The dark place.

That’s how Tyler Johnstone describes the state of limbo an injured Oregon football player can find himself in.

While rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament, as Johnstone did last season, or recovering from shoulder surgery this fall, as running back Thomas Tyner will do, players are technically still a part of the team.

But the isolation can feel more painful than a snapping bone.

“Being around the team last year helped me not go to that dark place,” said Johnstone, who returned to the practice field this week for his final fall camp at Oregon.

The standout left tackle was able to watch most of the Marcus Mariota magic from the press box level and celebrate victories with the Ducks in the locker room.

Meanwhile, Pharaoh Brown was struggling to escape a black hole.

On Nov. 8, 2014, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end suffered a hideous injury when his right leg violently buckled in the wrong direction on a seemingly innocent goal-line play during Oregon’s 51-27 victory at Utah.

“Adrenaline kind of kicked in,” Brown said when asked what he remembers about the life-altering moment. “I was catching like full body cramps and it was kind of cold out. I remember I was real cold.

“Other than that, I really can’t describe the pain. It’s something you have to go through.”

When asked what the medical term for what happened to Brown is, Kim Terrell, Oregon’s associate director of athletic medicine, described it this way:

“It’s a complex knee injury,” Terrell said. “A multi-ligament knee injury with some vascular compromise would probably be the most accurate diagnosis.”

A football death sentence would be another way to put it, at least for an average player.

“I refuse to be a mediocre guy,” Brown said.

No. 85 was back in the sunshine on Monday, wearing a helmet, catching passes and even running around the field to the delight of the Ducks.

“A lot of guys would have thrown in the towel after that, but that’s not Pharaoh,” junior tight end Johnny Mundt said. “He wants to be the best.”

Scott Frost, perhaps growing annoyed at questions during the first week of fall camp about Vernon Adams’ availability and Tyner’s absence, welcomed the uplifting sidebar on the star tight end.

“I’m just proud of him,” Oregon’s offensive coordinator said. “I’m proud of where he’s come from and where he is. I’m real hopeful for him that things are going to go for him the way they need to go. It was great seeing him out there running around and doing some things. He’s obviously not full speed yet, but I guess he’s ahead of schedule and doing well.

“I’m just excited for him and expect a lot of things out of him down the road.”

Brown, standing on his surgically repaired leg, with four profound scars surrounding the imploded knee, patiently relived the ordeal as Oregon began on-field preparations to defend its Pac-12 championship.

“It’s just an obstacle,” Brown said. “Life is ups and downs. You can’t give up on yourself. Especially me, I’m built differently. Just because you get punched one time, you’ve got to get back up and keep fighting.”

Worst-case scenario: Amputation

Videos of Brown have a knack for going viral, including a recent post on social media of him wake surfing.

“I asked the trainers before I went out,” Brown said. “They said it was good for me to go. We all went out and had a little fun.”

On Dec. 6, 2013, Brown played the villain in the footage of the impromptu UO campus snowball fight gone awry.

Mark Helfrich, one of the masses to watch the unflattering replay of the giant football player in his letterman jacket dumping an avalanche of snow on the head of a 60-year-old retired professor, suspended Brown for the Alamo Bowl.

“We all make mistakes, and the great thing about Pharaoh is he learned from those mistakes he made,” wide receiver Dwayne Stanford said of his fellow Ohioan last summer. “I think you can expect some big things from him this year.”

Brown rewarded the team’s unwavering confidence in his skills by helping pave the way for Oregon’s ninth consecutive conference rushing title and catching 25 passes from the Heisman Trophy winner for 420 yards and six touchdowns.

Despite missing the Ducks’ final five games, Brown was named first team all-Pac-12 at tight end.

“It means a lot and it was rightfully earned,” he said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

Amazingly, tight ends coach Tom Osborne said his prize pupil’s breakout season came after he missed significant practice time with injuries.

“At the end of his season, he was playing his best because he got in shape,” Osborne said. “He was hurt coming into camp, which wasn’t his fault from another previous surgery. So he missed a lot of fall camp; in fact, he missed all of fall camp. Then he starts the season, he’s not in shape and he’s trying to work through all that kind of stuff. It takes time.

“So he played the first four or five games still trying to get into it, but probably the last four games he played, he played exceptionally well. He did really well in the running game, really well in the passing game and did some really good things for us.”

The key road game against the punishing Utes was shaping up to be Brown’s finest hour. He had three receptions for 40 yards and a touchdown.

On the fateful fourth-quarter play, Brown was expecting to celebrate another scoring catch when his right foot clipped a teammate’s cleat a split-second before his leg contorted in the wrong direction.

Mariota calmly ran for the insurance touchdown while his receiving target writhed in pain at the line of scrimmage.

“I kind of remember going down,” Brown said. “I remember the play call and all that. But that’s pretty much it.”

Terrell was on the visiting sideline that night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but she did not see what happened in real time. ESPN did not air the replay of Brown’s gruesome injury, which has been viewed more than 50,000 times by curiously morbid Internet surfers, presumably with strong stomachs.

