NFL players, perhaps moreso than their counterparts in other sports, are used to playing through pain. Nicks and bruises come and go. Muscle sprains and pulls linger.

Few players, however, have to deal with the sort of pain that affected Jesse Sapolu, the former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman and four-time Super Bowl champion. Sapolu played the majority of his 15-year career with a torn aortic heart valve that at times left him so short of breath that he felt like he was drowning.

If this comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. Sapolu never complained about his condition, and he even tried to hide it from his team. An offensive lineman through and through, Sapolu knew his accomplishments spoke louder than words ever could. Only recently has Sapolu divulged the extent of his heart condition, in his new book "I Gave My Heart To San Francisco."

"I quietly went about doing my job and doing it to the best of my ability because I was very thankful for the opportunity," Sapolu tells ThePostGame. "When I was growing up, I never even thought I would have this opportunity to play on the big stage."

Sapolu first began feeling the effects of his torn aortic valve when he was 7, and he distinctly remembers struggling to breathe during a rugby game in his native American Samoa. The torn valve was caused by rheumatic fever, a condition that Sapolu had developed a few years earlier.

Without much in the way of medicine, as a child Sapolu relied on massages to alleviate the pain from his swollen legs. But the tear, and the heart valves' inability to close completely, forced Sapolu's heart to work harder and grow to become much larger than it normally would be. As a grade schooler, Sapolu was forced to sit out recess because of his condition, and he was denied the opportunity to play on certain sports teams.

He never forgot the empty feeling of watching from the sidelines.

"That hurt me so much that as I got older, whenever I would feel symptoms of my condition, I would not ever complain about it," Sapolu says. "I carried myself through my career that way."

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At certain points during practice or conditioning in San Francisco, Sapolu recalls the chest pain becoming so acute that he could hardly breathe. Despite trying to keep his condition a secret from the team when he was drafted in 1983, the 49ers soon found out and ordered Sapolu to make regular visits to a cardiologist at Stanford.

Doctors told Sapolu that he could have taken blood thinners to help lessen his pain, but that would increased his risk of bruising and blood clots and likely shortened his career. Instead Sapolu played on, and late in his career his heart condition became so poor that one doctor said the leak in his heart was worse than that of an 80-year-old-man.

Eventually, however, Sapolu was able to use his condition as a mental advantage. The fact that he was even able to step onto an NFL field was such an improbability that he figured he had nothing to lose.

"When the nerves hit, I would conjure up ways to get rid of that nervousness," Sapolu says. "I would always say to myself, 'You’re not even supposed to be here, why are you nervous?' Just go out and let it go.'"

Sapolu had two heart surgeries, in 1997 and 2011. He recently traveled back to Hawaii and Samoa in hopes of educating people about his disease. If the condition is identified early enough, proper treatment can prevent an enlarged heart. Sapolu wasn’t so fortunate, but at least he can rest easy knowing that he put his big heart to good use.

-- To order Sapolu's book or to see his book signing schedule, please visit

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These Dolphins fans get a special treat at the Meadowlands as Miami owner Stephen Ross makes a surprise appearance in the parking lot with tailgaters.

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By almost every measure, the National Football League is the most popular sports league in the United States. And as the NFL continues to grow at an unprecedented rate both in terms of viewers and profit, the story lines have become endless and the rivalries are enormous.

Not many people have a better handle on the league's status than Fox's Joe Buck. The 43-year-old Buck has been Fox's lead play-by-play man for one decade, and in that span he's called three Super Bowls and countless playoff classics. This week Buck said he can't remember a season with more anticipation than 2012.

"I assume at some point [the league's popularity] will level off," Buck says. "But until it does, for us at Fox, the guys at CBS, the guys at NBC, the guys at ESPN, you just ride that wave and you smile every time the ratings come out because they’re just unbelievable, blow-you-away numbers. The popularity is at an all-time high, and we’re lucky to get to cover it."

Buck, who does NFC games as part of the conference's deal with Fox, says the NFC East might have the best top-to-bottom rivalries. While there's no singular rivalry that stands out above the rest, all together it's difficult for any division to top the depth of the NFC East.

"It’s to our advantage that at Fox we cover the NFC," Buck said. "And if you want to say Cowboys-Giants, you want to say Eagles-Giants or throw the Redskins in there now with RGIII and the game they just had last weekend against New York. There’s a lot to like there."

With the popularity and passion surrounding the league these days, it doesn't take long for new rivalries to develop. In that regard, no team is gaining steam as quickly as the San Francisco 49ers. In additional to a geographical rivalry with the Oakland Raiders, the 49ers appear to be reviving a once-great matchup with the New York Giants.

Plus, having a coach like Jim Harbaugh never hurts.

"Whoever [the 49ers] play," Buck added, "with the intensity of Harbaugh you have the makings for fireworks every time they line up for the opening kickoff."

