The light in football's most horrific hour
Nobody was prepared for what we saw Monday night. Football will not be the same. But Damar Hamlin is a special human being, and how he lives his life? That's an inspiration.
CINCINNATI, Ohio — The plan was to celebrate the sport. All of us.
Josh Allen. Joe Burrow.
Two real football markets at the peak of their powers on a national stage is what the football gods always intended. We wanted to tap into this excitement ourselves at Go Long with a three-day extravaganza. On Saturday, I sat down with magnetic Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader, a story we’ll get to whenever it feels normal to discuss football again. On Sunday, we all threw IPAs back at Fifty West Brewing for a live podcast. It was fun. The place was packed. This felt more like a Super Bowl pep rally with both Bills and Bengals fans living it up.
Then, it was gametime. The inside of Paycor Stadium was as electric of an atmosphere as I can remember for a regular-season game. Fireworks blared and left a cloud of dust above the field. Cincinnati scored a touchdown. At the 6:12 mark of the first quarter, Damar Hamlin made a routine tackle and — without warning — it was as if a stadium employee snuck into a back room and flipped the power switch. Typically, we’re desensitized to this scene. After a few nervous minutes, we see an arm move. A leg. A look of relief on the faces of teammates. A cart or stretcher is brought out and everyone cheers.
This was different.
There was no movement. First responders administered CPR for nine minutes in a heroic effort to save Hamlin’s life. The eyes of teammates welled with tears — many were shocked, many more were totally inconsolable. All on site were justifiably mortified. Hamlin’s close friend, Dane Jackson, couldn’t be anywhere near the scene.
Observers never did get the thumb’s up. The game was officially suspended.
These last 48 hours, the entire country has been unified in prayer.
Only one thing in the sports world matters right now, and it has nothing to do with sports: the life of Damar Hamlin.
There is good news. Hamlin’s uncle reported that originally Hamlin was on 100 percent oxygen. He’s down to 50 percent. Family friend Jordon Rooney added that everything is moving “a positive direction.” He remains in critical condition. In the meantime, people have been able to learn more about the man himself. He is special. After the Bills drafted Hamlin in the sixth round out of Pitt, his desire to eat the best chicken wings in town drew us together. Over four plates worth of wings at Elmo’s in Getzville, Hamlin detailed his rise from McKees Rocks. Seeing his father whisked away to prison at age 12 and losing that sense of imagination, of wonder as a kid. Simultaneously, losing so many of his friends to senseless killings. Hamlin said more than half of his childhood friends died before the age of 21.
Football became his sanctuary and he turned himself into the No. 1 defensive prospect in the state. Hamlin could’ve chosen Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame or Clemson but stayed home at Pitt because he knew kids were watching. He knew those kids living in poverty in McKees Rocks needed a sign of hope. Including his own brother.
On to Pitt, he overcame a mysterious (and maddening) sports hernia injury to warrant the 212th selection in the NFL Draft.
This is a man with a very clear, very concise purpose. He wants to change lives. Everyone who knows Hamlin best cannot wait for him to open his eyes and see this unprecedented, nationwide love and support. More than $6.23 million (and counting) has been raised for his community toy drive. The goal was $2,500.
Hamlin sincerely believed he had a higher purpose. His dream for those kids in McKees Rocks is being realized.
“I try to be a big voice for them,” Hamlin said back during our chat, “because I know what they’ve been going through. I know how hard it is. So I’m trying to push them, keep it positive and let them see me. Let them see it’s possible — ‘I come right from where y’all are from.’ … It’s a lack of opportunities You’re in survival mode. That’s what it is — it’s survival mode. Survival mode turns everybody against each other at the end of the day. That’s what I meant by ‘sink or swim.’”
Go Long sat down with Damar Hamlin for this profile in July 2021, icymi.
The radio airwaves must be filled with opinions. Websites like this must write on. But, it’s OK for none of us to wield scalding-hot takes right now.
Again, all that matters is Hamlin’s health. To be honest, I’ve been struggling with what to say here. My only hope is that when we all do get back to watching football and thinking about football and analyzing football, we don’t forget exactly how we feel right now. Damar Hamlin, the human being, has become the No. 1 story in America. Let’s all make sure we never forget this game is played by human beings. Not cogs in a machine. Not names in our fantasy lineups. Not robots on some assembly line turning pro football into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Football is an entertainment business. That’s why Fifty West Brewing in Cincy was packed and why Paycor Stadium was rocking and why we all structure our day-to-day lives around when NFL teams play each other. But these are also sons and fathers and brothers and cousins and — in countless cases — the singular sources of inspiration for an entire neighborhood.
