shoe had fallen off.
He looked down at his right foot and saw his shoe was still on. That's when he realized something far more serious had happened.
Though the Buccaneers defensive end was unable to maneuver his foot, which dangled like a tree limb snapped in a wind storm, he pulled himself up off the practice field that day in May and hobbled to the sideline.
A few minutes later, after a Bucs trainer pushed his first and middle fingers all the way to the back of Bowers' shin bone without resistance, Bowers learned the news. He'd ruptured his Achilles tendon, which is nowhere near as excruciating as it seems.
"It really wasn't painful at all," Bowers said of the injury that sidelined him until last Thursday's game against the Vikings. "The feeling was more weird than anything. Like I said, it was like my shoe fell off. It was the rehab that was the hardest part."
That is often the case with an Achilles tendon tear, which usually is repaired surgically within days, if not hours, to keep the tendon from rolling up to the bottom of the calf muscle.
Bowers, for example, spent the first two months after his surgery wearing a protective boot, before eventually graduating to a pair of crutches and finally to no crutches with a softer boot.
The rehab started when the first boot came off. That's when Bowers began filling his days with tedious exercises such as foot extensions, calf raises and walking in a pool where jets provided increased degrees of resistance as time dragged on.
His evenings, meanwhile, usually were spent doing an exercise designed to stretch and increase the flexibility of the tendon.
Bowers would pull back on what amounted to a massive rubber band strapped around the ball of his foot.
"There are a million little things you can do in rehab for the tendon, but at the same time I was doing all of that, I was really focused on my conditioning, because once I was able to run again, I wanted to be out there running," Bowers said.
"So, I did a lot of stuff not just in rehab but in the weight room and with our strength and conditioning coaches, who did a great job with me on everything from lifting weights to conditioning, even when I really couldn't do anything."
It was those lonely, grueling days in the weight room, at home with that massive rubber band and in that pool that allowed Bowers to return within five months from an injury many feared would end his 2012 season.
"What Da'Quan did during his rehab was unbelievable," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "And I'm not talking just about what he did for the Achilles tendon, but what he did with the rest of his body, because he (came back) looking great."
Looks aside, the Bucs decided to remain cautious with Bowers. They held him out of what could have been his first game back on Oct. 21 against New Orleans and greatly limited his playing time Thursday against Minnesota.
Bowers played only on third downs as a pass rush specialist against the Vikings. His workload in practice this week has included some first- and second-down snaps, so he'll likely see an increase in playing time Sunday at Oakland.
That should bode well for the Bucs, who are tied for 30th in the league in sacks with 11. After losing second-year defensive end Adrian Clayborn a month ago to a season-ending knee injury, the pass rush is badly in need of the kind of boost Bowers can provide.
"He gives us an added mix with his speed and explosion off the edge," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "With us missing Clayborn, you feel that a lot, so we're glad he's back."
No more glad than Bowers.
After being eased into action as a rookie in 2011 following offseason knee surgery, he's eager to pick up where he left off after recording 1.5 sacks and eight quarterback pressures in six starts down the stretch.
"If it was my decision, I would have been back playing five weeks ago,'' Bowers said. "That's why it's probably good that they're easing me back in this way. Everything is coming along slow and steady, but I'm happy with how things are going.''