Medical personnel likely saved Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin’s life Monday night in the first quarter of a late-season NFL game between Buffalo and the Bengals. It was a terrifying moment, which was clear in the eyes of the players and coaches on that field, watching for nine long minutes as the medical team administered CPR. Even though his stunned teammates tried to shield Hamlin’s motionless body from the cameras, there is no real privacy on the 50-yard line.
Let’s not pretend that what happened was unforeseeable. Football is a game steeped in contact and reveling in violence. The hit Hamlin took to his chest wasn’t, at first glance, any more note-worthy than a dozen other hits in an average NFL game. And yet, a 24-year-old man was rushed to a Cincinnati hospital where he remains in critical condition.
Injuries happen in every sport, but it speaks to the power of the NFL that coverage of Hamlin’s injury was carried live on more than one network, and prompted acknowledgment and prayers on social media from colleagues and fellow professionals too numerous to count.
Injuries are part of the game, but they are usually dispatched in a few commercial breaks and a thumbs up from a carted-off player. Hamlin’s demanded your full attention.
When I was first tapped to cover the Jets in 2007 for The Journal News, our Giants beat writer, Ernie Palladino, sat me down and gave me some advice. The first thing I needed to do was get a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, he said, because I’d need to learn how to cover injuries and that means figuring out where an ACL is actually located. Sage advice from a veteran football scribe, do your homework.
This was in the early days of CTE research, when we slowly started to learn about the damage a concussion could do, and about the long-term damage that can be done over time. There were games where a hit was so hard I held my breath, looking for a player to pop back up. Every Monday morning press conference is peppered with updates on the players injured the day before.
There is always the possibility of a serious injury in an NFL game. The danger is an unspoken lure for many fans, a vicarious thrill from the safety of the upper bowl. It’s easy to forget there are actual people absorbing that force. There is a reason an ambulance is just off the field, and that NFL stadiums are equipped with X-ray machines and other medical equipment.
Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from a hit during a 2010 game against Army at MetLife Stadium, and he would come to the Jets’ training camp during the Rex Ryan years in his wheelchair. Because of his incredible optimism and work ethic, he was a popular visitor, but he was also a reminder of the damage the game can do.
It was clear watching the ESPN broadcast on Monday night that the broadcast team was affected by what they had seen, but they were doing what reporters do: Updating the viewers, describing the scene, conveying the emotion, reminding us that Hamlin has a mother, a charity, a roster full of people who care about him.
Ryan Shazier’s spinal cord injury occurred before professional athletes started speaking more openly about mental health, and before they started demanding more from teams. Just a reminder, there was a time a player might be critiqued for wanting to be present for the birth of a child. Last night on social media, some fans, and a weird Skip Bayless tweet called for the game to be played Monday night, even as distraught players were waiting for word of Hamlin’s condition.
I almost quoted the Bayless tweet, but I just can’t. That attitude used to be even more prevalent, if you can believe it. Keep in mind that the Cowboys played a game two days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
It makes perfect sense that the decision to postpone the Bills-Bengals game came from players and coaches who were also experiencing the emergency of Hamlin’s injury.
As Dez Bryant put it, in all caps on Twitter: “The DAMN GAME NEEDS TO BE CANCELED.. what’s the Debate?… ATHLETES ARE HUMANS FIRST! IF YOU EVER NEED A REMINDER IM HERE TO TELL YOU.”
Joe Buck clearly reported the NFL was planning to restart the game in five minutes, as shots of conferring referees and coaches were spliced with quarterbacks warming up. Later, the NFL’s Troy Vincent said the league had not tried to restart the game.
The NFL schedule was not the most important thing on Monday night. Damar Hamlin’s health was. Think of what it would have meant to see Hamlin and the NFL players on the field endure that moment together, a man within a whisper of the grave, only to have a shrill whistle signal the continuation of a game.
It’s possible to appreciate football while acknowledging the risks. It’s why you have an ambulance inside the tunnel on game day. It’s important to understand the worst-case scenario and prepare to meet it, because Hamlin deserves to live. He has the rest of his life ahead of him.