Why Damar Hamlin is exactly what the Buffalo Bills need

He's lost more friends than he can count. Life in McKees Rocks was not easy. Nor was a mystery injury at Pitt. But now? This rookie safety can help the Bills win for a long, long time.

GETZVILLE, N.Y. — The man wants the full Western New York experience so that’s what he gets this night.

One month prior, Damar Hamlin asked everyone for their top 5 wing spots in town, a tweet that generated 194 replies. Fans didn’t steer the newest Buffalo Bill the wrong direction, either. The two true wing meccas were mentioned over ‘n over again.

So, since Hamlin had already taken his family to one of those spots — Bar Bill in East Aurora, awarding their wings a “10/10” — it was only right for this conversation to be held at the other holy grail.

At the one spot everyone absolutely must move to the No. 1 slot on their Wings Power Rankings: Elmo’s.

Hamlin drives north, walks through the doors and, first, relives his raw emotions from draft weekend.

When the Bills drafted him, the first thought that crossed his mind was Thank God. The wait to the 212nd overall selection took a toll on this safety out of the University of Pittsburgh. The wait was so stressful that Hamlin actually lost a few pounds. His second thought? There would be no need to adjust to the cold. He’s lived it his whole life in Pittsburgh and is hopeful that the front-wheel drive on his Challenger will suffice this winter.

Time will tell. He’s told the lake effect is different here. Those whiteouts are no joke.

Now, all he’s doing is studying like crazy. This playbook feels like a new language to Hamlin. Not that he has any questions about his ability. At Pitt, the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder was a human highlight film.

“I’m a fierce competitor,” Hamlin says, “and somebody who wants to win. I play to win. I’m not scared to compete. I’m aggressive. I can do anything you ask me. Any task. I can do it all. That’s something to not be taken lightly.”

Many players say this. Few can back it up. Hamlin knows this.

So, first, Hamlin eases into why he is different.

It starts right where he’s from, right in his borough of Pittsburgh — McKees Rocks.

“You face uncomfortable situations early,” Hamlin says, “which push you into that sink-or-swim mentality. Whenever you’re faced with competition in football, it’s just another bump in the road.”

With that, Hamlin gets up to head to the bathroom. He walks past the youth sports team celebrating a win with their parents across the bar. On the speakers, “Whoomp! There It Is” blends to “Beat it.” There’s a Sixers/Hawks game on a TV in one corner, the NHL Playoffs live up front and Buffalo sports paraphernalia decorates all walls. No doubt, one Super Bowl triumph would forever change every wing establishment in Western New York.

The hope is real here.

This is a team that went 13-3 and advanced to the AFC Championship last season. Damn right, the expectation in 2021 should be to win the Super Bowl. And that mission only gets tougher here on out, too. Now that the Bills believe they’ve finally found their long-lost franchise quarterback, they’ll be paying that quarterback anywhere from $40 million to $45 million per year soon… which means it’ll only become more difficult to build a winner. GM Brandon Beane won’t be able to spend so liberally in free agency. He and head coach Sean McDermott must find starters in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft for the Bills to win long term.

This is the one danger in handing over a blank check to one player and they’re not alone. Cleveland and Baltimore will likely be forking over massive contracts to their QBs, too.

It’s on the team to scout and scout and scout and find hidden gems who’ll shatter the odds.

Hamlin could be that player because Hamlin has beaten the odds.

Hamlin knows he is 100 percent ready — for anything.

Once he returns to his seat, the wings arrive. He gets the full Elmo’s experience, too. Scattered across the table is a smorgasbord of 10 BBQ milds, 10 Cajun Honey Mustards, 10 Cajun milds, 10 regular milds and, for good measure, a side of Cajun fries. Hamlin gnaws on Wing No. 1 and lets his mind wander back to everything he’s been through. Particularly, all of the friends he’s lost.

Hamlin estimates more than half of the kids he grew up with are dead.

After a while, you simply lose track.

