On Monday night, Jan. 2, 24-year-old Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, suffered cardiac arrest after a tackle in the first quarter of Monday night’s National Football League game between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals.
The game immediately came to a halt as medical personnel rushed onto the field to tend to Hamlin.
Within minutes, the players on the field, the thousands of fans at Paycor Stadium, and the estimated 23 million fans watching the game on ESPN realized that this wasn’t just another injury.
As the seriousness of Hamlin’s injury began to emerge, players, coaches and officials took to the field to comfort one another while coaches and paramedics worked to save the young man’s life with a defibrillator and CPR.
Almost instinctively, the players gathered around Hamlin’s still body, shielding him, embracing him with their tears and their prayers while thousands in the stands and millions more stared at their screens, silently waiting for any clue as to what was going on, any sign of hope.
At 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 kept us cold, reminding us of our own mortality, of how fragile, unpredictable and precious every moment is.
The game was canceled when hundreds of fans came out of the stadium to gather in the rain outside the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to hold a vigil for Hamlin.
Prayers and messages of support from fellow athletes from across the sporting spectrum were poured in as, in just a few hours, fans and organizations donated $3.6 million to Hamlin’s toy charity drive for a local daycare.
An 11:30pm update from the hospital was canceled. All that was known that evening was that Hamlin was in critical condition.
The next morning we learned that the emergency care Hamlin received during those critical minutes on the field restored his heartbeat and that he remained sedated and in critical condition at UC in the company of family members.
This story is not over yet.
That Hamlin lives, recovers, and continues living what seemed like a life of promise, compassion, and kindness in his first 24 years is everyone’s hope.
Certainly one of the questions that will be explored afterwards, whatever the outcome, will be why would anyone even play such a violent game, risk so much, for what? Money?
This 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 a risk of injury, it’s part of the cost of competing, but in football it’s almost guaranteed.
On many occasions over the years I have thought about writing about my football experiences. But looking back on that experience, so many years away from gaming, I can see and feel the violence in a more instinctive and dangerous way than I could ever while gaming. It’s no exaggeration to hear footballers say they feel invincible on the pitch. The combination of adrenaline and armor is intoxicating.
I was injured during a training session.
Apologies to readers unfamiliar with football terminology.
I played linebacker and tried to attack the ball carrier in a script. While attempting to make the tackle, I tried to fight my way through blocks from several linemen.
I don’t really remember what happened next. Everything went in slow motion. The next thing I knew I was lying on my back on the floor.
I wanted to get up but I couldn’t. I could not move. I was able to raise my head and tried to say something, but my face mask got in the way. I tried to spit it out. It didn’t matter…
I don’t know how long I lay there, whether it was seconds or minutes, time still passed in slow motion. I remember being confused, then really scared, feeling lonely like I had never felt in my life, and all of a sudden I came to terms with the fact that my life was over… it was over.
I knew what had happened. I knew people were paralyzed when they played football. I just couldn’t understand how it could happen to me, why it happened.
It wasn’t thousands of people in the stands or millions more watching on TV. It was just my teammates and coaches, a Tuesday afternoon practice session.
I could hear people around me, excitement but nothing registered. Someone took my face mask. I remember Coach Roberts leaning over me and talking to me, but I couldn’t understand it. I was all alone
Within minutes I felt my extremities again and started moving my toes and feet. I wasn’t permanently paralyzed. I was incredibly lucky. Decisions were made and I was wheeled off the field into a car and taken to St Elizabeth’s ER fully kitted out.
I spent the next three days in the hospital, where I was x-rayed and subjected to all sorts of tests.
Our team doctor, Dr. Landis, kept me updated on everything and called in a Green Bay Packers specialist to take a look and give his opinion.
Casts from teammates alternated with visits. It felt unfair. I’d never had a serious injury playing football, nothing more than the usual sprains and dislocations and bruises, but I sat there, no cast, no stitches, no surgery.
I don’t know if it was denial, or a desire to get back on the field, or an acceptance of injuries that players can expect year after year as the game progresses, but I fully expected to play again.
dr Landis was the first to tell me otherwise. I don’t remember his exact words, but actually he advised me never to play football again. He made his case. He told me I was lucky, very lucky, that as best they could tell from the x-rays and physical tests, the spinal cord was pinched when the force of the duel threw my head either forward or back on my chest my neck was thrown, causing temporary paralysis from the neck down. They could tell by the swelling between the vertebrae.
Doc kept saying how lucky I was and even if the chances of getting hit like that again were minimal, the risk was too great because next time it could and most likely would be very different.
At the time, I was working part-time as a counselor at a transitional home for juvenile delinquents a few blocks off campus while I went to school. dr Ed Woods was the psychologist who founded the program and hired me. He and I had become close friends. He was the second doctor to tell me not to play soccer again, actually he said “wouldn’t” especially if I was his son.
Growing up, Sundays were church, hot ham and hard buns from Sentry and Packer games on black-and-white TV, followed by more soccer with friends in the vacant lot down the street.
My heroes were Bart Star, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, Vince Lombardis Packers. The enemy was Johnny Unitas and the Colts and later Tom Landry and the Cowboys. I have repeated the Ice Bowl and Super Bowls in my backyard. My father and I loved watching football and talking about it.
My parents were staunch fans from high school through college, home games, car rides, they were there.
After the college games, my dad would take me and some of my teammates out to dinner where we would replay the games while my mom listened patiently, smiling and adding her 2 cents where she could.
They both had sex with Dr. Landis before they came to see me.
My dad was the first to enter my hospital room and it was pretty obvious where he was standing by the worried but still biggest fan look on his face.
Despite the doctors and my father, it still flickered, deep inside me, I hadn’t given up, given up on my dream. Maybe it was because I was 20 years old, maybe it was because there was no cast or stitches, certainly my love of the game and apart from being sore and a little bit awkward I felt good, good enough to play again.
I had seen my mother cry before, but not like this, and she was strong. She said nothing, just tears and a smothering hug. Invincible was still holding on until I saw in her eyes what that had done to her, what she would do to her if I tried to play again.
It was a different kind of resignation, different from lying on the ground and letting fate make the decision for you. It sounds petty now in retrospect, but to accept in that moment that I wouldn’t play another game in the game I loved so much hurt, but nowhere near what it would have cost my mom if I did would have decided to go back on the field again… so I didn’t, ever again.
Why did it hurt to make such an obvious decision?
As so many have said after Hamlin’s injury, football so often involves the nomenclature of war, going to war, going into battle, defeating the enemy, making the sacrifice necessary. To be clear, there is no war, there is no oath to the Constitution, and the ultimate sacrifice, even though it happened, isn’t that important to the game we’re playing.
Football is a game and we are not soldiers.
However, there are things the two have in common and perhaps the most important one comes from the nature of the team. Soldiers will tell you that they fight first for their brothers in arms, then for the family, and then for the country.
I loved the game but I played for my teammates. We practiced together, traveled together, ate together, won and lost together. We had to trust each other to do our jobs.
Over time, that trust has bonded us together, a camaraderie and friendship that has practically turned into family. Going through seasons together, winning and losing, writing our story together, builds the kind of bonds that last long after the game is over.
Today I have memories and friendships that I cherish, that have added to the richness of my life, and that I would count among the most precious parts of my life. She gave me the game.
It sounds cliche how the game is like life, how it teaches leadership and how to overcome challenges and build trust, but it’s also true.
Certainly, for many players, football is a way out, a way up, a chance for a better life, like in the military. It is an opportunity to share this success with her family and community.
I loved and still love the game of soccer, but I never had the opportunity to play the game for money.
If you were to ask Hamlin now, I wonder how he would answer.