I didn’t need to see the play or hear the announcers to understand the devastation felt by Ryan Broyles. The tears rolling down his face painted a vivid picture of pain and disappointment.

In the third quarter of Saturday’s game against Texas A&M, the Oklahoma Sooners’ star wide receiver caught a pass and tried to elude defenders. As he planted his left foot and spun to try to gain extra yards, he twisted awkwardly and fell to the ground, clutching his knee.

Team doctors immediately examined Broyles on the sidelines. From the emotion clearly captured by television cameras, it was apparent that doctors shared their suspicions of his injury. Later head coach Bob Stoops confirmed that Broyles had in fact torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). His season and college career were instantly over.

Ryan Broyles holds the FBS record for career receptions. He could have left Oklahoma for the NFL after last season. At that time, many experts projected him as a top 40 pick. In the current environment where it seems that so many mediocre college athletes jump at the first hint of a pro contract, Broyles surprised many by instead returning to Norman with dreams of winning the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s top receiver and to help Oklahoma win a national championship.

Broyles will undoubtedly undergo surgery in the coming weeks, which will end not only his season but also the remainder of his college career. But the injury also casts in doubt his future at the next level. The rehabilitation after surgery will preclude him from participating in the NFL Combine workouts and possibly from his future team’s offseason minicamps. Most likely, if all goes well, he can hope to return in time for training camp in late summer.

In retrospect, returning to Oklahoma likely will cost Broyles financially. First, he missed out on a year of salary with possible first-round pick guaranteed money. But now this injury will probably have teams debating whether to use a first- or second-round pick on a player with an uncertain surgical outcome.

It is easy to say that players get back to pro football after ACL surgery all the time. And many do return and play at a high level. But unfortunately those of us who treat these injuries all the time know that success is never guaranteed. Broyles very likely might return to play as well as he did earlier this season. But it is not impossible, or even unlikely, that he could end up a step slower or without quite the ability to cut and change directions quickly. He could go from a team’s number one receiver for the next decade to a player simply fighting for a roster spot. It remains to be seen.

I’ve heard fans criticize top collegiate players for their greed and selfishness when they leave early and head to the pros. But I just don’t understand that sentiment. These are kids blessed with unbelievably rare combinations of skill, speed, agility, and other physical tools. And these abilities can vanish in one play.

Like it or not, football is their job. An injury can hinder, if not permanently end, their careers in the same way a serious illness or injury can keep any of us from ever working again. Except I would argue that career-ending injuries are much more likely in the business of football than in almost any of our professions.

So who am I to question a player for deciding that he needs to leave college early to sign a professional contract? The risk of losing the dream to play professional sports, and the financial security that comes with it, is unfortunately real. Tweet this opinion.

I wish Ryan Broyles luck overcoming his injury. I very much hope that one day we will remember how fortunate he was to return and ultimately become a star receiver in the NFL. But as I watched his tears flowing on the Sooners’ sidelines, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of his emotion was not just pain, but fear and regret.

Note: A modified version of this post appears in my sports medicine column in the November 9, 2011 issue of The Post and Courier.