It was a week that tried souls. It was a week that lifted souls, in the NFL and out, for Damar Hamlin.
Mark Ingram, running back, Saints. “I don’t know him, but I know him. We’re the NFL fraternity. We’re brothers. He was on my mind before I went to sleep Monday night, and I was devastated. Woke up Tuesday, checked my phone first for updates. I dropped tears for him driving into work. I just couldn’t get over it. I have a son who loves football. Do I want him playing a game that might have him clinging to life one day? We are mortal beings. To see someone’s life be in danger because of a routine play, that is not what we signed up for.”
Rodney Thomas, safety, Indianapolis. (High school teammate and friend of Hamlin’s from Pittsburgh.) “I hate not knowing what’s going on, so when I woke up Tuesday morning, 5 a.m., I got in my car and drove to Cincinnati. Two hours. I got there and went to his room, saw his parents. It was tough seeing him. It’s always tough seeing people in hospitals in general, not doing good. But it was good for me to see him and see the machines working, see him breathing. I stayed till 8, 8:30 at night, and he made a bunch of progress just in that little bit of time I was there. In my mind, I just know who he is. There’s no quit inside him. It doesn’t matter what state he’s in. He’s the same way. He’s gonna fight. His body’s gonna fight. I got the idea that he was gonna be okay.”
In Buffalo, time seemed to stop. On the NBC affiliate, WGRZ-TV, 85 percent of the 6 p.m. newscast Tuesday was on Hamlin, with a minute of weather and a minute or so on the new death toll from the recent blizzard.
Patrick Hammer, WGRZ meteorologist. “We’ve had one tragic headline after another here. First, the Tops grocery store shooting that killed 10 people. Then the huge snowstorm in November. Then the blizzard [that killed 44]. It’s like the November storm was a nuisance compared to what was coming. Then, on New Year’s Eve, five children died in a house fire. And now the Damar story. Buffalo is used to being kicked in the pants. But there was just no escaping this grim reality. Our news for three days in a row was Damar, morning noon and night. I remember the morning after, everyone just wanted to know, how is Damar? My wife doesn’t care anything about football, and she called me at the office that day, anxious. ‘How is Damar?’
“The first words out of our anchor’s mouth that morning on the newscast were, ‘He is alive.’
“Tuesday was a dark day here. A pall was over the city. We felt like Rocky on the ropes versus Apollo Creed.
“Nobody here really knew him. He replaced a real hero, Micah Hyde, when [Hyde] got hurt early in the year. We sent a crew from the TV station to find out all about Damar, and these stories came back of this unassuming, humble guy who wanted to use his life as a football player to help lift people from his world into better lives. No blemishes. The Bills were always the distraction that keeps people going, and now they had a player we didn’t know but a player we learned was so good—and we really were invested in him. The whole area was hanging on Damar getting better.”
A drive to light up homes in the area with support messages for Damar Hamlin began. In suburban Lancaster, Canisius High School senior Brady Karas spent 10 hours Tuesday creating a template he could use to project, in Bills colors, a tribute to Hamlin. PRAY FOR DAMAR in gigantic type was the centerpiece. Brady, a pretty imaginative kid, captured Hamlin highlights from Pitt and the Bills from YouTube, and made a loop of the highlights, set to inspirational music.
Shauna Karas, kindergarten teacher, Lancaster, N.Y. “When the play happened, our entire family was in shock, waiting to hear anything. Brady just wanted to do something. When he was at school on Tuesday, he saw a jersey on Instagram with ‘Pray For Damar’ and he decided the middle of the house was the perfect place for it, and he just built around that. We read about Damar doing things for children, and I am a kindergarten teacher, and it really hit home for our family.
“Buffalo always rallies. We’re the city of good neighbors, and we’re called that for a lot of good reasons. We’re proud of Brady. For him to put so much thought and care and hope makes us proud as parents.”
Asked if she had a message for Hamlin, Karas said:
“Rest. Take your time. We can’t wait to hear more good news and have you back in our Buffalo community.”