“It makes you numb to it,” Hamlin says, “which is not good. I take reality for what it is and that’s a product of me having to grow up so early. It’s part of life, losing people.”

Life in McKees Rocks certainly molded him. Specifically, one period of life when he lost his Dad. Football became his escape. His “getaway.” His ticket to virtually any college he wanted. And then? Football was taken from him. Onto Pitt, a mystery injury should’ve ruined Hamlin.

He got through that, too.

He found his way to Buffalo, to a state of reflection over wings.

Now, Hamlin is the player this Super Bowl contender needs.

The sentencing came out of nowhere. That dark day, in 2010, a 12-year-old Hamlin was not expecting to lose his father.

But, he did. The image is seared in his memory.

What he and his family believed was a procedural hearing turned dark. This felt like something straight out of a movie. When guards entered the courtroom, Hamlin was overwhelmed with fear.

“You start to sense something,” Hamlin says. “And they said they were going to keep him. It broke my Mom. My Mom was crushed.”

Mario Hamlin was sentenced to 10 years in prison for intent to sell drugs. As Mom’s eyes welled with tears while taking her husband’s jewelry, so did Damar’s eyes.

Just like that, Dad was whisked away. He’d end up serving 3 ½ years of that sentence, 3 ½ precious years of his son’s development.

Hamlin’s mother, Nina, did everything she possibly could to shield Damar from the same trappings ensnaring his peers in middle school. McKees Rocks is rough today but it was even rougher back then, Hamlin assures. At an early age, Nina was determined to pull her son out of his home school district (Sto-Rox) and get him into a private school. Financial aid helped. But to make this work, she worked nonstop. She ran a daycare and the family also had a cleaning business. With Dad gone, Hamlin’s day became regimented.

School. Practice. Cleaning business. That’s it.

Many nights, he’d be cleaning until midnight.

Seeing Dad taken away like this “stripped the imagination of a kid.”

“That’s when my outlook on life changed,” Hamlin says. “I had to take reality for reality and couldn’t be a kid anymore. It was just me and my Mom now trying to survive. I had to grow up really fast. It instilled a toughness in me. That mental toughness. It built that work ethic in me. Just that time with not having my Dad around. I had to be a man.

“It changed my life.”

Some nights, the heat in their home broke. Never easy those Pittsburgh winters. He could talk to his Dad but, as son says, there’s a huge difference between getting life advice on the phone and getting it every day in-person. Many days, Hamlin didn’t have money to buy lunch at school. Whenever that happened, he’d swallow his pride and ask a close friend for a few bites of their meal.

And even as he enrolled into Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Hamlin was still living in McKees Rocks. Still around the violence.

This is where losing a father at such an impressionable age really posed a threat.

McKees Rocks is a “crab-in-a-barrel type of place,” Hamlin says, where “everybody knows everybody.”

When we all think of Pittsburgh, we may picture yellow bridges and winding rivers and Primanti Bros. and waving Terrible Towels. Yes, there is a lovable yinzer side to the city, Hamlin explains. But then there’s the inner city where — like so many American cities today — life can become borderline untenable. Opportunities are limited. Fathers, often, are not present. Other than music or sports, here, Hamlin says kids don’t see ways to escape. The statistics are ugly, too. McKees Rocks (pop. 5,919) has one of the highest crime rates in America — one in 16 people here are the victim of a crime.

Right when his Dad went away, Hamlin started losing his friends.

That year alone, three under the age of 18 died.

In fact, that’s how Hamlin and fellow Pitt-to-NFL defensive back Paris Ford became so close. One of these three kids was a mutual friend.

“I’ve got so many friends who didn’t even make it to 21,” Hamlin says. “It’s crazy. When you think about that — all the friends that you have — just imagine if half of them didn’t make it to 21.”

He does the math in his head for a moment, pauses, and corrects himself.

Actually, it’s “more than half.”

