Damar Hamlin and a Gladiator’s Game

For a long time, I had been telling anyone that would listen that we would see a player die on the field in my lifetime. I had noticed a trend from back in 2009, which was the first time I could remember a player being clearly knocked unconscious (and at least not immediately regaining consciousness. It was either my junior or senior year in high school and Larry Fitzgerald was playing for the Arizona Cardinals. I can’t find a clip at this time, but I remember it being in the endzone. That image was seared in my brain, and was the most vicious and violent reminder of the game that I and many of us worldwide love.

Fast forward a few (or more) years later, and of course, concussions were more of a “thing” in the national consciousness but they seemed to be becoming far more obvious. The “knockout” blows that left players motionless (amid obvious unconsciousness) were becoming far more common and a scene like Fitzgerald’s over the years seemed to go from an image we saw once a season to once a week, if not multiple times on an NFL Sunday.

Then, it got scarier. We started to see posturing or the “fencing response” like Donald Parham of the Chargers and Tua Tagovailoa (the latter of which was the second concussion in nearly as many days). There were other violent collisions where players appeared lifeless before even hitting the ground, like Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph.

Scary scenes played out across the league, most pertaining to head injuries. But along the way we got desensitized, as the games always went on. Head injuries, ACL’s, or even neck and spinal cord injuries (like in the case of Ryan Shazier) the show always went on. The show must go on.

But the other night on Monday Night Football, in a highly anticipated matchup with playoff implications between two AFC powers, the Bengals and Bills, the worst case scenario played out.

Bengals receiver Tee Higgins caught a ball for first down yardage before being taken down by Bills safety Damar Hamlin in an innocent-enough looking tackle. It appeared to be a routine play as Hamlin got up long enough to adjust his facemask before collapsing to the ground. Medical staffs of both teams and medical personnel were quick to realize this was not a normal injury and promptly got the necessary devices, like defibrillators and motioned for the ambulance to come out.

A few ad breaks later, and it was apparent this was VERY serious. They weren’t leaving for the hospital any time soon and we were eventually informed by Joe Buck that the medical staff had been performing CPR on Hamlin for nine minutes, an eternity in life-saving interactions.

As the ambulance slowly left the stadium, it waited for Hamlin’s mother to join them for the ride to the hospital. With the lack of urgency to the hospital, coupled with the limited word from the broadcasting booth and shocked faces of players, I was fairly certain they were taking a corpse to the hospital. I feared that we had just watched a player lose his life on national television.

A second-year player out of Pitt. A twenty-four-year-old.

It quickly turned from a story that the NFL community and sports world mourned, before turning to a national and worldwide news story. Since then, some good has come out of it. Encouraging signs have been reported for Hamlin, as he remains in critical condition but is slowly being taken off of oxygen. Many well-wishers have expressed their support on social media and in-person at the hospital, as many Bills fans remained in Cincinnati to hold a candelit vigil outside his hospital.

Support has also poured in for Hamlin’s charity, a toy drive in his local community. The initial $2,500 GoFundMe goal has now exceeded an astounding $6 million in donations, as contributions from the NFL community and sports world, as well as many Bills and Bengals fans have continued to pile up from all over.

Ultimately, for once, the game did not go on. The game was suspended roughly an hour after the initial injury, as players and coaches alike (not to mentioned shocked fans and TV viewers) had experienced a collective trauma that wouldn’t soon vanish.

And now the Bills’ season, much like the NFL’s, has a black eye over it. It will be hard to remember this week, let alone this season, without thinking about Hamlin’s life-altering injury. Whether or not he pulls through, we will have a stark reminder staring us in the face the next time we turn on the TV for an NFL broadcast. The players will share the same fate, running out of the tunnel and across the white lines for what will be just another game. Just another NFL Sunday. Or Monday. Or Thursday. Sometimes Saturday.

But the memory won’t fade for quite some time.

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