Randy Bates, defensive coordinator, University of Pittsburgh. (Hamlin’s college coordinator had cancer surgery in 2019 and was weakened at times during the year from the treatment.) “Doctors found cancer in my throat and removed 50 lymph nodes. I went back to working two-a-days, and I went through the whole season getting chemo and radiation. The neat thing about Damar, who was one of our leaders, is he recognized early that I was hiding how I was really feeling. He’d come in every day to see me. He’d give me a hug, asked me how I was doing, tell me he loved me. I loved him to death for it. It was just between he and I.”
Bates’ voice cracked as he got emotional.
“Many times I’d call him and tell him what needed to be communicated, and he could communicate it in a way that worked so well. I also recall how we were having trouble getting turnovers on our defense. I went to him and I said, ‘We need something like that turnover chain Miami’s got, Ham. I need to find us a way to get motivated.’ So he thought of taking a basketball hoop, and when we got a turnover, the kids would dunk the ball into the hoop. I remember thinking, that’s silly. But he sold it to the leadership council. Now we’ve just finished our fourth year, and the kids love it. The tradition continues. Damar started it. We just did it four times in the Sun Bowl.”
Takeaways have grown in the football-dunked-in-the-basketball-hoop era—from 14 in 2019 to 20 the next year, to 23 the next year, and 22 in the season just completed.
“It’ll last as long as I’m here.
“I pray to God he plays again, because he’s good, he cares, and he’s a great team player. But his legacy won’t be chasing millions himself. It will be helping others, and he knows the Lord has put him in position to help those less fortunate.
“Sports get such a bad reputation sometimes, but there is still good in the United States. People are good. How great is it that Bengal fans, Bengals players, coaches, show up at the hospital to show Damar they care. This is so hard for him, but the world is a better place because of him.”
Pat Narduzzi, head coach, University of Pittsburgh. “Damar was a great high school safety. He was recruited by everybody. He was a top, top recruit for us. It came down to Ohio State, Notre Dame and Pitt. When we did our home visit, we took the Heisman Trophy with us to his house, which was on kind of a narrow street here. It was a great visit. We felt good about it. And when we were leaving the house that day, Urban Meyer and [his then-Ohio State assistant] Luke Fickell were coming up the street, coming in right after us. Our mantra is ‘we not me,’ and I think that appealed to him. He was a Pittsburgh kid, wanted to be close to home for his mom and dad and little brother.
“He was just so consistent every day. Always a we guy. I’ll never forget being down at the Senior Bowl a couple of years ago, and Damar was in the game. One day at practice, I’m in the stands and he comes over and says, ‘Coach, thank you. I’m so much more prepared than anyone in our DB room.’ Our players don’t just learn defense, they learn offense. That is our lifeline. He got to know the whole game playing for us, and he appreciated that.”
The good stories about Hamlin multiplied. AMERICA’S SON, blared the back page of the New York Post Wednesday. Hamlin’s holiday toy drive, with an original GoFundMe goal of $2,500 for the underprivileged in his native McKees Rocks, Pa., was getting overwhelmed. An eclectic mix—Wink Martindale, Josh McDaniels, the McCourty Twins, Ciara and Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, Michael Phelps, Mekhi Becton, Adam Schefter, LeSean McCoy, the Texans, the Colts, the Patriots, the Commanders, Ryan Leaf, Andy Dalton, Shannon Sharpe, Drake London, Matthew Stafford, the Ring of Fire Fantasy Football League—helped push the total over $8 million.
“Tom Brady donated $10,000,” I told his friend Rodney Thomas of the Colts.
“Wait till he finds out,” Thomas said.
Mark Ingram: “People don’t get their flowers enough while they’re alive. What I love is that people are seeing how Damar is more than number 3 on the Buffalo Bills.”
Calais Campbell, defensive lineman, Baltimore. “Damar made a tackle. I’ve made tackles like that plenty of times. First I thought it was maybe just you know, he’s concussed and I missed him wobbling. When I saw the way he fell on the replay, I was like, that’s different. Then when they cut to commercial and they cut back, said they were doing CPR for nine minutes, even more scary. Because I mean, CPR means your heart stops, which means you’re technically dead. Which is mind blowing to me. A football player thinks about CTE, not about death.
