On Friday morning as players gathered in the dressing room, Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott burst through the door beaming. He told his team that it was about to get a surprise.
“He gave it away,” said Dion Dawkins, an offensive lineman. “He is a very straightforward guy. When he walked into the room, it was almost impossible for him to hide what was about to happen.”
A short time later, the anxious Bills were connected to Damar Hamlin on a video call. The defensive back went into cardiac arrest during a game in Cincinnati on Monday and, while he remains there in intensive care, he has begun to make a dramatic recovery.
“It was so exciting to see his face, to see him smile, to hear him talk,” Dawkins said. “It is everything we needed. We got our boy back. That’s all that matters. It is truly a beautiful thing.”
This is a story about the bond between a group of very tough men who play a dangerous game and a down-on-its-luck city’s affection for its football team. It began with horror – a 24-year-old laying motionless with no pulse after he made a tackle. A Bills assistant trainer – Denny Kellington – revived him through cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and he also received defibrillation before he was loaded into an ambulance.
Hamlin was unconscious for several days but responded to commands by squeezing his parents’ hands on Thursday and he has since been able to breathe on his own. On Friday, as he laid in his bed, Hamlin used his fingers to make the sign of a heart, gave his teammates a thumbs up, flexed his muscles and said, “I love you boys” as he signed off of the call.
“The hair raised on the back of my neck,” said Brandon Beane, the Bills general manager. “God is good.”
Beane remained at Hamlin’s side along with his parents until he returned to Western New York on Thursday.
“It was a roller coaster but the reason I stayed is simple,” Beane said. “What would you want to be done if it was your son?”
He said Hamlin had shown signs of improvement on Wednesday but on Thursday had grown better by leaps and bounds.
“When I got there in the morning doctors told me that I wouldn’t be able to believe my eyes,” Beane said. “I’m not emotional, but there were a lot of men in there crying tears of joy.”
Hamlin still faces a long recovery but doctors say it appears that his neurological function is intact. When he came to on Wednesday, he wrote them a note asking if the Bills had won on Monday night. The doctors told him, “You won. You won at the game of life.”
The game against the Bengals was suspended in the first quarter and has since been cancelled. The NFL will decide how to seed teams in the playoffs after the regular season concludes on Sunday. The Bills play host to the New England Patriots at Highmark Field just six days after the life-and-death incident unfolded before their eyes.
Hamlin’s father, Mario, spoke to the team on Wednesday and said that Damar would want them to play. The team’s emotional state has improved with every encouraging update but it will still be hard.
“For every person, it is going to be a little different,” Josh Allen, the Bills’ star quarterback, said during a news conference at the stadium late Thursday afternoon. More than 50 journalists crammed into an interview room to listen to Allen, McDermott, team captain Mitch Morse and fellow defensive back Dane Jackson. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say some guys lives’ are going to be changed forever.”
Allen bit his lip and paused as he fought off tears.
“The scene replays over and over in your head,” he said. “It is something we will never forget. Guys love each other. They really do.”
Allen opened his house up to teammates this week. Some came to pray together, others just to get away. Both Allen and McDermott are religious.
“The amount of faith and love we have seen these last few days is nothing short of amazing,” McDermott said Thursday. “Glory to God for keeping Damar and his family in the palm of His hand.”
His teammates stood up and cheered when they saw him on Friday.
“I won’t be able to do it justice with words,” McDermott said. “It was amazing and touching and for me, it was something I kind of needed to see.”
Players and especially fans in Buffalo grieved for much of the week. There are “Pray for Damar signs” everywhere. Everyone from supermarket cashiers to the housekeeping staff in hotels worried for him.
It has been a terrible eight months here. In May, there was a mass shooting targeting Black people in a supermarket. A winter storm in November and a blizzard in December combined to kill nearly 50 people. Then on Monday Hamlin was stricken by something unthinkable.
“It has been a brutal year,” Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County executive, said Friday. “When the incident with Damar happened, it was another gut punch. Through all that’s happened, the Bills have been our bright spot. When he went down on the field, it broke the camel’s back.
“People thought, ‘When are were finally going to get a break.’”
On Thursday, fans streamed through the door of the Bills team store at Highmark Field.