“When I went out there is when I realized it was Pharaoh,” Terrell said. “Judging by his reaction and the length of time it was taking to get things sorted out, it was obvious he had had a pretty significant injury.”

Brown did have some good luck in the aftermath.

Once his leg was stabilized he was rushed via ambulance to the nearby University of Utah Hospital, where a practiced vascular surgeon took swift action.

“That was super fortunate for Pharaoh that he went to a place like that with a really highly trained staff, and they were alerted to the injury and they knew what to do,” Terrell said. “If the vascular injury hadn’t been recognized and the (internal) bleeding continued, then you get what’s called an acute compartment syndrome where there’s bleeding into the compartments of your leg.

“It can damage the nerves, it can cause an infection, and if that injury isn’t recognized really quickly and managed effectively, it can cause more problems than just the original injury.”

Problems like leg amputation.

“There is always that chance when you have that kind of injury, yes,” Terrell said.

Brown did his best not to panic after being presented with the worst-case scenario on the operating table.

“That wasn’t really on me, that was the doctors and the man above,” Brown said. “This is my part right now. The doctors did their stuff, and I was blessed. I just have to do what I have to do now.”

Back from the brink, into the light

A few hours after the injury, as the Ducks were flying home having clinched the North Division and a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, Brown was undergoing the first of three surgeries to repair the damage.

Although his leg was spared, Brown couldn’t bend his knee for months. He remained bedridden at home in Cleveland under the watchful eye of his mother, Jeanetta Smith, a hospital nurse.

“I have my doctor, she didn’t do my surgery,” Brown said. “But just being home, she helped with the little things. When you get nervous, I don’t have to call the doctor because my mom can fix this bandage, she can take out stitches, just stuff like that.”

Back in Eugene, the Oregon compliance staff worked with the NCAA on Brown’s behalf so he could finish the fall term through correspondence and maintain his scholarship benefits without taking classes during the winter term.

The Oregon football family did its best to keep the broken man it left behind in Salt Lake City from the dark place.

Mundt and other players lifted Brown’s spirits through text messages. Osborne tried to check in by phone on a daily basis. Terrell and the training staff sent the patient humorous videos, photos and other heartfelt communiqués to make sure he knew they were thinking about him.

Brown also read every letter from the generous pile of get-well-soon mail written by people he had never met.

“Everybody goes through the dark times,” Brown said. “That’s where your family comes in, just the support of the people around you, the team, fans. Just everybody picking you up, it goes a long way.”

Brown, or at least a smaller version of him, was able to travel to Los Angeles during the holidays to be with the team for the Rose Bowl.

“He had lost a lot of weight and didn’t have a lot of motion in his knee,” Terrell said. “It was pretty stiff. We had several days there where we could work on that mobility and we got to kind of gain some mobility and a little bit of movement so he could walk a little bit easier.

“But he was still using a Rascal (medical scooter) to get around and kind of having to be that handicapped person that he never wanted to be.”

Brown was moving better at the national championship game in Arlington, Texas, but he still required a final surgery at the Cleveland Clinic before enrolling at Oregon for the spring term.

Normal activities, like getting up and down apartment stairs, became milestone moments on the slow road to recovery.

After rehabbing six days a week inside the Casanova Center and getting back on track academically, Brown can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s kind of like a miracle,” Brown said after participating in Monday’s practice on a limited basis. “You just have to bow your head sometimes and thank God. Some stuff, there’s not an answer for.”

In the back of his mind, Brown had planned to finish Oregon’s memorable run to the national championship game and then hear his name called during the NFL draft like Mariota, Arik Armstead, Jake Fisher, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

“I would have (entered the draft), but you can’t plan ahead,” Brown said. “That decision never came. You’ve just got to make decisions with the cards you’re dealt.”

It’s too early for Brown to make a decision on whether to use his redshirt this season or try to contribute.

“It’s a big unknown at this point,” Terrell said. “I think it’s just a matter of continuing with strengthening, continuing to sort of gradually increase the load on his whole lower extremity, get his athleticism back where he feels confident in his ability to cut and do things at a high speed.

“And then have collisions.”

A couple of days after practicing without contact, Brown had a noticeable limp walking between the training room and the field. Then on Friday he jogged effortlessly along the same route and hurdled the chain-link barrier separating prying eyes from Oregon’s workouts west of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.

“It’s really shocking how fast he’s been able to recover,” Evan Baylis, the Ducks’ starting tight end during the College Football Playoff, said of Brown’s progress. “He’s still got a ways to go, but it’s awesome where he’s at.”

With the return of Baylis, Mundt and senior Koa Ka’ai, there is plenty of depth and experience at the position. Osborne’s just happy to have Brown back in the meeting room.

“There’s nothing in the world worse than getting guys hurt,” Osborne said. “That’s the worst part of coaching. They put in all this time to get healthy and all the emotions with it and the depression with it … I don’t know if people really realize what goes through those guys emotionally when they’re out of it and physically can’t do it anymore for a period of time, until they can get themselves healthy.

“It’s just great when you see those guys back, and it’s great to see Pharaoh back with a smile on his face.”

A bright smile on a man who has conquered the dark place.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @rgduckfootball . Email [email protected] .

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