When Bills’ Damar Hamlin collapsed, the NFL stopped and the nation watched

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For once, the NFL stopped. It stopped cold. The relentless sport had to, even if it didn’t really want to, because the horror was inescapable. On Monday night, before a national television audience, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed. He did not rise. The violence could not be minimized.

Hamlin, a 24-year-old from McKees Rocks, Pa., who became a starter in September after a teammate suffered a neck injury, made a typical football play in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals. He absorbed a blow to the chest as he tackled wide receiver Tee Higgins. He got up, then fell back. Next came a frantic rush to resuscitate the young man, who had just hugged his parents during pregame warmups. He needed CPR, a stretcher, an ambulance. Amid the chaos, the reaction of the players made it clear that the situation had turned dire.

Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen stood frozen, hands over his mouth, eyes wide. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs wept and swayed. Cornerback Tre’Davious White placed his hands over his head and mouthed words of disbelief as the tears trickled through his black eyes. The entire Bills team knelt in prayer as the ambulance drove away.

Hamlin went down at 8:55 pm Eastern time. For the next 66 minutes, as medics rushed him from Paycor Stadium to a hospital and NFL officials scrambled to make the decision to suspend the game, the sport did not matter. This game – one of the most anticipated of the season, a Week 17 showdown with major implications for the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC – could not be played. With Hamlin fighting for his life, there was no “next man up” mentality on this night. There would be no next play.

On “Monday Night Football,” a great American tradition, we witnessed one of the most chilling moments in televised sports history. A play that terrifying can happen in any game, at any moment. But it happened on the grandest of stages — during the only pro football game of the night, in the final Monday night game of the season. It was a reminder of the sport’s unremitting brutality. It forced everyone to deal with the harsh reality of this beloved game.

Football is not a sport that happens to be violent. It is an intrinsically vicious sport that many spectators consider justifiably brutal. Most don’t enjoy it despite the constant collisions. They love it because of them. It’s surprising that, throughout its history, the game has avoided an abundance of frightening scenes. But no matter how well the coaches teach proper fundamentals, no matter how disciplined the players are in controlling their aggression, this is the sport’s nature.

The addiction to it is so strong that no single moment, not even one this traumatic, will scare away the crowds. And the conclusion should not be to hate football or feel guilty about loving it. However, it’s a warning to balance the obsession with appropriate concern for the human risk involved.

Bills, Bengals players in tears as sports world reacts to Damar Hamlin injury

Hamlin became a starter in Week 3 after safety Micah Hyde injured his neck during a 41-7 Buffalo victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 19. That was also a Monday night game. Hyde, who has a history of neck problems, had to leave in an ambulance. He is not expected to return this season. A month after the incident, Hyde revealed how afraid he was.

“What happened that Monday night was something that was just eye-opening to me,” Hyde told reporters in October. “And I understand that this is a violent game. Anything can happen on any given night, but that was just real eye-opening for me, hopping in the ambulance after or during the game and going to the hospital with my wife. I got a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old, and so that life was put right in front of me, and it kind of scared me a little bit.”

Somehow, the players stash away their fears and perform every week. Then they see one of their brothers fail to get up.

During a raw ESPN telecast, former NFL defensive lineman Anthony “Booger” McFarland tried to collect himself, as did studio host Suzy Kolber and reporter Adam Schefter. As they directed coverage for most of the 66 minutes it took before the game was officially suspended at 10:01 pm, the emotion was palpable. They were processing the unprecedented as they spoke. It felt like a vigil. It was painful yet meaningful television.

“Football is entertainment,” McFarland said at one point. “Nobody is in the mood to be entertained tonight. … We’re done playing football tonight. Let’s move on.”

How ESPN viewers learned of Damar Hamlin’s injury

Said Kolber: “The emotion that we’re experiencing tonight is really hard to describe.”

At this moment, that was okay. That was the real NFL, not the slickly produced gladiator glorification that normalizes pain and human disposability.

“All you ever think about is the good stuff,” said ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, a former NFL safety. “No one ever visualizes the bad.”

Clark spoke passionately just after midnight on “SportsCenter.”

“That’s not what we woke up to do in this game,” Clark said of players dealing with the trauma. “That’s not what we’ve been conditioned to move on from. And that’s evident when [Bills Coach] Sean McDermott and [Bengals Coach] Zac Taylor met in the middle of the field or they met in the tunnel and they said, ‘We can’t go do this.’ They couldn’t put these men back out on the field to do something they’ve been built to do their whole lives, because no one should have to deal with what Damar Hamlin is dealing with tonight. They don’t teach us this. We don’t talk about this. We don’t talk about this. They’re not trying to build us up enough so that this is okay, because it’s actually not okay.”

As the medical staff encircled Hamlin on the field, Buffalo cornerback Siran Neal walked several yards away, crying, heaving, pulling at his jersey and shoulder pads. He lowered his head and dropped to his knees until a teammate, running back Nyheim Hines, bent over to console him.

The two stayed on the turf, locked in an embrace, worried about Hamlin, unconcerned about football. Until further notice, the game must defer to this anguish.

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