They are warriors. They are highly skilled laborers. They are modern-day gladiators. They are exceptionally tough, hyper-focused competitors who are programmed to plow through pain.
We know these things about NFL players, but sometimes we forget the other part: They’re human. They’re fathers and sons and brothers and husbands. They’re bonded by a shared respect and reverence for the inherent fear they routinely compartmentalize.
And when it comes to coping with tragedy and maintaining proper perspective, so often it’s the players — rather than the billionaires who own the teams or the executives they’ve hired to run the league — who end up standing out as the adults in the room.
We saw this once again on Monday night when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed shortly after making a seemingly routine tackle. The 24-year-old Hamlin’s heart stopped beating, creating a frantic and scary scene that played out on national television.
As medical personnel performed CPR and used an AED (automatic external defibrillator) to revive Hamlin, Bills and Cincinnati Bengals players looked on in horror, the raw emotion on their faces elevating the concern level of millions of viewers. It was one of the most indelible events many of them have ever witnessed onscreen, and more than 36 hours later, Hamlin’s outcome is still unclear. He remains in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital, reportedly on a breathing machine.
No one who watched it will ever forget it — least of all the teammates and opponents who looked on as Hamlin’s life hung in the balance.
“It’s as jolting as it can get,” Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney told me Tuesday. “There’s nothing like it that I’ve ever seen or experienced, and everybody deals with it their own way. I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way — you’re just in shock and trying to figure out where you go from there.
“Damar is a great person, and you know he’s such a tough and competitive dude. Probably, he would want us to play. But after seeing him there — the brother that he is, and what he was going through — it’s really tough to assume that. So we all stood there for a while on the field, and then when they told us to go into the locker room, everybody had their own way of looking at it.”
Here’s my way of looking at it: The fact that Sweeney (who was inactive but on the sidelines) and the rest of the players on both teams went to the locker room at the behest of their coaches tells us a lot about the NFL’s fallback stance in such situations. So often, players are stigmatized as self-absorbed, shallow and spoiled millionaires who are out of touch with reality. In my experience, it’s the owners and the league executives they employ who tend to be tone-deaf and detached from what’s important when things get major, as they did on Monday night in Cincinnati.
I’ve talked to numerous people familiar with the way the aftermath of Hamlin’s injury played out — including players and coaches from both organizations — and this is my conclusion: Facing a potential resumption of the game after the ambulance whisked away Hamlin, Bengals coach Zac Taylor and his Bills counterpart, Sean McDermott, assessed the mindsets of their players, had a quick conversation and decided to leave the field in unison. Once the two teams reached their respective locker rooms, the decision to postpone the game was essentially made.
Eventually, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his chief lieutenants arrived at that conclusion.
It was the right move, but it wasn’t their first impulse.
After the fact, NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent insisted to reporters that no one had instructed players to prepare to resume play, despite ESPN announcer Joe Buck’s real-time report that both teams had been told they had five minutes to warm up before the game would start again. The broadcast also showed Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, clearly shaken, tossing the football in an apparent effort to get loose.
On Tuesday, ESPN stood by its reporting, and Buck told the New York Post that during the broadcast he was consulting with the network’s rules analyst, John Parry, who was in direct communication with the league.
Let’s be real: Do you really think Buck, one of the most respected sports broadcasters in history, would blurt out information on the air — especially in that context — in which he wasn’t confident?
And if somehow Buck’s information had been incorrect, wouldn’t someone from the NFL communicate to Parry — or someone in position to correct Buck — and demand that the announcer immediately clarify the situation on the air? That didn’t happen, even though Buck continued to appear on ESPN more than an hour after the game was finally postponed.
I’ve known Buck for a long time. I’ve covered the NFL for three-and-a-half decades, eight of them as an NFL Network employee.
I trust Buck over “The Shield.” The end.
What should NFL do next following Damar Hamlin's health scare?
This is not to say that the NFL is to blame for the distressing event that necessitated the postponement. We should give the league’s Powers That Be a ton of credit for anticipating a potential tragedy of this magnitude and putting the systems in place, in terms of first responders and medical equipment, that allowed for Hamlin’s resuscitation.
After all, a Detroit Lions receiver named Chuck Hughes died after collapsing on the field during a 1971 game. Attempts to revive him, both on the field and at a nearby hospital, failed. A medical examiner later determined that a blood clot had broken loose and become trapped in one of his arteries, preventing the heart muscle from receiving blood; a hit Hughes had taken a few plays earlier might have played a role.