Everyone in McKees Rocks starts to get nervous in the summertime, he explains. When the weather gets hotter, you just know there’s a good chance that someone you love will die. People start “moving around” as the heat cranks up. Drugs and gangs are a thing around here, sure, but Hamlin says many deaths aren’t related to either. Simply, a fight can break out over something minor and instead of settling the dispute with fists, a gun is drawn, a trigger is pulled, a life is taken far too soon.   

He can’t shake the feeling that there’s a reason he’s still alive, a reason he’s sitting right here.

Friend to friend, he relives tragedy to tragedy.

One of his best friends as a kid, Jeremiah Jones, was shot to death on the other side of Pittsburgh on July 2, 2017. They grew up with the same NFL dreams on the same little league team with Jones even blossoming into a star quarterback at nearby Woodland Hills High School. Then, at the age of 19, Jones was shot multiple times in Wilkins Township.

When an Uber driver found Jones lying in the middle of a remote part Lougeay Road, he was hanging on for life. The driver called 911 and tried CPR but it was too late. Jones was pronounced dead at 3:30 a.m.

Then, there was rapper Jimmy Wopo.

He was gunned down on June 18, 2018 at approximately 4:22 p.m. (EST) right in Pittsburgh. Hamlin was close to him, too. Very close. All of the horror that day comes back to him like it was yesterday. Hamlin was attending summer school at Pitt, a campus situated smack dab in the inner-city. And while squeezing in a quick power nap before class, Hamlin woke up to loud sirens. He went to class. He got word that Wopo was shot. He hightailed it to the hospital.

And right there in the lobby of the emergency room, a doctor emerged to tell everyone that Wopo didn’t make it.

There was crying. There was screaming. Nothing but utter devastation.

One report, after the fact, tied Wopo to a gang responsible for prior murders. Still, Hamlin insists his friend was a source of hope for kids throughout the city and, one year prior, Wopo sure sounded determined to create a new life for himself. The rapper grew up in city’s Hill District — about five miles from McKees Rocks — and rose to fame in 2016 with a song about his own neighborhood, titled “Elm Street.” Hamlin always pictured a world in which he, Ford and Wopo provided all kids in all rough corners of Pittsburgh a new “image” to aspire to.

One drive-by shooting ended Wopo’s life.

“That was,” Hamlin says, “a life-changing experience for me.”

And then, there was Naekwon Wright. “KB,” as friends knew him. He actually rapped on one of Wopo’s tracks, “This & That.” Before every game last season, KB would text both Hamlin and Ford in a group chat. He couldn’t attend games because of Covid but tried to stay as connected as possible. Every Saturday convo ended with the same message from KB, too: “Good luck. Love y’all.”

Wright died on Oct. 6, 2020.

Wright suffered several gunshot wounds just before midnight.

Who killed all three? Nobody knows, to Hamlin’s knowledge.

Not that it’s abnormal. Typically, you don’t get answers.

“The way I grew up,” Hamlin says, “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.”

Miraculously, Hamlin was able to sidestep danger himself. There were a few close calls. When he was young, he remembers shots ringing out a handful of times in the streets. Whenever a ricochet of bullets filled the air, he’d sprint into the house. But he was never tempted to join any gang, any bad crowd. Attending Central Catholic opened his eyes up to a new world.

One of his closest friend’s was Lynn Swann’s son. Seeing their house helped Hamlin realize this sport could lead to a new life.

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Dad was back. The two were able to pick up where they left off, but Hamlin admits the lack of a father those 3 ½ years affected him. Deeply. Part of him absolutely understood why Dad sold drugs. As Damar says, he “was just trying to make a way for us” and that’s a sad, raw reality for many families here.

Mom was 16 and Dad was 17 when they had him. He knows he’s lucky to have a Dad at all. Other kids are left stranded for much longer than 3 ½ years.

