Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, a sixth-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft, had his heartbeat restored after suffering cardiac arrest during Sunday’s game against Cincinnati.
When the NFL calendar gets to this point in the season, every game played has a high-stakes feel to it.
Super Bowl contenders are jockeying for home-field advantage. Playoff wannabes are doing whatever they can just to get into the playoffs. And of course, those whose postseason fate was sealed weeks ago because of a crappy record, are just “developing players” for the future.
But as we, unfortunately, witnessed in the Buffalo-Cincinnati game, the high stakes often associated with the game of football pale in comparison to the game of life for which we are all players.
Bills safety Damar Hamlin, a sixth-round pick in the 2021 draft who worked his way up to being a starter, was in critical condition after having his heartbeat restored after suffering cardiac arrest in the first quarter of Sunday’s game.
Let that sink in for a minute.
This 24-year-old, among the most physically-fit humans walking the face of the earth, died before being brought back to life courtesy of the medical folks on-site at the game.
At a time when most fans are bunkering down in support of their own teams, something like this becomes an unexpected unifier that goes far and beyond a football game or for that matter, a football player.
Hamlin’s near-death experience wasn’t just a football player having a health setback, like an injured knee or sore arm that can easily be shrugged off as just one of those things that comes with the territory of playing the game.
This was a man who died before our very eyes and was brought back to life moments later.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Ryan Clark, an analyst for ESPN, spoke shortly after the incident from the perspective of a former player who also had a near-death experience on the football field, in 2007.
“At 24 [years old], I didn’t even know I could die,” Clark told ESPN’s Michael Eaves on Sunday. “And this young man is faced with that, playing a game he loves.”
The road ahead for Hamlin the football player is not known, nor is it something we should even be contemplating at this point. All the focus right now should be on him getting a chance going forward to use the 1,440 minutes of life we are given every day.
Because his heart attack and the outpouring of love and support in the hours afterward, should be a reminder of how quickly and unexpectedly all that we know and love, can be gone.
Just. Like. That.
Yes, that Buffalo-Cincy game was a big one with serious playoff implications.
But as we saw repeatedly following Hamlin being transported to the hospital, the tribalization of most fanbases was nowhere to be found. The vigil outside of his hospital wasn’t filled with Buffalo fans or Cincinnati fans. They were human beings connecting via the most fundamental bonding agent we all have in varying amounts - empathy for human life.
The NFL took the unprecedented step of postponing the game indefinitely, making it absolutely crystal clear that this was not one of those “move on, nothing to see here” moments that we so often see are the norm when a football player is carted off the field.
The league recognized this moment was bigger than just a player being hurt—bigger than the potential playoff ramifications that will arise with the outcome of the game undecided.
There’s an emotional detachment most players have honed over years of dealing with on-the-field setbacks that in a sense, serve as a sort of immunity to physical and mental pain.
But the way players for both Buffalo and Cincinnati reacted, you could tell this hit them differently; not just because it was unexpected, but also because of the incident itself.
This was a young man who nearly died, the kind of emotional trauma those of us who have witnessed death firsthand, would not wish upon our worst enemy.
Hamlin’s heart attack unfurled the power that sports has on all of us, from the die-hard fan to the casual one, connecting us via triumphs one moment, or tragedies the next while also reminding us in the process of what really matters.
Football, while important in the societal fabric of who we are, is not a life-or-death game. What Hamlin is dealing with now, which so many of us can relate to—the game of life—is.