Kyle Hillyard and his wife Samantha drove two hours to Buffalo from their home in Erie, Pa. They came hoping to buy some Hamlin jerseys but the store doesn’t sell them. He is only a second-year player and became a starter this season after another safety was injured.
“Really, we just thought we would feel better being here,” Samantha Hillyard said.
Like millions of others, they watched the game from home on ESPN on Monday night.
They saw Hamlin drop to the ground and then, after a commercial, saw players from both teams surrounding him and learned he was having CPR.
“My heart sank,” Hillyard said. “We both started to cry.”
Last year, her grandmother died of a heart attack in front of her. She was 71 and lived with the Hillyards and their two young boys. “I know exactly what it feels like,” she says. “I knew what was going through all of the players’ hearts and minds.”
When employees arrived at the team store on Thursday morning, they found a six-foot table left outside the front door.
At times, the Bills’ passionate fans leap onto and break tables during tailgate parties before home games.
This table was dropped off by Greg Insco, with a message written on it by the Bengals fan. “We are sending you air hugs and a perfectly good table for you to break,” Insco wrote. “Love, Cincinnati.”
Insco is about to turn 40 later this month and had set out on a sojourn to do 40 things before he celebrates it. He was in Niagara Falls, N.Y., when he got the idea, drove to Buffalo and stopped at Home Depot. “It was best $85 I’ve ever spent,” he said.
He lives in Cincinnati and two years ago tried out for the Bengals’ cheerleading squad only to be rejected. “Bengals fans can sympathize with Bills fans,” Insco said. “Both of our teams were crappy for so long.”
Brad Standley and his son Max stopped to take a picture of the table. Brad is a lifelong Bills fan but lives in Nampa, Idaho, and has never been to a game. He will be there on Sunday; in July, Max bought them both airline tickets, hotel rooms and tickets in the end zone near the field.
On Monday, he too, was watching.
“My eyes started leaking,” said Brad, an engineer. “I don’t know the guy but I just felt bad. You shouldn’t die at your job. What happened was a really bad deal.”
A few blocks from the stadium in Orchard Park, Eugene Smaszcz sits at a table at The Big Tree Inn beneath a Bills jersey autographed by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly.
Smaszcz was a customer for 10 to 15 years at the sports bar but has been its general manager for the past 25. Jerseys line the walls. Yard markers are painted on the floor. The place has long been a hangout for Bills players; Kelly would come often for a tuna melt.
This season, Damar Hamlin has been stopping in three or four times a month to pick up orders of chicken wings. He likes them with ranch sauce – a no-no in blue-cheese-loving Buffalo – and it has become a running joke between him and the staff.
“He is an unbelievable guy,” Smaszcz said. “He is always friendly and always has a smile on his face. This place is a Bills bar. They are everything to this community. A month after football season people sit around and say, ‘When does it start again.’”
Teammates and coaches remember him for his congenial nature.
“In the locker room he is the happiest dude,” Allen said. “I can never think of a time where he was upset about something and brought it into the building.”
Hamlin set up a foundation while he was in college and launched a toy drive for kids. After Monday’s incident, people from all over North America donated to it via GoFundMe, and now the pot has grown to more than US$7-million.
“When he started it, he hoped he could raise $2,500,” Dane Jackson said on Thursday with a laugh.
He and Damar played college football together at the University of Pittsburgh.
“He’s a giver, he’s a fighter, he’s a warrior and he offers encouragement to everyone,” Jackson said. “It’s never about him. He has always wanted to give back.”
Early in the season, Jackson suffered a neck injury and was placed on a cart and wheeled to an ambulance at the end of the field at Highmark Stadium.
“As they lifted me into it, Damar was standing beside the door and said, ‘I love you D.J.’ I remember that distinct voice in my head.”
On Sunday, his teammates will wear No. 3 patches – Damar’s number – on the front of their jerseys. Ceremonies honouring him will take place throughout the league.
“It’s going to be a very emotional day,” said Morse, an offensive lineman. “I’ve never had a week like this and I pray I never do again.
“You understand that as football players you assume risk and then you see something like this and it shakes you to the core. This is a macho sport played by macho guys, but on Monday night there was no macho left.”