Keeping the Focus on Damar Hamlin’s Health

Playoff seedings, a replay of the Bengals-Bills game, and the road to the Super Bowl pale in comparison to the human drama of what happened Monday night.

There have been some tough columns to write during my half-decade in this gig. The week Joe Burrow was injured springs to mind, along with several others during that weirdo COVID-influenced 2020 season. The one after we lost the Super Bowl, of course. But all pale in comparison to this one.

We’re all still in shock after Monday night’s game, which turned in an instant from among Cincinnati’s most anticipated regular season contests in recent memory to one of the most awful in league history. The game was suspended following the cardiac-related collapse of Bills DB Damar Hamlin after he tackled Tee Higgins. Even by NFL standards, where the default setting is pain and emotional turbulence, this was a terrifying event—one I’ve dreaded for some time, as elucidated in this piece I wrote for the now-defunct website Grantland.

At least when Joey B. tore up his knee, we knew he was alive. Even in some of the most dreadful circumstances, when players are feared to be paralyzed or otherwise injured badly enough to possibly make them give up football, there is at least that one saving grace: “He is still with us.”

No one could be sure that was going to be true of Hamlin. If you’ve never had to witness CPR being applied in an emergency situation, count yourself fortunate. I have, alas, and it’s a grisly, horrifying procedure for the uninitiated, not a sight easily forgotten. None of the players on the field who were anywhere near that process could possibly have gone on to continue playing a game (which, for the record, the Bengals led 7–3 in the first quarter). The NFL may have taken longer than it seemed necessary to come to the decision to halt the contest, and in judging by the way it played out it seems more like the coaches and players basically said “nope” and the league followed their lead. But in the end the right thing was done.

Sam Rosenstiel, digital editor here at Cincinnati Magazine, was a paying customer at Paycor Stadium on Monday night. I wanted to get the perspective of someone in the house as it all went down, and he was nice enough to pass along his view of the incident. Here are some of his thoughts:

“The energy walking through The Banks and into the stadium was electric as always, but it just didn’t have the same vibe as most home games…. I saw Bills Mafia with arms around Bengals bros, guys in Joey B. shirts passing cold ones to dudes in Josh Allen jerseys, and when you said Who Dey! to somebody you almost always got a Who Dey! back, even if they were painted blue and red. I had a standing room ticket, so I was posted up on a rail on the away side up between the 200s and 300s. The other standing room hoodlums and I really got going during the pregame light show and the energy rolled all the way, especially after Tyler Boyd caught that laser on the opening drive….

“The crowd erupted in the Teeeeee! chant before anyone really knew what was going on. Then folks got quiet. I didn’t see anyone collapse like the folks watching on TV did. The board came out, then the stretcher, then the ambulance backed up onto the field. It had probably been about three minutes at this point, but it felt like 30…. A crowd was forming around the stairs, and someone holding their phone told us the medics were attempting CPR. I didn’t believe them, but something was really wrong: Maybe it’s a neck thing? Nah, it’s been too long to be a neck thing.… The ambulance started driving to the visitors’ tunnel to applause. We had a clear view of where the ambulance would come out to head to [University of Cincinnati Medical Center], and it was terrifying to us that it took so long to depart the stadium.

“I don’t think anyone in attendance expected or wanted the game to continue. The level of concern had completely overwhelmed the excitement we walked in with. That’s when it felt like all of the love we had for the game poured into our humanity. It amplified that tailgate feeling, that the jersey you put on didn’t matter a lick because we’re all people. It made all the rivalry and stakes over a silly game seem so unimportant.”

Well put, Sam. Ironically, given the cause of the incident, an NFL stadium is about the best place for an immediate response and life-saving action to be taken. There are numerous trained medical personnel on hand at every game, and an ambulance is always waiting on standby. Some of it is conjecture, but this likely wasn’t the first circumstance of a player’s life being saved on the field—there have been other examples of a crushing or ill-placed hit causing cardiac or pulmonary issues that required emergency attention. This one was extreme, perhaps, but life-threatening injuries are a part of football. It’s an unfortunate, generally (and necessarily) suppressed aspect of being able to continue to enjoy the sport we all love so much.

God willing, by the time you read this column, Hamlin will be at least out of danger and headed in the direction of recovery. The outpouring of donations toward his charity and general renewed goodwill and appreciation toward the athletes who play this dangerous game for our entertainment has been great to see, and hopefully that will be the incident’s long-term legacy.

Meanwhile, the Bengals (and the Bills) will have to find a way to forget it and get back on the field Sunday. The NFL has announced that the suspended Monday night game won’t be replayed or resumed this week. As of this writing, no decision been made on whether they will do so at all. Were there not such pivotal ripple effects from the result, the NFL would easily be able to simply not play. It’s hardly a big deal in the macro sense for Cincinnati and Buffalo to play 16 games when the rest of the NFL plays 17. But because the AFC champion and Super Bowl participant may well be decided as a result of whatever the league opts to do, the simple act isn’t so simple.

In the end, however, I think the Bills–Bengals contest will simply be voided. The NFL may want to see how Sunday’s game with the Ravens turns out first. A Cincinnati win would mean the team took the division title on the field and not in the boardroom, easing the way toward not replaying the Bills game. Seeding and home field advantage is a big deal, but in the greater scheme of things playing a postseason game on the road that maybe Cincinnati or Buffalo would not have had to play (including potentially Cincinnati at Buffalo) really isn’t much compared to the human drama we saw on the field Monday night. (Editor’s note: The NFL has announced the game will not resume.)

After all, the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl last year by winning a couple of road playoff games. They can do it again. Regardless of the circumstances, that last column of the year will certainly be easier to write than this one.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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