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DAMAR HAMLIN IS ALIVE AND SPEAKING, WHICH IS ALL THAT MATTERS TODAY
A miracle has been delivered in Cincinnati, where Hamlin shared a FaceTime moment with his Bills teammates — a reminder that playoff logistics talk is insignificant and insensitive to the gift of life
A man’s life has been rescued in full view of millions. Let’s be happy today. Let’s be ecstatic — and focus on humankind, not on whether the NFL is being fair to the Bills and other teams in reconfiguring the postseason. Who cares about the playoffs? Damar Hamlin appears to have won the battle against his failing heart, to the wonderful point where he could ask bedside visitors in writing about the well-being of his teammates.
“Did we win?” he asked his doctors, who were beyond overwhelmed to see him return from the dead — twice — and able to inquire about life outside his hospitalized space.
“The answer is yes, Damar, you won. You’ve won the game of life,” said Dr. Timothy Pritts, relating a precious conversation with the fallen NFL player in the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Medically, the exchange meant: “We know that it’s not only the lights that are on. We know that he’s home. And it appears all the cylinders are firing within his brain, which is greatly gratifying for all of us.”
By Friday morning, as Hamlin continued to make progress described as “remarkable,” his breathing tube was removed. It allowed him to share a brief FaceTime moment with his teammates in Buffalo. This was the extraordinary moment we’ve awaited for five chilling days in America.
“Love you, boys,” Hamlin said during the Bills’ team meeting.
The players had been told, by coach Sean McDermott, that “we had a treat in store.” The room exploded in joy. “Amazing. Touching,” he said. “To see Damar, number one, through my own eyes — I know that’s something I’ve been looking forward to. Kind of needing to see, I guess.”
We needed a miracle in this world. That it was delivered on a football field is relief for the NFL, which is facing a new round of rightful questions about the safety and sanity of its game. But much more importantly, it proves that one of us can suffer cardiac arrest and survive, days later, with a chance to have sufficient neurological functions. It’s unrealistic to think Hamlin will wear a helmet and shoulder pads again, but he has been positioned to lead a quality life by the physicians and medical personnel who made the league, two franchises and the city of Cincinnati look prepared and proud. Say what you will about the NFL, but also say it saved Damar Hamlin.
“Great news,” President Joe Biden tweeted. “Damar, like I told your mom and dad yesterday, Jill and I — along with all of America — are praying for you and your family.”
His words were vital. The prayers shouldn’t stop. We shouldn’t exhale and return to our regularly scheduled football programming without realizing the magnitude of what Hamlin and the rest of us have experienced. The heart is not something that routinely beats in the chest. It can stop in an instant, inexplicably, regardless of age or gender or line of work. Just because a 24-year-old man is alive doesn’t mean significant lessons aren’t to be heeded. A league that has minimized brain trauma now must properly appreciate heart health, as well. Said Dr. William Knight IV, also in the room with Hamlin in the intensive care unit: “When we talk about neurologically intact, it’s a very gross term of big motor movements and following commands. When we talk about the finer things that make us human — cognition, emotion, speech, language, etc. — we’re looking forward to learning more about that.”
Why did Hamlin’s heart falter? His family — all families — await official information, assuming it comes. Imagine the grief of his loved ones as they watched the frightening scene on the field: the tears, the long embraces, the blank stares, the CPR attempts followed by the ambulance and ride to the hospital. His uncle, Dorrian Glenn, was watching at the family home outside Pittsburgh when Hamlin’s younger brother began to cry and scream.
“We were trying to calm him down like, ‘Yo, it’s OK. He is going to get back up and get back in the game.’ Next thing you know, it’s 10 minutes later, they are doing chest compression,” Glenn said. “It’s a half-hour later, they are still not playing, and I’m like, ‘What’s going on? What’s wrong with my nephew?’ When I say we were all in the room crying, man, we were all in tears. I’m not a crier, but I have never cried so hard in my life. Just to know my nephew basically died on the field, and they brought him back to life, I mean, that is just heartbreaking. To see all those grown men crying, and to see all the emotion, it was a gut punch.”