On that dark day 51 years ago, the Lions and Chicago Bears played out the final 62 seconds of the game after Hughes was taken away by an ambulance. It wasn’t unusual then, and it’s been the norm in the five-plus decades since.
The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business, and the wheels of commerce stop for almost nothing or no one. The league’s most beloved commissioner, Pete Rozelle — who served in that role for nearly 30 years from 1960 to 1989 — told numerous people that the greatest regret of his tenure was not cancelling the games that took place two days after President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.
The mistake was nearly repeated after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that claimed approximately 3,000 civilian lives. Encouraged by owners intent on playing a scheduled slate of games five days later, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue initially planned to do so before widespread player resistance caused him to pivot.
Once again, it was the players who read the situation correctly and acted as the adults in the room.
I would have been appalled if Monday night’s game had continued after Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, but it wouldn’t have been the first time I’d felt those emotions. Back in 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend in front of their infant daughter, then drove to the Chiefs’ practice facility next to Arrowhead Stadium. He shot and killed himself as head coach Romeo Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and linebackers coach Gary Gibbs tried to persuade him to drop the gun.
The Chiefs had a home game the following day, and I couldn’t believe the league didn’t at least postpone it. After flying to Kansas City and covering it for Yahoo! Sports, I wrote about the way the Chiefs were able to fight through their trauma and maintain focus, even as they retained a healthy perspective about the tragedy. Some of those players — and certainly Crennel, Pioli and Gibbs — needed a mental-health pause, though it was less fashionable to say so at the time.
Yes, our NFL heroes are taught to suck it up when confronting physical, emotional or mental pain, and we revere them for their toughness. However, what happened on Monday night in Cincinnati transcended football, just as it rendered insignificant matters to which we typically assign so much importance, from playoff-seeding implications to your fantasy team’s championship matchup.
Watching a colleague’s life hang in the balance, without any subsequent clarity as to that person’s condition, would be jarring at any workplace. And having to keep doing one’s job in the immediate aftermath would be challenging, no matter the vocation.
For NFL players, there’s another layer of difficulty. To survive and thrive in such a fast-paced, violent sport, many of them must go to a dark place. Getting back to that place — and once again subjecting one another to potential peril — just minutes after seeing Hamlin’s life hang in the balance? Good luck with that.
As Hall of Fame defensive tackle Bryant Young told me Tuesday: “You have to go to a spot where the blinders are on and it’s just hyper-focused on one task. You have to go to this place where, when you look back at it, it’s like, Damn. Whether it’s pain, whether it’s injury, whether it’s something that happens to one of your brothers, you’ve got to be able to have this focus and mental toughness and ability to block it all out. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it. … It’s one thing seeing somebody go through an injury — a mangled leg or an arm, or even a head injury. There’s a level of toughness you have to push yourself through, to block that out and to move forward. But to see somebody lifeless on the field, with everyone scrambling to save him, that’s different.”
What the Bills and Bengals experienced on Monday, and will continue to struggle with in the days and weeks to come, was extraordinarily jarring. Once they retreated to their locker rooms, the notion of them going back out to finish the game became harder to fathom.
“Josh (Allen) and the captains (led a discussion),” Sweeney said. “It would have had to have been a unanimous thing for us to go back out, and it definitely wasn't gonna be (that mindset) for most people.”
The Bills will likely play as scheduled this Sunday, in a game that has playoff implications for their opponents (the New England Patriots) and other teams. As far as the Bills-Bengals game, the NFL basically has two options: Don’t count it in the standings and use existing winning percentages in determining the AFC’s playoff seeds; or play it the weekend after next, push the playoffs back a week and get rid of the extra week between the conference title games and the Super Bowl.
By then — we all hope and pray — we might have some clarity on Hamlin’s condition, ideally with a path toward complete recovery.
In the meantime, the Bills will have meetings and practice on Wednesday, and each player will have to find his own way through the trauma. The NFL has offered league-wide mental health and support resources to players and staff, another move for which Goodell and other high-ranking executives should be commended.
We can all do our part as well: Just as the Bills and Bengals displayed raw empathy for Hamlin as their brother’s life hung in the balance, I hope the tens of millions of fans who love and support the sport will extend that courtesy to the human beings who wear the uniforms.
“Each person’s gonna be different,” Sweeney said. “We’ll have to see, starting (Wednesday), how it goes. Some people will want to go in and go back to normal. Other people, it’s kind of tough to just push through.
“I could really see both scenarios happening. It’s not that people aren’t tough. It’s just that everybody processes these situations differently and is trying to find their own way through.”