And, today, Mario Hamlin’s life is on track. He has his own trucking company and he and Nina gave birth to a second child, too. Their second son is six years old and playing football for the first time this summer. Mario is his coach and actually calls Damar this night at Elmo’s to fill him in on the latest… he had to make his little bro run laps at practice because all he wanted to do was talk and talk and talk.

Hamlin smiles.

“He’s a natural-born leader,” Hamlin says, “and just wants to be in control of everything.”

Without question, this little brother is the No. 1 reason Hamlin chose Pitt.

He had 48 scholarship offers. He could’ve gone just about anywhere, whittling his top five down to Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame, Clemson and Pitt.

The chance to affect this one life overrode the prestige of more storied programs.

“I wanted to give him that image growing up,” Hamlin says, “that he can look back on and be able to model himself after. That’s something I never had. I had a bunch of examples of what not to do. I want to give him a different example. Me growing up, I always questioned if I was doing the right things. Just because I didn’t have anybody to look to, to say like, ‘This is the right thing to be doing.’ … I didn’t have anybody I could look to or lean on. That’s why I stayed home at Pitt. I chose Pitt over everybody. Just for that one reason — for my brother.”

Of course, on the football field, Hamlin faced a totally new challenge.

He wasn’t himself.

Share Go Long with Tyler Dunne

His brain would tell him one thing.

Break on the ball here. Close on the running back there.

Yet, his body could not deliver.

That’s what was most frustrating. One of the top recruits in the nation suddenly felt completely powerless. Like somebody else. His first year at Pitt was filled with nothing but total frustration. Damar Hamlin had two surgeries done to repair a sports hernia and the surgeries seemed to accomplish nothing.

Every practice was agonizing. He was told the problem was fixed when it most certainly was not.

“Knowing what you’re capable of in your head,” he explains, “but you can’t do it because something in you is not right. Your body is not right. There’s something in you that is not solved. … You want to keep trying but there was just pain. So much pain. That’s what the problem was — pain. Your brain is saying you want to but your body can’t. Something’s wrong.”

He was the No. 1-ranked defensive prospect in the entire state. He was destined for stardom, destined to be that beacon of inspiration for everyone in McKees Rocks. And now this? If Hamlin knew precisely what was wrong, fine, he could’ve mentally handled that. But not this cruel mystery.

The problem was that the school’s doctor used surgical “mesh.” He says this doctor — Brian Zuckerbraun — treated his ailment like a regular hernia and not a true sports hernia, the layman’s term for a core muscle injury. Which is much different. Which is when the muscle tears off of the bone and must be reattached, not patched together with mesh. Thus, the surgeries didn’t solve anything.

“I questioned myself — ‘Is this for me?’” Hamlin recalls. “I didn’t think I was going to get through it. I went through a lot. But it makes it even worse because it was out of my control. It wasn’t my body or anything. They were just doing the wrong shit. So that was tough to go through.”

To get by, to “stay afloat,” Hamlin started his own business. He turned a slogan he had used throughout his life — “Chasing Millions” — into a clothing brand. Coming from “a family of bosses,” he felt the urge to file for his own LLC. This helped clear his mind, a bit, but Hamlin was still losing his mind on the field. Going through a tough breakup with a girlfriend certainly didn’t help matters, either.

Hamlin very rarely shows his emotions, but the one person who did see exactly what he endured then was his roommate, teammate and best friend, Bricen Garner.

Garner remembers Hamlin telling him during games that he was hurting — bad — but that he wasn’t sure what to do. Do I tell the coaches? Do I suck it up? Since Hamlin didn’t want to appear weak, he pressed on. Pitt’s secondary coach, Archie Collins, remembers Hamlin insisting he needed to grit through the pain, too. (“Him being a tough kid," Collins says, “he wanted to play through all of that stuff.”) So, through it all, Garner tried to help Hamlin stay sane. Not that it was easy. They shared many long talks at night and this was right when Hamlin got into the Bible.

He’d read a scripture every day and constantly send passages to Garner to read.

“It was a grind,” Garner says. “He was pushing himself mentally and physically due to injury. The injury took a toll.”

