ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.—You want the truth about the coin flip that set in motion the script so unlikely that Spielberg would have found it far-fetched? If the Bills had won the toss, Sean McDermott would have deferred.
The Bills would have kicked off.
“I’m glad they lost this one,” McDermott told me.
I should say so. Someday, and not too long from now, this generation’s “Brian’s Song” (look it up, kids), will be a movie based on the life and near-death of Damar Hamlin. There will be a centerpiece moment based in an old stadium in western New York. John David Washington will play Nyheim Hines, and Michael B. Jordan will be Damar Hamlin. Sean McDermott? Maybe Jude Law. There won’t be any problem finding extras in Cheektowaga, Tonawanda and Lackawanna for the crowd scenes.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming. The Patriots actually won the toss at Highmark Stadium Sunday afternoon, and as Bill Belichick loves deferring and taking the ball to start the second half, New England deferred.
When Nick Folk kicked the ball high into the air, headed for Nyheim Hines inside the five-yard line, Hines had a lot to think about. He thought about Hamlin, foremost. Nine weeks ago, Hines was the new guy, traded from the Colts to Buffalo to be a return specialist and backup back. Hamlin, a stranger to Hines, came up to him on his first day in the building and introduced himself. Every day that first week, Hamlin would stop and talk to Hines, the new kid in school, and he started telling Hines he’d break a long one soon. “You’re gonna take one,” Hamlin told him. “I can feel it.” Every day at practice, Hamlin would say something about a big return.
“He would say, ‘Hashtag free Hines!’” Hines said late Sunday afternoon. They’d say that silly little thing to each other almost every day, Hamlin reminding the new kid not only that he could take a kick to the house, but he would do it.
So the ball was coming from Folk, and Hines thought for a millisecond about Hamlin, watching in his Cincinnati hospital room 425 miles to the southwest, and he said to himself, “All right, Nyheim, let’s give ‘em something to cheer about.”
Said Hines: “Our team, we had Damar’s wings on our backs today.”
Hines certainly did. He ran untouched for 96 yards on the opening kickoff, fulfilling something Hamlin foresaw. Touchdown. Mayhem in the rebuilt place that 30 years ago this week housed another miracle: the Bills’ comeback from 32 points down to beat Houston in the Frank Reich Wild Card game. Hines’ touchdown came at 1:03 p.m.
From Hamlin’s Twitter feed, at 1:06 p.m: “OMFG!!!!!!!!!”
“Flabbergasted,” Hines said later.
“Trying to manage the game is my number one job,” McDermott said. “But this week, I thought to myself, ‘How special would it be if we took the opening kickoff back?’”
Then Hines did it again, returning one 101 yards for a score in the third quarter. Now the absurdity of the opening kickoff was doubled. The 70,753 in the place, and millions watching to see if the Bills could give Hamlin a consistent ear-to-ear grin in his University of Cincinnati Medical Center room, knew it was a game, and returner, they’d never forget. No one in the NFL had returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a game since 2010.
“I’m the new guy here,” Hines said, “but hopefully I had a little impact on something that’s way bigger than myself.”
We’ll let Netflix be the judge of that.