Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, the consistent but hard-luck gunslinger who will probably have broken more bones than records by the time his career is finished, was injured again Thursday night. In a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, Romo had scrambled out of the pocket and was in the process of sliding to the ground when opposing defensive end Cliff Avril caught him from behind and forced him down with Romo's upper body perpendicular to the turf. The QB reached toward his tailbone, grimaced, and lay on the field while trainers attended to him. He eventually walked to the sideline under his own power.
That wasn't the end of it. An MRI revealed that Romo had a compression fracture of the L1 vertebra, in the lower-third of his spine. (In football, like it is in comic books, large men sometimes break people's backs.)
As one could imagine, the timetable to return from a broken back can be long—in Romo's case, early estimates placed it at 6 to 10 weeks. But then there's this crazy nugget from his head coach, Jason Garrett:
The Dallas Cowboys open their season two weeks from today. Coach Jason Garrett, so far, is unwilling to concede that injured quarterback Tony Romo won't be on the field for that Week 1 home game against the New York Giants. "We've gotten a lot of different timetables for when he can return," Garrett said Sunday, a day after he announced an MRI had revealed a broken bone in Romo's back. "We also know that he's played with a broken bone in his back before, so there's no reason for me to stand up here and put a timetable on this. "I think a lot of other people outside of this building have suggested they know what the timetable is. That's not the world we live in. We live in the world day by day, do what you can to get yourself better and we'll update you as we go."
"We also know that he's played with a broken bone in his back before" is the quintessential football statement. And it's sort of true! In an October 2014 game, Romo sustained fractures to two transverse processes—bony projections that connect back muscles and ligaments to the spine—and was absent just one week before tossing three touchdowns in a clean performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which would've been even more impressive had the opponent been anyone but the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It's also true that most people are "outside the building" of the Dallas Cowboys doctors' office, though beat reporters covering the team figure to have sources close enough to provide reliable information about player injuries. In lieu of such access, here's what the University of Maryland Medical Center has to say about the symptoms of an L1 fracture:
If the fracture is caused by a sudden, forceful injury, you will probably feel severe pain in your back, legs, and arms.
Cliff Avril is 260 pounds. It is reasonable that he is capable of causing a "sudden, forceful injury".
You might also feel weakness or numbness in these areas if the fracture injures the nerves of the spine.
Hopefully this wasn't the case with Romo, but at least he wouldn't hurt all that much were he to be speared in the lower back.
UMM says that the most common treatments for this fracture, short of surgery, are pain medications, decreasing activity, and wearing a brace. For the purposes of imagining life as Tony Romo right now, the "decreasing activity" section is rich:
You will most likely have to limit your normal activities. You should avoid any strenuous activity or exercise. You will definitely need to avoid heavy lifting and anything else that might place too much strain on your fractured vertebra.
There's strenuous activity or exercise, and then there's avoiding unnaturally powerful athletes whose job it is to do essentially what Cliff Avril did on Thursday, which resulted in Tony Romo cracking his spine a bit.
Dallas's week one showdown with the Giants would pit Romo against Jason Pierre-Paul, a one-time All-Pro pass rusher who is waiting to play his first full season after recovering from a fireworks accident in which he had to have his right index finger amputated.
A digital amputee chasing a guy with a broken back—and the season hasn't even started yet! As someone might advise Tony Romo: Brace yourselves.
(A previous version of this post identified Avril as a linebacker. It has been changed.)