Football, forever, was Hamlin’s escape from reality in McKees Rocks.

Then, football was taken from him.

“I’ll never forget that feeling of trying to go out there,” Hamlin says, “and practice those two years and not being OK. Shit was stressful as hell. It was shit I can’t even describe to you. Football is supposed to be your getaway from everything. That’s really what it is for me. Football has been my getaway from my reality — losing all my friends and dealing with all that trouble. Coming from where I come from, football’s always been my getaway. So, during that time when my getaway isn’t my getaway? That was tough.”

When Hamlin was on crutches, Garner carried his books to class for him. All along, he reminded him what the end goal was: “To show everybody who the real Damar Hamlin is.”

Adds Hamlin: “Bricen got me through it. He was there through everything.”

Finally, enough was enough. Pitt’s medical staff sent him to see the best of the best. On his birthday — March 24, 2017 — Hamlin underwent a third surgery to fix the core muscle injury. The most renowned core doctor in country, Dr. William Meyers of the Vincera Institute in Philadelphia, finally fixed Hamlin for good. In fact, right on the Vincera website is a “Why we don’t use mesh” section explaining how a hernia and a sports hernia are different. Clearly, Hamlin isn’t the only athlete to live this hell.

After a six-month recovery, Hamlin was himself again.

His seek-and-destroy playing style was a direct reflection of life in McKees Rocks, too.

He’d go on to lead the Panthers in tackles in 2018, rank second in 2019, then first again in 2020.

A fearless hitter, Hamlin finished his collegiate career with six interceptions, 27 pass breakups and 10 tackles for loss. Part of Collins wanted to tone him down… but he’d usually let him go.

He knew this physicality was rare and, no doubt, a byproduct of his past.

“His mentality is Pittsburgh-tough,” Collins says. “He’s been playing like that his whole career. Any time you’re growing up that way, you have things you remember. You always have experiences that you go through, and a lot of that stuff comes out through football. So, that’s how he plays.”

Both Collins and Garner believe Hamlin’s football IQ is what’ll forever separate him. Just by watching film and seeing how a receiver lines up — a foot this way, a foot that way — Hamlin seemed to always know which routes were coming.

“His ability to break down the opposing team is crazy,” says Garner, who’s now playing at Western Michigan. “It’s like he’s an extra coach in the room.”

Granted, Hamlin notes that Zuckerbraun never apologized.

Go Long reached out to Zuckerbraun this week but did not hear back.

“It was to a point where I could’ve filed a malpractice,” Hamlin says. “But since I was still playing, I really couldn’t. Because since I’m still out here functioning, it’s not like it’s stopping me.”

As his agent Ira Turner points out, many collegiate athletes don’t even know they can request a second opinion when they suffer an injury.

They’re trusting what they’re told. They go along with it.

Thankfully, Hamlin was able to get clarity through an outside party.

And yet, Hamlin isn’t living with any regrets. He knows he wouldn’t be the man he is today without all of these experiences. Every tragic death. Every torturous practice. It all molded his perspective on life today, all gave him a real appreciation for life.  Hamlin isn’t sure he’d be as community-driven as he is today without so much heartbreak.

His purpose in the world is clear: To spread love, to change lives.

“It’s all natural. It’s all genuine from the heart,” Hamlin says. “It’s not even stuff I have planned out. It’ll be things that just pop up in my head and I’m going to make sure it happens. I feel like that’s God talking to me. I really feel like that’s what my purpose is. That’s why he put me here. That’s why he made me make it to the NFL besides everybody that I lost. Everyone. That’s why I’m the one. He knows my heart. He knows my intentions. It’s all pure. That’s really what I stand on.”

So, it’s simple: Damar Hamlin must make a difference.