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The 2012 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers will be Joe Buck's 15th time calling the Fall Classic, but this one is different.

A year ago Buck was at the tail end of recovery from a nerve virus that devastated the one thing he could not do without -- his voice. It was a trying period for Buck, Fox’s lead announcer for Major League Baseball and the National Football League, and one that has given him a new perspective on the only job he’s ever done.

"I think it’s probably the most important thing that's happened to me, maybe in my personal life and my professional life," Buck told ThePostGame. "I think you take your health for granted until it’s not right, and then it dominates your life."

Buck developed the virus in the laryngeal nerve of his left vocal cord shortly after the 2011 Super Bowl. Doctors told him it might be as long as a year before his voice fully recovered, which was troublesome seeing as he was gearing up for an MLB season just a few months away. But luckily for Buck, he had a short break between the Super Bowl and the beginning of the baseball season in April.

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Buck saw doctors, speech pathologists and even a vocalist as he tried to speed up the recovery process. By the time Opening Day rolled around, Buck’s voice was still far from where he wanted it to be. But he refused to put down the microphone, and he fought through most of the summer and the beginning of football season with less-than-perfect pipes. Even after the virus was eliminated, Buck had an arduous recovery process.

Knowing that the condition of his voice was not getting worse by continuing to go on air, Buck resigned himself to the fact that he would have to be more cautious.

"I went through the doubts," Buck says. "And I was proud of myself that I kept going and I was proud of myself that I weathered that storm."

By the time of the 2011 World Series, Buck says he felt back to normal. And as if he had any doubts, he says they were erased a few weeks ago, on Oct. 14, when he pulled off a rare football-baseball doubleheader. Buck called the San Francisco 49ers-New York Giants game in the afternoon and then raced to AT&T Park to call Game 1 of the NLCS between the Giants and the Cardinals.

"At no point in my life have I ever had to do something like that," Buck says. "So that lets me know [my voice] is back. It’s really not something I worry about anymore, except that I appreciate having gone through it."

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The rivalry between the Redskins and Giants is one of the oldest in the NFL, and it reached its most intense levels in the late 80s and early 90s. There was a six-year span in which the two teams combined for four Super Bowl titles. (Interestingly enough, they beat the same teams -- Denver and Buffalo -- in those Super Bowls.)

With rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III making his debut at the Meadowlands, we follow some Redskins fans to the parking lot in Jersey as they get fired up about seeing the rivalry heat up again.

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Here's the premise: Two women who are Bengals fans but married to Browns fans decide to roadtrip from Cincinnati to Cleveland for the NFL's Battle of Ohio. Along the way, they bump into Bengals coach Marvin Lewis at the team hotel and bond with Cleveland fans through their shared hatred of Pittsburgh.

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It's not the best rivalry in the NFL. It's not the flashiest. It might not even be familiar to fans under 25, but the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants evoke powerful memories for football fans dating back three decades. And now that both clubs have returned to the top of the NFC, it's a duel that's quickly gaining prestige.

The rivalry began, like so many others, as the teams experienced some of the best years in respective franchise history. The 49ers, who hadn't made a playoff appearance in almost a decade and had gone 8-24 over the previous two seasons, came out of nowhere in 1981 to win the Super Bowl. That year a young quarterback named Joe Montana led San Francisco to a 13-3 season, the best record in the league.

In the divisional round of the 1981 playoffs, the 49ers faced another team which was in unfamiliar territory. The New York Giants were making their first playoff appearance in two decades. After a narrow victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants were overpowered by a San Francisco squad that had gone 12-1 over the season's final 13 weeks.

The teams met three more times in the playoffs in the next five years, and twice the victor of that game went on to win the Super Bowl.

Perhaps the most memorable showdown between the squads took place in the NFC Championship in January 1991, an extremely physical contest which saw both starting quarterbacks leave the field with injuries in the fourth quarter. Jeff Hostetler of the Giantsmanaged to return after a hit to the knees from defensive tackle Jim Burt in the fourth quarter, but Montana was taken out of the game after a vicious tackle by Leonard Marshall produced a concussion and a broken finger. The Giants won, 15-13, on a game-winning field goal by Matt Bahr.

After meeting in the playoffs five times in a nine-year span between 1982 and 1991, the two teams played just twice in the next two decades. In 1994, the 49ers produced one of the largest routs in playoff history, a 44-3 trouncing of the Giants. In 2003, New York blew a 24-point lead and the game ended on a wild field goal attempt gone wrong and an officiating controversy.

The NFC Championship game in January 2012 brought the teams together with the Super Bowl on the line for the first time in 21 years. And fittingly, the game went into overtime, where New York kicker Lawrence Tynes booted the Giants into the Super Bowl.

