Monday night, Jan. 2, 24-year-old Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, suffered cardiac arrest following a tackle during the first quarter of the National Football League’s Monday night game between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals.
The game immediately came to a standstill as medical personnel rushed onto the field to attend to Hamlin.
Within minutes it became obvious to the players on the field, the thousands of fans in Paycor Stadium and to the estimated 23 million fans watching the game on ESPN, that this was not just another injury.
As the seriousness of Hamlin’s injury began to sink in, players, coaches and officials on the field consoled each other while trainers and paramedics worked to save the young man’s life using a defibrillator and administering CPR.
Almost instinctively, the players gathered around Hamlin’s motionless body, shielding him from view, embracing him with their tears and their prayers, as thousands in the stands and millions more stared at their screens silently waiting for any indication of what was going on, any signs of hope.
In that moment, the world we all know and live in, stood still, football fan or not, it was the headline everywhere, CNN, the New York Times, Twitter, Facebook. It stopped us cold, reminded us of our own mortality, of how fragile, unpredictable and precious each moment is.
The game was canceled as hundreds of fans made their way from the stadium to gather in the rain outside the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to hold a candlelight vigil for Hamlin.
Prayers and messages of support poured in from fellow athletes across the spectrum of sport as fans and organizations donated $3.6 million dollars in a matter of hours to Hamlin’s charity toy drive for a local day care.
An 11:30 p.m. update from the hospital was canceled. All anyone knew that night was Hamlin was in critical condition.
We learned the next morning, the emergency care Hamlin received in those critical minutes on the field restored his heartbeat and that he remained sedated and in critical condition at the UC in the company of family members.
This story is not over.
That Hamlin lives, recovers and goes on to live what, in its first 24 years, looked to be a life filled with promise, compassion and kindness, is everyone’s hope.
Certainly one of the questions that will be examined in the aftermath, whatever the outcome, will be, why would someone choose to play such a violent game in the first place, risk so much, for what? Money?
Here is where my story and Damar’s intersect.
I was injured playing Division III college football in 1977. Football is a violent sport at any level. Ask the players. In high school, I heard a teammate’s tibia snap. In college, I saw a teammate dislocate his ankle. All sports have the risk of injury, it is part of the cost to compete, but with football it is almost guaranteed.
I have thought about writing about my football experience on many occasions over the years. But when I look back on that experience, so many years removed from playing, I can see and feel the violence in a more visceral and dangerous way than I ever could while I was playing. It is not an exaggeration when you hear football players say they feel invincible on the field. The combination of adrenaline and armor is intoxicating.
I was injured during a practice.
Apologies to readers who are not familiar with football terminology.
I played linebacker, and I was attempting to tackle the ball carrier on a screenplay. In the process of trying to make the tackle, I tried to fight my way through the blocks of several linemen.
I don’t really remember what happened next. Everything went into slow motion. The next thing I knew, I was on my back on the ground.
I went to get up, but I could not. I could not move. I could raise my head, and I tried to say something but my mouthguard got in the way. I tried to spit it out. It didn’t matter …
I don’t know how long I laid there, whether it was seconds or minutes, time was still moving in slow motion. I do remember being confused, then really scared, feeling alone like I had never felt before in my life, and all at once resigned to my life being over … it was over.
I knew what had happened. I knew people had been paralyzed playing football. I just couldn’t understand how it could have happened to me, why it happened.
There were not thousands of people in the stands or millions more watching on TV. It was just my teammates and coaches, a Tuesday afternoon practice.
I could hear people around me, commotion, but nothing registered. Someone took my mouthguard. I remember Coach Roberts bent over me, talking to me, but I could not understand. I was completely alone.
Within a matter of minutes, I was beginning to feel my extremities again and began to move my toes and feet. I was not permanently paralyzed. I was unbelievably lucky. Decisions were made and I was assisted off the field into a car and whisked to the St. Elizabeth's ER still in full gear.
I spent the next three days in the hospital being x-rayed and undergoing all sorts of tests.
Our team physician, Dr. Landis, kept me apprised of everything that was going on and called in a specialist from the Green Bay Packers to take a look at everything and share his opinion.
