The two-inch surgical scar just above Jonathan Stewart's left heel looks tiny considering the pain and risk he endured last season.
That small area of his 5-foot-10, 235-pound body was a constant nuisance and potential season-ending threat because of a bone spur pressing into his Achilles tendon near its insertion to his heel. He said he also had bursitis and tendonitis.
"I literally thought I was going to be playing six games and then have to get surgery. That was some of the talk (between) me and the trainers," Stewart said this week in his first in-depth interview about the injury that caused him to miss the entire 2009 preseason and to sit out at least one practice per week during the regular season.
"But we were able to work through it and we found ways of getting around missing games," said Stewart, who ran for a team-high 1,133 yards and joined with DeAngelo Williams to form the first pair of teammates in NFL history to eclipse 1,100 yards rushing in the same season.
All along, though, the plan was for Stewart to undergo surgery, either after the season or once the injury became too severe to continue. He played with the constant reminder of defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu rupturing his Achilles in training camp.
"I was anxious to get it done," Stewart said of the surgery. "The pain was just annoying, and I needed to get it done. It was getting to that point where it could have been like Kemo's status - not necessarily my whole Achilles popping, but there was so much erosion going on."
Stewart hopes he'll have a much more pain-free season this year after his Jan. 20 operation by team orthopedist Dr. Robert Anderson, widely considered the nation's top foot surgeon for professional athletes.
Stewart, a 2008 first-round draft pick, said Anderson shaved away excess calcium deposits and cleaned out his bursa sacs during the procedure.
He was not allowed to put weight on his left foot for a month and used a special motor scooter instead of crutches to stay mobile for a visit to Miami during Super Bowl week. He said he wore a walking boot during the second month after the surgery and now can wear regular shoes.
He said he expects to be released to run in June and should be ready for the start of training camp in late July. But he'll miss the Panthers post-draft minicamp and summer school practices for the third consecutive year. As a rookie in 2008, he was recovering from toe surgery and last year he had the Achilles problem.
"I wish I was able to be out there," said Stewart. "That's the reason (for the) surgery, so I can get back to my regular routines. When I was in college, (with) my work ethic ... the offseason was where I got better.
"That's where I was able to develop speed and strength. ... Missing out on that is something I definitely don't like. But with the surgeries and the injuries, I had to play it smart and just kind of wait until it was time to go."
Coach John Fox said recently that concerns about Stewart's availability to play through the '09 season was why the team claimed running back Tyrell Sutton via waivers from Green Bay a week before the opening game.
However, Fox called Stewart "one tough cookie" for making it through the season and rushing for 440 yards in the final three games after Williams was sidelined with an ankle injury.
"I think I kind of proved to them I can play with pain and that I am not just some guy who's had bad feet for the last two years," said Stewart. "Hopefully, it excites them that I'm able to play the way I'm playing with that type of pain and with the adversities that came my way and being able to find some kind of mind game to get through it. Hopefully, it excites them for times when I'm healthy."
Stewart said he was inspired by a message during a team chapel service about the importance of merging the spiritual, mental and physical aspects of life.
"A lot of it was me developing a good sense of mind over matter, depending on really just having faith that God was going to get me through the season," said Stewart.
"Then you train (yourself mentally) to really gather that concept and you find a way to just stay in the zone. You bring along the physicals with that because you control your physicals with the mental.
"That's where doubt can't enter the mind."
As a result, Stewart said he wasn't concerned about playing full-time after Williams was injured.
He had the best game of his career in a 41-9 win over the New York Giants on Dec. 27. He rushed 28 times for 206 yards, a franchise record and the most yards the Giants had given up at home in the 34-year history of Giants Stadium. It was New York's final game in the facility.
"That was definitely one of those games that you dream for, you hope for," said Stewart.
"That 200-yard marker kind of sets you on a high.
"Even though I have confidence in my abilities, it's different when you actually go out there and do it."
Stewart appeared headed to another 200-yard day in the Panthers' final game a week later against New Orleans, but left midway through the third quarter with 125 yards rushing and didn't return.
Finally, after 16 games, his Achilles gave out.
"It got real worse," he said. "I kind of got wrapped up a little bit and (was) pulling the defender along with me (when) the stress on my foot kind of felt weird, weak, and hurting with sharp pain."
Now, as he recovers from surgery, Stewart said he looks forward to continuing to team with Williams and hopefully surpassing their accomplishments of last year. They'll aim to both gain 1,200 or 1,300 yards rushing - or more.
"Was there a pair of running backs who both made the Pro Bowl in the same year?" he asked.
According to NFL researchers, Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris of the Miami Dolphins did it three consecutive years in the 1970s, but it's an extremely rare achievement.
Regarding other career goals, Stewart said: "I want to go to the Hall of Fame and I want to win Super Bowls?"
"Plural, yeah," he said. "I've never won a championship besides middle school football.
"I've lost (in the playoffs) many times, but at the same time I've gained in my personal accolades. Collectively, I've never won that big, ultimate deal. I believe that's just preparation."