BALTIMORE — When an NFL player collapses on the field like Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin did on Monday night, it makes a lot of sports fans pause, reflect and develop a better appreciation of life.
Hamlin, 24, took a hit in the chest area late in the first quarter while tackling Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, who was running across the field after a catch. It was a routine play that’s made thousands of times throughout the season. Only this time, Hamlin got up after the tackle only to fall backward seconds later. The Bills said he spent Monday night in the intensive care unit and remains there Tuesday in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center after suffering a cardiac arrest.
As you watched everything unfold — the ambulance racing onto the field, players crying in disbelief, the news that he was given CPR — it brought immediate sadness. There was a knot in your stomach and a sense of helplessness because many of us have been on those sidelines and in those huddles and team rooms in one form or another at different levels.
It could have been one of us.
In 35 years of covering the NFL, I’ve only seen ambulances on the field to deliver equipment before games, not to provide medical assistance during one. It was so surreal.
On the ESPN “Monday Night Football” broadcast, there was a report that the game would resume after Hamlin left in the ambulance and after each team got five minutes to warm up, but that was unimaginable because this situation was anything but normal.
I remember being on the sideline when former Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware screamed because trainers had him on the ground and pushed his shoulder back in place. None of his teammates flinched because that became a regular practice near the end of his career.
I remember Ray Lewis getting run over by Tennessee tight end Frank Wycheck so badly early in his career that he could barely walk after the game. Some of his offensive linemen simply stated that this was just another day in the NFL.
But this? This was different. Buffalo teammates wept openly, and some were on their knees praying. When both teams formed a human wall around Hamlin you knew the injury was serious. The clip of Bills quarterback Josh Allen sitting on the bench with that blank look on his face summed up how devastating the situation is.
The NFL wasn’t going to continue this game, and the players weren’t going to allow it. Three times I’ve seen a sibling use CPR to resuscitate a family member. It worked twice. One wasn’t so fortunate.
This was no time for a game; the focus had to be on Hamlin. A lot of things can be said about the NFL but one thing is certain: It’s a fraternity, and they will protect the shield.
I had no problem postponing the game. I would have no problem if they declare the outcome a tie, especially with only one week remaining in the regular season. If there is a way to work around and reschedule the game, the NFL will figure it out, but it’s hard to push back the entire calendar, especially the Super Bowl, which is set for Feb. 12 in Glendale, Ariz.
In all honesty, the focus should still be on Hamlin and his family. Watching the events Monday night, any former athlete had to drift back and think “that could have been me.”
Hamlin was on a lot of minds and in a lot of prayers Monday night, and his collapse gave us the perspective that we should never forget: It’s only a game.
Some people live by their team’s weekly results. They are mad after losses, stay up all night and are sad the next day. They live on social media, reading crazy rants and untrue stories and cursing players who get injured or aren’t successful for their fantasy teams.
A lot of fans cheer for laundry, but not human beings.
As parents or grandparents, we are all rethinking letting our youngsters play this violent game. Once kids get above the age of 12, those collisions involving receivers, defensive backs, running backs and linebackers have much more intensity than the every-play contact of playing on the offensive and defensive lines.
There used to be this animated sitcom called “The Jetsons,” who lived in a version of the future. There was an episode where the pro football league was composed of robot players, and once they got wrecked they were put into the trunk of a big futuristic vehicle and taken off the field.
When you look at the NFL now, you wonder where it is headed. The league has done a good job trying to alter the rules to prevent late hits and therefore limit head injuries, but these players are bigger, faster and stronger than they were decades ago. There just seem to be more injuries. Players are living out a dream for a king’s ransom, but they are also putting their lives at risk.
There is going to be another hit that causes a serious head or spine injury. It’s just a matter of time.
But for now, we just want the best for Hamlin.