STILL DEFYING DEATH, AS WE GASP AND PRAY, HAMLIN RETURNS TO FOOTBALL
Not five months since the terrifying night when his heart stopped — twice — it’s fair to ask if a cardiac survivor should resume contact in a violent sport, even as millions root for an epic comeback
The human heart is our almighty overlord, always. No matter where we go and what we do — the heights we attain, the wealth we amass, the power we command — a journey ends once blood stops pumping through the circulatory system. Reminders aren’t necessary when heart disease remains the sinister equalizer, the leading cause of death globally.
Which is why I’m unnerved, if not frightened, by the sight of Damar Hamlin back on a practice field. It will be an all-time triumph of the mortal spirit, of course, if he returns to the Buffalo Bills, plays several more NFL seasons and conquers the January night in Cincinnati when his heart twice was stopped by cardiac arrest. Only the dead have been closer to death, yet here he is, just 25, resuming his career in the same violent, ghastly sport.
He says he doesn’t want the episode to be “the end of my story.” But is he risking the end of his life if he gives the grim reaper another chance? I am no cardiologist, though I was treated by one. My defect was common, a blocked artery supported by a stent inserted through my thigh as I watched hazily on a screen in New Orleans. Hamlin’s condition was as mysterious and freaky as it sounds — commotio cordis — and random enough to give us all pause. The heart can’t beat if an electrical impulse is interrupted and natural rhythms are suspended. That’s what happened when he was struck in the chest while tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, instantly collapsing on “Monday Night Football,” left motionless on the turf.
As a defensive back in the epicenter of contact, Hamlin will be involved in many more collisions. Every time he’s poised to tackle an opponent in the open field, will we gasp, hope and beg to the gods that he’ll survive the hit and get up for another down? No one wants to think the worst, amid the exhilaration of rooting for an epic comeback, but shouldn’t responsible minds at least ask uncomfortable questions? It’s his life, I know. Still, millions watched and lived the horror — the frantic resuscitation attempts, the tears and prayers of large men on the field, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman trying to inform viewers in the TV booth, the ambulance, the officials on their phones, the palpable fear in the winter chill before the league postponed a game that never was completed and caused an unprecedented postseason disruption.
And I speak for Planet Earth in saying we don’t want to experience anything like it again.
Doctors who have devoted livelihoods to care and research — and have no interest in endangering Hamlin or sabotaging their professional reputations — say the event was an extreme rarity. He has spent recent months traveling and conferring with top experts. They have green-lighted his return, led by Thom Mayer, medical director of the NFL Players Association, who said, “I guarantee you … that Damar Hamlin will play professional football again.”
So here he is, mere weeks before training camp and almost three months from the regular season, joining teammates in individual drills and stretching exercises. His coach, Sean McDermott, said the team is in a cautious day-to-day mode and supporting Hamlin “in every way possible … from a mind, body and spirit standpoint.” He has yet to participate in a complete practice and there is no estimate when he would put on pads. But the full expectation, as Mayer said, is that he’ll return to the fraught gridiron only months after dying twice. It seems much too soon. Retirement is more prudent — a position in the Bills organization, a life of motivational speeches and public appearances, a champion of external defibrillators. He won’t hear of it.
He has made his decision, refusing to let the heart interfere with his love of life and the sport.
“My heart is still in the game,” Hamlin said. “I love the game. It’s something I want to prove to myself, not nobody else. I just want to show people that fear is a choice, that you can keep going in something without having the answers and without knowing what’s at the end of the tunnel. You might feel anxious … but you just keep putting that right foot in front of the left one and you keep going.”
Nor is he the least bit queasy about sharing memories of his ordeal, including the diagnosis that night. “It’s a direct blow at a specific point in your heartbeat that causes cardiac arrest. Five to seven seconds later, you fall out, and that’s pretty much what everybody’s seen Jan. 2 of this year,” Hamlin said. “Commotio cordis is the leading cause of death in youth athletes across all sports, so that’s something that I will personally be taking a step in to make a change.”
We’ll have to deal with the comeback angst by ourselves, then. He has been invigorated by winning the ultimate game — the defiance of death — and the challenge to keep winning. “Not to sound cliche, man, but the ‘wow’ moment is every day just being able to wake up and just take deep breaths and live a peaceful life,” he said, “to have a family, to have people around me that love me and that care about me, and for those people to still have me in their lives. They almost lost me. I died on national TV in front of the whole world.”
He is meeting no resistance. President Biden was thrilled during a White House visit when Hamlin, asked if he’d play again, quickly shot back, “Yeah, I think so.” He went so far to hang out with Higgins, now a close friend, and other Bengals receivers during a “desert safari.” His teammates are in awe, with quarterback Josh Allen saying, “Right when this thing happened, his mindset from the very start was, ‘I’m going to play again.’ And you’re never going to doubt a guy like that.”
Said Hamlin’s position coach, John Butler: “To have him out there, in the drills, in the walk-throughs, in the meetings and just around day-to-day, I think it’s incredible. Just continuing to look forward to how many more steps he’s going to take to get to where he eventually wants to get to. I’m just proud to be his coach and proud to be a part of that experience, and to help him physically, mentally and on the field, however we can.” Asked about a timetable for contact drills, Butler said he’s “definitely heading in the right direction.”
The Bills are responsible not only for Hamlin’s health but the mental well-being of a community, in western New York, that embraces its football team like few other markets. They have shown no hesitation about letting him carry on in the mainstream view, citing unanimity among cardiac specialists. “They’re all in agreement,” general manager Brandon Beane said. “It’s not two to one or three to one or anything like that.”
The league, too, is ceding to Hamlin and his wishes — liability be damned. Commissioner Roger Goodell was excited to greet him at the Super Bowl in Arizona, where he received an award from the NFLPA only days after leaving the hospital. “My vision was about playing in the NFL and being the best player that I could be,” Hamlin said then. “But God’s plan was to have a purpose greater than any game in this world. … I have a long journey ahead, a journey full of unknowns and a journey full of milestones. But it’s a lot easier to face your fears when you know your purpose.”
His purpose, evidently, is confronting and beating the reaper and its scythe. If that means resuming the game that almost killed him and attacking receivers with his best shots, well, God love him. We don’t have to watch, I suppose.
But I think we will.
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.