San Francisco and New York squared off on Sunday, with the Giants proving victorious over the 49ers for the second straight game. While the teams are the same, this version of the rivalry is completely new. Whereas coach Bill Walsh and the 49ers pioneered the West Coast offense in the 1980s, now San Francisco wins on the strength of its defense (the 49ers boast the NFC's stingiest unit). And while the Giants still have a menacing pass rush reminiscent of the days of Marshall and Lawrence Taylor, New York is winning because of Eli Manning and the NFC's highest-scoring offense.

True, this showdown lacks the geographical component of the rivalry between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers, or the historical significance of the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots. And there is no bad blood between San Francisco and New York like there is between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. And for these reasons, it might never reach the upper echelon of NFL rivalries.

But these are two of the league's most storied franchises, and they appear to be paving the way for several more pressure-packed contests and perhaps even another Super Bowl berth. It doesn't get much better than that.

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You could argue it's not entirely surprising that, five weeks into the season, Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles is leading the NFL in rushing yards. After all, Charles did average 6.38 yards-per-carry in 2010 while rushing for nearly 1,500 yards.

But the fact that Charles is on pace for a career season one year after tearing his left ACL is somewhat remarkable. A torn ACL is one of the most devastating injuries in sports, as it almost always sidelines a player for the remainder of the season and can sometimes end a career.

Charles, however, isn't the only running back who is up to speed less than a year removed from an ACL tear. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who tore his ACL last December against the Washington Redskins, is averaging 84 yards. Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in January, and in his first game back for the Pittsburgh Steelers he ran for 81 yards on 14 carries and caught one touchdown pass.

The NFL has a long history of running backs going down with ACL injuries, and different players have come back in different shape. Terrell Davis was never the same after tearing his ACL, whereas Jamal Anderson had some of the best years of his career after his injury.

Much of a running back's ability to return depends on his age. Davis was 27, Lewis was just shy of his 22nd birthday, Charles was 24, Peterson was 26 and Mendenhall was 24. Indeed, if an athlete is young enough and motivated, many think he or she could come back stronger after the surgery than they were before.

The timing of the injury also determines how an athlete will return. Because Charles tore his ACL early in the 2011 season, he had more time to rest and rehab than Peterson or Mendenhall.

"My legs feel fresh since I've been out of football for a year," Charles said before the season. "I feel real good just to be on the field again. I'm blessed."

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What's it like to wear Packers gear in Indianapolis? Let's find out as a couple of Green Bay fans make the road trip to Colts country. These two aren't expecting too much in terms of getting hassled by the locals, but they do bring a special tailgating weapon with them designed to disarm and charm the Indy fans, just in case.

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There tend to be two types of rivalries in sports. One is characterized by absolute hatred. There is no love lost between these teams and their fans, they absolutely cannot stand each other. Think Celtics-Lakers, Yankees-Red Sox, Michigan-Ohio State.

And then there's the other, more nuanced sort of rivalry. This one is characterized by mutual respect. These athletes might go head to head for their sports' biggest titles, but when it's all said and done, they praise each other vigorously. Think Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal or LeBron James and Kevin Durant,

As NFL rivalries go, the competition between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady certainly belongs in the latter category. Manning and Brady, with a combined four Super Bowl rings and six MVPs between them, are without question the best quarterbacks of the past decade. And throughout their incredible careers, the two have maintained a long-standing and unique friendship.

Brady has called Manning "the best quarterback of all time" while Manning has heaped similar praise on Brady. And more importantly, both men have supported each other following their significant injuries (Brady's ACL tear in 2008, Manning's neck surgery in 2011).

So we know that both men are solid competitors and classy individuals, but who will go down as the better player? Five or six years ago this question seemed like it could go either way, but now the answer is clear. It's Brady.

The history of playoff success, regular-season winning percentage and the stats all favor Brady.

Brady is 16-6 in the postseason with a staggering .774 regular-season winning percentage (tops all-time among quarterbacks). Manning is 9-10 in the playoffs and has won just about two-thirds of the games he has started. And with the Patriots' 31-21 victory over the Broncos on Sunday, Brady has won nine of the 13 times the gunslingers have squared off.

Brady has led the Patriots to five Super Bowls while Manning took the Colts to two. Brady is a more efficient passer, and has arguably worked with less weapons on offense. Whereas Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Brady's best receivers over the course of his career have been Troy Brown and Wes Welker. Harrison and Wayne combined for 13 Pro Bowls, Brown and Welker combined for five.

There are several intangibles that also favor Brady. He has played for one coach his entire career, and that partnership with Bill Belichick is perhaps the driving force for his incredible success. And while Brady, like Manning, suffered an injury that forced him to miss the better part of a season, Manning's injury appears to have been more serious.

Brady is the best quarterback of this generation (think post-John Elway), but even he admits that he couldn't have done what he did without Manning.

"[Manning's] really set the stage for quarterback play over my entire career," Brady said.

This, ladies and gentleman, is rivalry at its finest.

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