Casts of teammates took turns visiting. It felt unfair. I had never before sustained a serious injury while playing football, nothing more than the usual sprains and twists and bruising, yet there I sat, no casts, no stitches, no surgery.
I don’t know if it was denial or the desire to get back on the field again, or the acceptance of injury that players are conditioned to expect built in over the course of playing the game year in and year out, but I fully expected to play again.
Dr. Landis was the first to tell me otherwise. I don’t remember his exact words, but in effect he advised me not to play football again, ever. He made his case. He told me I was lucky, very fortunate, that as best they could deduce from the x-rays and physical tests, when my head got snapped either forward to my chest or backward from the force of the tackle, it pinched the spinal cord in my neck and caused temporary paralysis from my neck down. They could tell that from the amount of swelling between the vertebrae.
Doc kept saying how lucky I was and even if the chances of being hit like that again were minimal, the risk was too great because next time, the outcome could, and most likely would, be very different.
At that time, I was working part-time as a counselor in a halfway house for delinquent youth a few blocks off campus while I was going to school. Dr. Ed Woods was the psychologist who had founded the program and hired me. He and I had become close friends. He was the second doctor to tell me I should not play football again, actually he said “would not” especially if I were his son.
Growing up, Sundays were church, hot sliced ham and hard rolls from Sentry and Packer games on black and white TV followed by more football with buddies in the vacant lot down the street.
My heroes were Bart Star, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, Vince Lombardi’s Packers. The enemy was Johnny Unitas and the Colts and later Tom Landry and the Cowboys. I replayed the Ice Bowl and super bowls in my backyard. My dad and I loved watching and talking football.
My parents were loyal fans through high school and into college, home games, road trips, they were there.
After college games, my dad would take me and several of my teammates out to dinner where we would replay the games while my mom would patiently listen, smile and add her 2 cents where she could.
They had both spoken with Dr. Landis before coming in to see me.
My dad was the first to enter my hospital room, and it was pretty clear from the concerned but still biggest fan look on his face where he stood.
Despite the docs and my dad it still flickered, deep inside, I had not quit, given up on my dream. Maybe it was being 20 years old, maybe it was because there was no cast or stitches, for sure my love of the game, and other than being sore and a little awkward, I felt fine, good enough to play again.
I had seen my mom cry before, but not like this, and she was strong. She did not say anything, just tears and a smothering embrace. Invincible was still hanging on, until I saw in her eyes what this had done to her, would do to her if I tried to play again.
That was a different kind of resignation, different from laying on the ground and having the decision made for you by fate. It sounds petty now looking back, but in that moment accepting that I would not play another down in the game I loved so dearly, it hurt, but nowhere near what it would have cost my mom if I had chosen to walk back onto the field again … so I didn’t, not ever again.
Why did it hurt to make such an obvious decision?
As has been said by so many in the wake of Hamlin’s injury, football so often incorporates the nomenclature of war, of going to war, going to battle, defeating the enemy, making the necessary sacrifice. To be clear, it is not war, there is no oath to the constitution and the ultimate sacrifice, although it has happened, is not as integral to the game we play.
Football is a game, and we are not soldiers.
There are, however, things the two share and maybe the most significant comes from the nature of the team. Soldiers will tell you they fight for their brothers in arms first, then family, then country.
I loved the game, but I played for my teammates. We practiced together, traveled together, ate meals together, won and lost together. We had to trust each other to do our jobs.
Over time that trust glued us together, a camaraderie and friendship that for all practical purposes translated into family. Going through seasons together, winning and losing, writing our story together builds the kinds of ties that bind long after the game is over.
I have memories and friendships today that I treasure dearly, that have contributed to the richness of my life and that I would consider among the most valuable parts of my life. The game gave those to me.
It sounds cliche, how the game is like life, how it teaches leadership and how to overcome challenges and build trust but it is also true.
Certainly for many players, football is a way out, a way up, a chance to live a better life not unlike the military. It is an opportunity to share that success with their family and community.
I loved and still love the game of football, but I never had the opportunity to play the game for money.
If you asked Hamlin now, I wonder how he would answer.