“I’m glad that there is a plan in place at the stadiums to cover that. That plan saved this kid’s life, which is incredible that we were prepared for it. I was praying for him nonstop. But it’s scary.
“I don’t think I’m gonna be changing the way I play. I will try to make sure that I don’t take any collisions to my chest. Talking to the guys in the locker room, I think that I didn’t really see a lot of guys flinch too much. I think a lot of it was in that moment… they talk about how they felt in that moment. But as each day passes and as we get more and more good news, I think a lot of guys are feeling pretty good about it. It’s a beautiful game. I still love the game. Maybe it’s because of the brotherhood that we have. I feel that’s on full display. I don’t think the brotherhood’s ever been stronger or more on display than it was this week.
“In the moment though, in the last couple days, I’ve definitely had to think about how much I love this game. My wife pretty much said she doesn’t know if she wants to let my son play. I’ve always told her that if he wants to play, I think we should let him. Just find a good coach who’s gonna teach him how to do it right. If I gotta coach him myself, I will.”
Rodney Thomas: “Nothing, nothing, nothing’s changed my mind about playing football. We all knew this is a freak accident, freak play. These things don’t happen all the time. In life and in football, you can’t go about your life always thinking about the worst situation possible.”
Cam Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans. “We were out to a team dinner for the defense Monday night and we had the game on TV. We saw him make a routine tackle, and then we saw all the frantic activity. We’ve all seen guys get hurt on the field. We saw Ryan Shazier [suffer a spinal injury]. We’ve seen concussions. But this one, we were all like, ‘What the heck just happened?’ This was not one of those plays where you say Wooooooooo. It was so normal.
“I got home that night and my wife was concerned. She said, ‘How many more years you wanna play?’ and I’m not retiring as long as I feel good, and I feel good. I do it because I love it. It’s not the money, it’s the love.
“I’ve told a few guys on the team they shouldn’t be afraid to go see a therapist. Our team’s done a great job of making them available. Talk to a therapist. It’s another set of eyes on your life. Why not? I basically tell the guys, ‘In the immortal words of that famous Cal Bear [Marshawn Lynch], ‘Take care of your chickens. Take care of your mental.”
Your money and your brain.
Byron Brown, mayor, Buffalo. “2022 was a tough year. We had a racially motivated mass shooting, two historic storms, one a blizzard, five children died in a horrible fire, and then to see a member of our beloved Bills go down with an injury that could have taken his life …
“The outpouring of support for Damar in Buffalo and Cincinnati, and across the nation, and internationally, has been absolutely amazing. His resurrection story has captured the attention of the world, and it really shows the power of prayer in my mind. What I’ve seen in the community reinforces what I already knew: We are strong, resilient, loving, we band together, we lift each other up, we try to make a difference in lives of other people.”
Thom Mayer, medical director, NFL Players Association. (Mayer spent time in Hamlin’s Cincinnati hospital room during the week.) “Damar had exactly the wrong thing happen to him at exactly the right place. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two cities that are superb in resuscitation science. The care he received on the field and in the ambulance was extraordinary. It was a beautiful ballet of how all the medical pieces fit together. I am so proud of the Emergency Action Plan, which teams have to drill twice a year.”
One example of the plan that worked flawlessly, Mayer said, was the presence of Woods Curry of the University of Cincinnati, the on-site Airway Management Physician—basically the emergency intubation specialist—which the league and union mandate to be at every game. Mayer said Curry placed the breathing tube down Hamlin’s throat using something called a glidescope. The tube stayed down Hamlin’s throat, providing oxygen for three days. That procedure was done in the ambulance, before it left the stadium for the two-mile trip to the hospital.
“To be able to squeeze Damar’s hand and have him undergo such excellent medical treatment was an honor to be able to see. This could have gone south in many ways, at many times. But the outcome is positive. And neurologically, Damar is clear as a bell.”
