SEATTLE – As he saw one San Francisco 49ers assistant help NaVorro Bowman pull on his clothes and another tie his shoelaces, Patrick Willis could only muster one thought.
"It wasn't supposed to end like this."
Less than an hour earlier Bowman was at the center of the most horrifying moment of an exhilarating NFC championship game, when his left knee crumpled while attempting to keep the Seattle Seahawks out of the end zone during the home team's eventual 23-17 victory.
Willis described Bowman screaming on the Century Link Field turf, his knee socket grotesquely twisted as he grabbed the ball from Seahawks' receiver Jermaine Kearse before a mass of players landed on top of him.
For Willis, the man who shares an adjoining locker and a tight-knit friendship with Bowman, the sight of his colleague in such cruel distress was even more galling than missing a trip to the Super Bowl.
"This game is huge and no one person is bigger than the game," Willis said. "But the bond we have is so much deeper than the game we play.
"I look at him as my brother, my partner in crime on the field. I know how tough he is. When he couldn't get up on his own and I could hear him yelling... at that point in time I didn't even care where the ball was. I was like, get out here and help him."
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said the initial prognosis was that Bowman tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), but further analysis will take place in the coming days.
The nature of the injury was cause enough for concern as the knee was first forced inside at the most unnatural angle and buckled under the weight of Kearse and 49ers safety Eric Reid. Making it potentially worse was the fact that when Bowman went down in agony, several other players piled on top of him while scrambling for the ball.
The play took place at the San Francisco 1-yard line, with the 49ers desperately trying to keep themselves alive midway through the fourth quarter.
Bowman looked to have wrestled the ball out of Kearse's grasp and then went to the ground retaining control of the ball, but the eventual ruling on the play was a fumble recovery by Marshawn Lynch.
On the subsequent play Seattle went for it on 4th-and-goal, but a botched snap gave the 49ers possession and kept the score at 20-17 in the Seahawks' favor.
Several 49ers players were visibly distressed as Bowman was taken from the field and after the game Kearse broke off from his celebration of Seattle's triumph to issue a message to his opponent.
"It was crazy in that dog pile," Kearse said. "You never want to see someone go down with an injury. My prayers go out to him. He is a terrific player and a great competitor."
Bowman, drafted out of Penn State in the third round of the 2010 draft, has morphed into one of the most dominant defensive players in the league, part of a ferocious tandem with Willis.
"If he doesn't get the defensive player of the year (award) I don't know what they go by," Willis said. "He was having a heck of a season. I know that he wanted nothing more than to be out there with us."
Bowman did not speak after the game. It took all his effort and willpower to pull himself to his feet, even with assistance.
His face was etched in a grimace as he eased his weight onto a pair of crutches and began the agonizing route out of the locker room … and into the painful rehabilitation process that'll be needed to rebuild his body.