That’s what drives him today more than anything — the opportunity to inspire anyone he can in McKees Rocks and beyond. Just last week, Hamlin teamed up with fellow Pittsburgh natives in the NFL Miles Sanders, Kenny Robinson, Khaleke Hudson and Ford to host a youth football camp in Pittsburgh, “PGH2ThePros.”  He knows there are kids buried in poverty back in his neighborhood that need to meet someone like him.

He’s been in their shoes.

He’s walked their streets.

“I try to be a big voice for them,” Hamlin says, “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.’”

More kids will “swim” in life if they have a role model. That’s why Hamlin aims to one day start a program for kids with incarcerated parents that’ll insert a mentor right into their lives. Even with a Dad in prison, Hamlin was able to stay in his own “bubble.” Hamlin credits his Mom for making sure he didn’t stray — changing schools certainly helped. Drugs. Gangs. Guns. None of that was ever too appealing to him.

He always believed he had a “higher purpose.” Turner promises this belief is authentic, too.

“With him, it’s 100 percent genuine,” says Turner, of Agency 1 Sports. “He is passionate about giving back. Seeing those kids and how excited they were about NFL players coming back to really show them, ‘Hey, it can be more than what it is right now,’ that’s something he was missing growing up. In reality, a lot of guys don’t make it out where he’s from.

“I wasn’t familiar with the crime of that area but it’s incredible to see someone make it out and want to do something positive.”

Whenever Hamlin is back home, his parents tell him that his presence alone changes the energy in the house. And Garner knows all of those friends who died are on Hamlin’s mind all year long. Any time the anniversary for one friend’s death comes around, he’s seen Hamlin call that friend’s family just to chat. Garner believes alllll of the pain Hamlin has endured has only pushed him to be great.

Hamlin doesn’t view pain as a bad thing, he adds.

He uses it. Always.

And the best way for Hamlin to bring real change to his neighborhood now, of course, is by busting out in the pros.

To sustain success, the Bills absolutely will need a young wave of talent to emerge. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer form one of the best safety tandems in the NFL right now but — like everything around a rich quarterback — all good things will come to an end. You absolutely need the Hamlins of the world to break out. It’s a matter of when, not if, the Bills give Josh Allen a historic contract. After all, this is a franchise that toiled in quarterback purgatory for two decades.

Right now, the importance of every draft selection magnifies tenfold.

This front office has been dicey so far in the draft, too.

Worst-case scenario? Bad picks compound and you become the Raiders or the Eagles. Derek Carr (2016) and Carson Wentz (2017) were MVP frontrunners themselves at one point, paid handsomely and have yet to return to their MVP form. Horrendous personnel decisions can doom any quarterback. Wentz, especially, suffered from a string of god-awful drafts.

Best-case scenario? You hit on sixth-rounders. You find unique players with unique backgrounds like Hamlin and bring the Lombardi Trophy home.

Hamlin is well-aware who the Bills face in Week 1: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What an opportunity that’ll be to inspire. All football-loving kids with TV sets back in McKees Rocks will be tuning in. Further, one of Hamlin’s friends from Pittsburgh who is still alive is now a teammate. Cornerback Dane Jackson grew up on a different side of town but Hamlin is positive that Jackson experienced his own struggles.

“That’s just how life was,” Hamlin says. “Anybody you see from Pittsburgh that’s really from the city, to make it out? From the inner city? They’re going to have some stories.”

His new city is dying for a championship. Hamlin can feel it already.

He’s trying to learn everything that he can about Buffalo, too. An avid bowler, Hamlin has already heard about Strikers Lanes in Orchard Park. He’s shocked to hear there are actually beaches in Western New York, too. He’ll work Woodlawn Beach into his schedule at some point.

And when this season begins, Hamlin knows the Bills will need him.

With a game on the line. Maybe a season on the line.

At some point, his number will be called.

“I don’t know when,” he says, “but I will be ready. I will be ready.”

With most all wings in front of him polished off — and those fries ancient history — Hamlin then heads off into the night determined to change McKees Rocks right here in Buffalo.

Share Go Long with Tyler Dunne

Give a gift subscription