DENVER — Tears ran down cheeks. Mouths were agape. Eyes closed in prayer. And the sense of urgency of the trainers assaulted the senses.
I have covered the NFL for 11 years, watched it my entire adult life, and I have never witnessed anything like what unfolded Monday night in Cincinnati with Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin. Hamlin, 24, made a routine tackle of Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. He was struck in the neck and chest area as he wrapped up, but it was not usual contact.
Then he stood up, took two steps and fell back to the ground, his body going limp. From that moment, the only thing that matters is the health of Hamlin, something the NFLPA reiterated Tuesday while saying they would make sure "the Bills and Bengals players have every resource available to aid and support them during this time."
Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and remains in critical condition after spending Monday night in intensive care, according to the Bills. Hamlin's family issued a statement Tuesday, thanking everyone for the "love and support shown to Damar during this challenging time." Donations to Hamlin's annual Toy Drive have exceeded $4.1 million.
According to the Bills, Hamlin's heart stopped and his heartbeat was restored before he was rushed by ambulance to a nearby trauma center.
The NFL correctly suspended the game. There was no other option.
Gruesome injuries happen regularly in the NFL. We have seen players paralyzed and concussed. We express remorse, but the game goes on. This was unprecedented in the modern NFL. Any discussion of continuing the game was inappropriate and insensitive to the coaches and players involved.
A line was drawn. And thankfully so.
Watch the reactions of Bills quarterback Josh Allen or receiver Stephon Diggs. Or any number of their teammates. They were frightened that Hamlin might not make it. This went beyond concern, a regular emotion when the world's biggest athletes collide each week in the equivalent of 30-mph car wrecks. This was fear with associated trauma.
There was no way players should be asked to continue playing under these circumstances. To do so would dehumanize them into modern gladiators. These are husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. They are not robots meant for our enjoyment.
In my coverage of the Broncos, I try to bring awareness to players' charity endeavors and community events. I want the audience to see them beyond the face mask so cheering for them on Sunday can go deeper than the outcome of the game or a personal gambling or fantasy football connection.
But I don't want to be hypocritical either. I love football and the rugged nature of the sport. It promotes aggressiveness and physicality that is dangerous, but appealing. Whether it's a boxing match, UFC fight or a goal line stand, aggressive play represents human conflict at its peak, and remains at the heart of drama.
According to The Sports Business Journal, 75 of the top 100 watched TV programs in 2021 were NFL games. The Thanksgiving numbers this season set records with a total audience of 138 million, including 42 million viewers between TV and digital metrics for the Giant-Cowboys game, making it the most-watched NFL regular season contest ever.
Americans have called football their favorite sport since the 1972 Gallup Poll measured as much.
What happened Monday night brought a sobering reminder of the risks. This was different, and should be viewed as such.
These events change us, especially those men in the arena. How can this not impact their relationship with the sport they love? Multiple Broncos players told me they immediately began praying as they watched the scene with Hamlin. Right tackle Calvin Anderson called it, "heartbreaking and humbling."
Hamlin represents so much right with the NFL. He was a sixth-round pick out of the University of Pittsburgh who refused to give up on his dream. As Tyler Dunne beautifully chronicles in GoLongTd.com, Hamlin described himself as a "fierce competitor. ... I play to win. I’m not scared to compete. I’m aggressive. I can do anything you ask me."
Football represented a better life after growing up in McKees Rocks in Pittsburgh where Hamlin estimated to Dunne that half of the kids he grew up with have died.
“It makes you numb to it, which is not good. I take reality for what it is and that’s a product of me having to grow up so early. It’s part of life, losing people.”
Hamlin clearly loves football.
Football, though, is a brutal sport, one more naked to its truth after the reality of the longterm effects of concussions was exposed over the last decade. It is also a beautiful sport, one where teamwork matters in ways akin to an assembly line where every job remains important. It creates lifetime bonds and brotherhoods. But the pain and danger are real.
"You know what the sport is, but you never think something like this will happen," a national NFL broadcaster texted me Monday night.
We can't forget what happened. Remember, the NFL did not lose a single game to the COVID-19 pandemic. The games must go on is a common mantra, tied to money and popularity.
But Monday night, the game stopped. And the NFL said Tuesday that Bills v. Bengals will not be played this week.
As former Steelers player and ESPN analyst Ryan Clark eloquently explained Monday, "For over 100 grown adult men, who their entire lives have put on pads and understood the risk you take every time you do it, to be speechless, to be in tears, to be gathered in prayer, that tells you how significant this moment was."
A line exists, even in the NFL, that cannot be crossed. Eventually, the games will resume. But let's not forget this lesson. Let's pray Hamlin recovers and lives a healthy life. And let's remember these men taking these risks and playing this game we love are human and deserve our understanding and compassion.