I speak for many who have been there — not on death’s edge, but unwell enough to have a stent inserted through my thigh and into a blocked artery. I’ve never taken life for granted since, with heart protection a prominent priority. I left a wretched newspaper environment mostly because I didn’t want to die on the job, which could have happened that evening in New Orleans, where I was supposed to cover a meaningless Sugar Bowl game for a Chicago rag. I’d ignored the brick sensation in my chest while rushing to the gate at O’Hare. I continued to ignore it during the flight, when the passenger beside me asked if I was having a heart attack. I continued to ignore it upon landing when a guy behind an airport information booth suggested Pepto Bismol. Not for hours did I call the front desk at the hotel. The medics asked if I was using cocaine. I told them I only had a junk-food addiction, and when I returned home days later, I immediately began a swimming-and-biking, chicken-and-salad regimen that led me to California, where I can work out year-round.
Almost 16 years to the day, I am thankful to be healthier than ever and capable of writing about fighters like Damar Hamlin. All this jibber-jabber about the revised postseason format is insensitive. I care much more about the mental fitness of the Bills and every league player who has to wear a uniform this weekend. If they aren’t performing at a maximum level, now and the rest of the season, please understand why.
“Just as a player, as that being our brother and him being so close, you're just wondering is he going to be all right in the end,” Bills cornerback Dane Jackson said. “So once we got updates and once we got feedback, it just started to make us feel a little better.”
“The scene replays over and over in your head,” star quarterback Josh Allen said. “It's hard to describe how I felt and how my teammates felt in that moment. It's something we'll never forget. You lose sleep. You're hurt for your brother. A lot of shared grief, but getting updates and positive updates eases so much of that pain and that tension that you feel.’’
If the Bills and Bengals weren’t able to play football Monday night, the switch to full game mode shouldn’t be expected to flip suddenly. Absolutely, America is rooting for the Bills to launch a Super Bowl run. Their mission shouldn’t be encumbered by pressure. “Yeah, I just think there was no way in hell that we were ready to go out there and play a game,” center Mitch Morse said. “To play this game, where you have to be mentally to be on the field not only for yourself and your well-being but for others around you, it just would have done a disservice for everyone. There was just no chance. I think the biggest thing is just hearing from the family and hearing how he's progressed — that it has put, to say, a smile on our faces would be an understatement. We were as elated as you possibly could be as a team. It was a really cool moment. And then being able to put the pads on, being able to do a little bit of football today was very therapeutic for a lot of guys. It's still one of those situations that will keep going, progressing.”
The love-in Sunday in Buffalo will be unforgettable. It’s an “important” game for playoff seeding purposes and for the New England Patriots, who need a victory to secure a wild-card berth. The league had no choice but to cancel the Bills-Bengals game, with common sense preventing the logistical gymnastics of replaying or resuming it as the postseason nears. But the cancellation has caused an uproar in some insensitive corners — the Skip Bayless side of dark life — because it probably leaves the Bills at a winning-percentage disadvantage even if they beat the Patriots. They hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over Kansas City, but, under the new scenario presented Friday to league owners, the Chiefs would be declared the No. 1 conference seed and receive the first-round bye if both teams win this weekend. The Chiefs would be 14-3 with a win in Las Vegas. The Bills would be 13-3.
Yes, the Chiefs would benefit from an extra week of rest — which means everything from a Super Bowl perspective — that they wouldn’t have received had the Bills finished 14-3. No, the league is not “punishing” the Bills because they couldn’t finish the Monday night game. This is the only feasible solution, including an AFC championship game at a neutral site if necessary.
“This has been a very difficult week,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We continue to focus on the recovery of Damar Hamlin and are encouraged by the improvements in his condition as well as the tremendous outpouring of support and care for Damar and his family from across the country. We are also incredibly appreciative of the amazing work of the medical personnel and commend each and every one of them.
“As we considered the football schedule, our principles have been to limit disruption across the league and minimize competitive inequities. I recognize there is no perfect solution. The proposal … addresses the most significant potential equitable issues created by the difficult, but necessary, decision not to play the game under these extraordinary circumstances.”
All thoughts and considerations, at this point, should be channeled through the hospital room of Damar Hamlin. I’m sure he wants the Bills to have the week off and home-field advantage, which could happen if the Chiefs lose, and I’m sure he wants to wear a Super Bowl ring next month.
But the biggest championship already has been decided.
He won. Death lost.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.