Last night, Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills tackled Tee Higgins of the Cincinnati Bengals midway through the first quarter of a highly anticipated Monday Night Football game. The collision looked robust but routine: After catching the ball, Higgins lowered his shoulder and bulled into Hamlin’s chest as Hamlin corralled him to the turf. Hamlin, a 24-year-old defensive back, popped up off the ground quickly, stood for about two seconds, then collapsed backward.
What followed was unprecedented on an NFL field. Medics performed CPR and administered a defibrillator, marking an urgent escalation from the usual fears football fans have become familiar with. For all the sport’s immediate and lasting dangers, never before has a nationally televised game drawn closer to the line separating life and death. Players took knees, held hands, and prayed. Many sobbed. Cameras showed faces buried in towels, or tilted skyward in anguish, or staring sorrowfully into the distance. An ambulance carried Hamlin from the field to the University of Cincinnati hospital. He had suffered a cardiac arrest and remains in critical condition.
Once the ambulance left the field, the NFL’s command center in New York directed players to start warming up because the game would pick back up in five minutes, according to ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Buck, who noted the league’s guideline at least four times on the broadcast. Just as players are expected to compete through injuries, so too are they expected to lock back into focus after seeing their colleagues seriously hurt. On a conference call that night, NFL officials denied that they had set a timeline for players to return to action.
Three months earlier, on the same field in Cincinnati, Tua Tagovailoa’s head slammed the ground after a hard tackle that left his body flexed in a “fencing position” that made clear to everybody watching that something had gone terribly wrong — something even worse than anything in the parade of injury carts driving players off the field every weekend. Once the ambulance left the field, the game resumed.
Five years before that, on a Monday night game also on that field in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal cord contusion while making a tackle. He was paralyzed from the waist down for months and never played again. Once the ambulance left the field, the game resumed.
But this time was different. Nobody started warming up and many kept crying. The team’s two coaches, the Bengals’ Zac Taylor and the Bills’ Sean McDermott, met at midfield, agreed the game shouldn’t continue, and sent their teams back to the locker rooms. For the first time, an NFL game was postponed because of injury — or more precisely, because of the emotional trauma in its wake.
Only the NFL seemed unsure whether the game should play on.
Hamlin, who has been in the NFL for two years, grew up in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. He started a charity, the Chasing M’s Foundation, “to positively impact the community that raised me,” he wrote on its GoFundMe, and had been raising money for a community toy drive for kids who lost parents to COVID-19. Since last night, people have donated more than $4 million to the cause. Fans in Bills and Bengals attire gathered for a vigil outside the hospital he’s currently in.
The possibility of death isn't foreign to football. Over the last decade, at least 41 high school players have died from injuries suffered on the field, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. In August 2001, Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died from heat stroke during a practice before the season, sparking a paradigm shift away from brutal training methods that limited water breaks. In October 1971, Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died after suffering a heart attack in the fourth quarter of a game, which resumed once he was transported to the hospital.
Yet after years of heightened attention on player safety and advancements in protective equipment and physical training, seeing a player at the sport’s highest level come so close to losing his life on the field left people across the football world shaken.
On SportsCenter later that night, ESPN reporter Lisa Salters broke into tears while delivering her dispatch from the field, and former player Ryan Clark recounted the moment as “the most afraid I’ve ever been watching a football game.”
For those watching it live on television, the horror intensified in sudden snippets. The camera was panning the crowd when Hamlin collapsed, and you could hear the collective wince inside the stadium among those who noticed it in real time. When the camera was back on the field, trainers were clustered around a Bills player on the ground. The announcers took us to a commercial break. When the broadcast returned, an ambulance was on the field.
The replay of Hamlin’s body falling limply to the ground made clear something abnormally scary was happening. Then, after the next commercial break, the stricken faces of his teammates signaled that whatever was happening was beyond the bounds of what even professional football players could psychologically brace themselves for. TV announcer Joe Buck reported that medical personnel had been administering CPR, describing the effort as “feverish.”
After the referee announced to the stadium that the game would be “temporarily suspended,” the spectators offered a hushed ovation to the players exiting the field. How could anyone play football in those circumstances? How could anyone want to watch it? Only the NFL seemed unsure whether the game should play on. It would be another half hour or so before the league announced that the game would be officially postponed.
In the hours that followed, the sports world was unified in expressions of well-wishes for Hamlin, and unanimous in agreeing that the game couldn’t continue. Former players and longtime analysts said they’d never seen anything like this. Everyone was sure to note that Hamlin’s health was the top priority and that trivial questions about game logistics and season implications should wait.
There wasn’t much to say beyond that because we still don’t know the details of why Hamlin’s heart stopped. Tagovailoa’s concussion in Cincinnati came four days after a hit in a previous game left him wobbly, leading to a wave of criticism toward the league and his team for allowing him to play so soon after. His injury was avoidable, and in response, the league announced changes to its protocols aimed at identifying possible concussion symptoms during games.
We don’t yet know what role football might have played in harming Hamlin, only that once again a professional player left the field with his well-being in serious jeopardy. I don’t know what to make of the fact that, after nearly three decades of watching football, the two scariest moments I’ve ever seen took place within weeks of each other, in the same season, even on the same field. I only know that both times, the NFL allegedly called for the games to resume.
Last night, though, for the first time, NFL players refused to play. Games have been postponed because of field problems or severe weather but never because players simply didn’t feel like participating. Football, more than any other team sport, requires an unwavering focus to navigate its constant dangers. Each time a player gets carted off the field following a severe injury, their teammates steel themselves, blocking out their anxieties with pump-up speeches and warm-up drills, a ritual every football player becomes familiar with if they play long enough.
The two scariest moments I’ve ever seen took place within weeks of each other, in the same season, even on the same field. Both times, the NFL allegedly called for the games to resume.
Even after Hamlin went down, you could see some of the players trying to rally, knowing what was expected of them. Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs, with tears still in his eyes, delivered a fiery speech to try to get the team back into a mindset that would somehow enable them to play football while wondering if their friend Damar was about to die.
But ultimately, the players all seemed to know better than to put themselves back at risk while processing whatever thoughts were pouring through their heads. It was clear to anyone watching that nobody wanted to play football, and as the dozens of distraught young men stood around the field with their helmets off and their faces dripping with fear and pain, they seemed to understand that nobody could make them play. By resisting the league’s directive, the players and their coaches set a precedent that will rise to the front of minds each time an ambulance rolls onto the field: You don’t have to keep playing today.
Yet for the teammates who know and love Hamlin, a difficult journey is only beginning. Whatever time they need to process, heal, and fortify will run up against the obligations their profession places on them.
After his head injury in September, Tagovailoa missed two games, then returned to action on Oct. 23. Last week, while studying film from his Christmas Day game against the Green Bay Packers, he reported that he couldn’t remember some of the plays he was watching, indicating he may have suffered another head injury during that game, potentially his third concussion of the season. The team placed him in the league’s concussion protocol, and he sat out the following game.
It’s still unclear when the Bills will have to play next, or how the league will handle the logistics of a situation it has never before encountered.
Eventually, the Bills will be expected to return to the field, reminded that they make millions of dollars to play a game. The playoffs are scheduled to begin in two weeks, and the Bills are the odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl, a feat the team’s passionate fanbase has never experienced despite coming close a few times. What can the players do but try to channel their emotions onto the field, compartmentalize their pain, dedicate their season to their fallen comrade? This is football, after all. ●
This story has been updated to include more information about other football players who have suffered medical emergencies.