Ryan Magnuson, owner, Mag’s Custom Design sign shop, Lakewood, N.Y. (Magnuson brought a 10-foot sign with a large blank space for thick markers to write on to his tailgate Sunday for the Pats-Bills game. He posted it so passersby could see it, and urged fans to sign the “card” for Hamlin. Within an hour Sunday, the space was probably 75 percent covered.) “I knew that I wanted to do something for Damar. I’ve got a sign shop. Usually when something tragic happens we get people cards. Well, we got so many fans. How do I get all their signatures on one card? As you can see, I don’t have enough markers, and it’s not even 10 o’clock yet and the signing space is almost full.”
A guy in a Tom Brady Patriots jersey was signing just then.
“It’s bigger than one team, bigger than how we feel about the Patriots. It’s a humanity thing.”
Sometimes in sports events, reason flies out the window. There was no reason that, with the stadium full of 3’s—Hamlin’s number was everywhere, in paper 3’s, huge plastic 3’s, even a helium-filled 3 with three accompanying balloons that floated east over the stadium at the opening kick.
I’ve just told you about the mega-news in Buffalo in the last eight months. But there’s also the tragic August death of Luke Knox, tight end Dawson Knox’s brother; the undisclosed illness of Bills co-owner Kim Pegula that has kept her away from many team activities; and, just a week ago, the stroke suffered by the radio play-by-play institution, John Murphy, that kept him out of the booth Sunday. This area needed an infusion of good karma, and the loving-up of Hamlin was a dap to the Bills as well, for what they’ve gone through this year.
That 3 balloon arrangement was just wafting away when the ball fell into Hines’ hands. Three years and three months (of course) after the last Bills’ TD on a kickoff return, Hines went untouched for a 96-yard TD.
Remember when Jim Valvano danced around his N.C. State sideline, looking for someone to hug when his Wolfpack won the national basketball championship? That what about 30 Bills looks like. Josh Allen raised his hands to his face is disbelief. Man, this team needed that.
“If you want the truth, it was spiritual,” he said later. “Bone-chilling.”
After the game—the Bills clinched the second seed in the AFC playoffs with a 35-23 win—some of the raw emotion from players seeing a mate nearly die on the field bubbled up. “This week has been, excuse my language, it’s been a sh– show,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “For me to see everything transpire — from the hit, to him getting up, to him falling, it’s just something that I can’t unsee. Every time I close my eyes, it replays.”
Which the coach, Sean McDermott, felt all week. Seventy-five minutes after the game, he seemed totally spent, wrung out. He’d had to balance the well-being of his players with the AFC pennant race, and he said he learned a very valuable lesson since Monday night, when he told Bengals coach Zac Taylor he didn’t think they should continue the game because he felt his place was with his stricken player.
Sean McDermott, coach, Buffalo. ”I think I knew this before but it was reaffirmed this week: You care for the person first, and the player second. The value of people is amazing. [Monday night,] I felt at the end of the day, and this may not come out right, I’m responsible for the health and well-being of these players and staff. I wish to this day that I could’ve protected Damar from that situation. I don’t take that lightly whatsoever. If I was Damar’s mom and dad, I would want that coach to be with my son. Especially if they couldn’t be there.
“I’ll get home tonight, and hopefully I’ll have a chance—I know we’re playing the Dolphins this week—but have a chance just to take a deep breath a little bit. Probably trying to balance Damar’s situation and getting this team ready to go. And then my own self third. Hopefully take some time for myself tonight. It was challenging to have enough of me, I felt like, to go around. But that’s where we have such a strong team around me that this didn’t happen just because I did this or I did that. This is a culmination of a great team working together.”
“We’re in a divided country,” I said to him. “These are divided times. What has this week done for the United States, do you think?”
“I think it’s a great example for everyone to see,” he said. “It’s the power of the gap being closed by love. When people can put their agendas aside for the greater and common good, how good we can be when we do that. I hope that continues. I hope this is a great example and reminder to people of the power of prayer and the power of love.”
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column