The horrible, life-threatening injury sustained by Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills in the NFL week 17 Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals was literally something most fans (or players, or coaches, or announcers) had ever seen before. As he was carted off the field, and transferred by ambulance to the only Cincinnati hospital whose emergency room was fully prepared to handle it, the stadium sat in silence, the TV broadcast had almost literally nothing to say. Hamlin’s heart had stopped beating; blood had stopped flowing to his brain. It would take days before he was brought back to consciousness, and the preliminary reports, four days after the injury, were positive. As I write this, it’s been announced his breathing tube has been removed, and he is talking with family and teammates. We all breathe a huge sigh of relief. Hamlin’s survival is the prime concern.
Hamlin’s was a nice football story: a defensive back from Pittsburgh who dropped to round six of the 2021 NFL draft because he didn’t have overwhelming speed, and had some injury history. But he’d been versatile for the Panthers, playing safety and corner, and after a year of primarily special teams play, Hamlin stepped up when Micah Hyde was hurt. The Bills use their two safeties interchangeably, and play mostly zone, which meant Hamlin’s lack of speed wasn’t as important as his ability to react correctly to run stopping or coverage reads. He’d been a pleasant surprise for them this season. But nothing could have prepared anyone for what happened.
Hamlin was coming up to tackle Tee Higgins, who was running laterally looking to turn upfield. He finally turned, and with Hamlin coming up, lowered his shoulders and ran directly into Hamlin chest high. The meeting of momentum resulted in Higgins going down and Hamlin slightly staggered. He took a couple of steps, then fell to the ground. As the trainers came out, he was given CPR; he was not breathing, as his heart had literally stopped.
Medically speaking, this was a freak injury. There was nothing illegal or indeed reckless about either player’s contact. It was a severe blow to the sternum hitting the right place with enough impact at exactly the millisecond that a ventricle was closed, about to begin the heart’s next pump. The…