These are the chosen few who escape inconceivably dark upbringings. Yeah, they entertain millions. More importantly, they give a few other 12-year-olds on a dead-end street a glimmer of hope. At one point when we hung out, Hamlin couldn’t shake the feeling that there’s a reason he’s alive.
He relived the chilling detail of his friends’ deaths. He knows he’s lucky to be alive.
It’s why he ends many conversations now with the same three words.
“The way I grew up,” Hamlin said, “teaches you to cherish everybody in your life because you never know who you’ll lose. You could lose anybody. Everybody I talk to, I say ‘I love you.’ And that’s neighborhood tradition.”
Sadly, Hamlin is far from alone.
So many of the Bills players you saw with the pale faces down on that football field have experienced the thin line between life and death before. Taiwan Jones, No. 25, recalls shootouts with chilling ease. Isaiah McKenzie, No. 6, was once grazed by a bullet and saw a dead body at his doorstep. Tyrel Dodson, No. 53, easily could’ve slipped into the streets. Football was a vehicle away from that world, away from all the trappings that killed off so many loved ones. This was supposed to be the escape. The sanctuary. Most importantly, the platform to persuade kids to aspire to be something greater. These players understand their impact on their communities.
Cincy? A chance at the No. 1 seed? Monday Night Football? When Hamlin strapped on his pads and his jersey, he knew this would be the greatest platform he’s had yet.
Then, he could not breathe.
Nobody was prepared for this. Players are accustomed to broken bones and torn ligaments and concussions and even grotesque gashes of every kind, but not this. The sport crossed a new threshold the night of Jan. 2, 2023. And if we were in such shock by the site of medics performing CPR, followed by those medics loading Hamlin’s body into an ambulance and that ambulance driving away without any idea of what happened, imagine what Mom and Dad were thinking.
The militaristic nature of the sport and the fact that faces hide behind facemasks doesn’t help. Hamlin has a gentle, kind, infectious smile himself. But if we take one thing away from this tragedy, I hope that it’s that we remember this is a sport played by human beings. Whatever goes into that. Maybe you send that extra $20 to Hamlin’s toy drive. To any player’s charity. Maybe it’s saying “I love you” at the end of conversations with loved ones.
The NFL must experience the same self-reflection.
Unless all physical contact is stripped from the sport itself, there’s no eliminating collisions from the sport entirely. Hamlin’s tackle of Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins was remarkably ordinary. A collision we see 200 times a weekend. There’s no avoiding this accident without completely vanquishing all violence from the sport. The scariest sights we’ve seen this 2022 season were from legal collisions. Not the headhunting variety wisely wiped out years ago. Even then, there are steps the NFL can absolutely take.
More padding inside the backs of helmets could help quarterbacks like Tua Tagovailoa avoid those whiplash concussions when they fall to the turf. The added 17th game was always a hypocritical money grab — remove it. And while the NFL’s at it, remove all exhibition games. Teams can condition players’ bodies for live contact in controlled training camp practices and/or joint scrimmages. Wiping out these needless games instantly wipes out needless injuries. If college football teams don’t need preseason games, the professionals sure don’t. It’s time the NFL stopped swindling season ticketholders into forking over their hard-earned money to see third-stringers collide for three hours. And I don’t care how much money Jeff Bezos flashes in front of the owners’ eyes. Thursday Night Football will forever be a joke. The league cannot spout off about player safety from one side of its mouth and then tell players they have three days to recover before engaging in another virtual car crash.
Yes, this is a gladiator’s sport inhabited by men who do not think like us. To step into this violent world, you need to be psychologically wired differently and Lord knows we celebrate this reality at Go Long.
The first step is owning this violence — instead of insulting our intelligence with roughing the passer penalties that accomplish nothing — and then the NFL doing everything in its power to help the human beings powering its product.
None of us will ever be able to watch football the same again. I’m sure I’m not the only Dad thinking long and hard about those Pop Warner signups now.
This is also true: Football can be a platform for good and Damar Hamlin is everything the NFL could possibly want out of an ambassador.
And know this: Nobody could fight any harder to live than Damar Hamlin is right this very second.