Chris Hubbard sat on the X-ray table and saw his kneecap slide out of place and to the right.
Minutes earlier, Hubbard, a seven-year offensive line veteran, had fallen to the turf at MetLife Stadium on the Browns' second snap of their Week 15 Sunday Night Football matchup against the New York Giants. He wasn't in pain until he attempted to stand up, felt a sting in his knee and fell to the turf again.
Hubbard had never suffered a major injury until that moment. As he gingerly walked off the field and to the trainer's room, he still didn't feel much pain in his knee — but he wondered whether his season was over anyways.
Those feelings only multiplied when Hubbard watched his knee slide across his leg.
"At that time, I was like, 'Please don't let this be it,'" Hubbard said. "I was just thinking about what was next. It was one of those times where I was like, 'Man, this is a weird feeling. This can't be it.'"
Hubbard's fear was true. He suffered a dislocated right kneecap and torn quad muscle and was ruled out for the year. After holding a vital role as a versatile swing tackle for the Browns offensive line — a unit that ranked among the best in the NFL — Hubbard was forced to sit and watch the rest of the season from the couch.
Watching the games rather than playing wasn't hard for Hubbard, though. He frequently invited friends and family over to his Westlake house to cheer on the Browns as they marched to their first trip to the playoffs in 18 seasons and advanced to the AFC Divisional Round. One of the best parts was watching the offensive line overcome injuries and remain one of the best in the league.
"Heck yeah, I wanted to be out there," Hubbard said, "but at the same time, my guys were still chasing something bigger than us, and that was to bring home a Super Bowl."
The most difficult part was everything else.
Hubbard couldn't fully bend his leg for months. He couldn't walk up the stairs. He couldn't drive. Simple tasks that required walking around the house required extra effort. Suddenly, Hubbard, a strong advocate for mental health awareness, faced a battle to combat the anxiety many athletes go through when completing the slow, monotonous process of rehab.
"I was just in my head," he said. "Right after the injury, I just had doubts in my mind about whether I'd be able to play this sport again at the high level I want to."
Hubbard relied on conversations with his family to push through any negativity, but one member in particular provided a constant flow of motivation: his 4-year-old son, Creed.
As Hubbard traveled between Atlanta and Cleveland every other week to complete his rehab, he always found motivation when he'd return home and give his boy a hug. Seeing the joy in Creed was a constant reminder to Hubbard that he wasn't only completing rehab to help himself — he was setting an example and creating a path to success for someone who had already changed his world.
"This is something that I want my son to be able to see and something I want to instill in him," Hubbard said. "I want him to know that there are sacrifices in life you will have to make. I feel like this was one of them I needed to make, and I was able to see him grow."
That extra motivation helped push Hubbard through an eight-month rehab plan. He breathed his first true sigh of relief in April when he could torque his knee for a full rotation on a stationary bike pedal. Then came his first squat. Then came his first round of sprints.
By July, Hubbard felt conditioned and ready for training camp. The Browns gradually eased him and other players who suffered season-ending injuries last season into team drills, but it was hard to tell Hubbard had gone nearly eight months without playing football. His versatility was still strong, and he played right tackle for most of training camp and switched to the left in the final preseason game against the Falcons.
Now, after six weeks of training camp and action in all three preseason games, Hubbard is confident he can still be the same reliable swing tackle from a year ago. The Browns believe it, too.
"I think physically, he's doing really well," coach Kevin Stefanski said in August. "He's kind of picked up where he left off. In drills and on the field, he is looking like Hubb to me, which is a testament to the hard work he's put in to get to this point."
Hubbard is expected to suit up for Sunday's much-anticipated Week 1 game in Kansas City. For the Browns, the game certainly holds extra significance as they look for revenge from last year's loss to the Chiefs in their second playoff game.
Hubbard, however, will feel instant gratitude regardless of the result. It'll hit as soon as he steps onto the field and straps on an orange helmet.
He didn't know if he'd ever have a chance to do that again when he saw his knee slide out of place and wondered whether he'd ever make a full return. Now, he's back, healthy and ready to rejoin one of the most promising Browns rosters in decades.
"When I get back out there, I'm probably going to lose my mind," he said. "I just wanted to keep playing football. This is what I love to do, so I'm ready to line back up again."