Football is just a game. We tell ourselves that. We tell opposing fans that when their jeering, cheering, and taunting is more than we want to hear. But every week, as fans, we get immersed in the game and ride an emotional roller coaster that is charged by the scoreboard, our favorite team’s record, and how the media praises — or attacks — our favorite players. The players are “ours,” and fellow fans become “family” that we connect with through tailgates, season tickets, or through social media. It’s the air we breathe. The game consumes us. It’s our heartbeat.
Then we remind ourselves that football is just a game. It’s not really life and death. Until it is.
On January 2, 2023, the entire world received a reminder that there is something much more important than the scoreboard, the stats, the race to the Super Bowl, and the who’s-who list of NFL players.
Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on Paycor Field while his team was trying to retain the No. 1seed in the AFC playoff picture on a quest for their first Super Bowl appearance in three decades. Hamlin made a routine tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, stood up, adjusted his helmet, and then his world went dark. For all real purposes, the 24-year-old safety from Pittsburgh died on that field while the entire world watched a game.
Teammates stood in shock, knelt on the ground, prayed, cried, couldn’t watch, couldn’t turn away. Medical staff from both teams flew into action performing CPR, getting Hamlin’s heart restarted, opening an airway, and getting oxygen to him. After what felt like another lifetime, Hamlin was loaded into a waiting ambulance and taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
We know the rest. Hamlin was revived. We all stay glued to news outlets over the next days. We turned on the alerts for our favorite Twitter reporters, we listened to medical reports. People who had never heard his name, now talked about, prayed for, made posts in response to all that was happening to the Buffalo safety. And on January 5, Hamlin woke up and asked, “Did we win?” Because, football — it’s who he was.
For 31 teams and their fans, life returned to normal. Football became life again. Winning was what mattered. But for Hamlin and his teammates, for the coaches and staff at One Bills Drive — and even for the fans that call themselves Bills Mafia — things were different. Everyone wants to win. But there was a different vibe, a different look in the players’ eyes, a different passion. Football is just a game.
As he’s improved over the past month, left the hospital, made appearances in the Bills’ locker room and Highland Stadium, and made three public appearances in Arizona during Super Bowl Week, Hamlin has made it quite clear that he understands that it’s just a game — but it’s still a game that he loves.
After NFLPA doctor Dr. Thom Mayer made a shocking statement on Sirius XM Radio’s “Heart to Heart” claiming that he guaranteed “Hamlin will play professional football again,” the 24-year-old safety, who was playing in his second NFL season this year, was asked about his future by Michael Strahan in an interview for Good Morning America.
“Eventually. That’s always the goal. Like I said, as a competitor, I’m trying to do things just to keeping advancing my situation,” Hamlin told Michael Strahan in a recorded interview for FOX, before adding the reminder that he knows his future is about more than the game. “But I’m allowing that to be in God’s hands. I’m just thankful he gave me a second chance.”
MONDAY ON @GMA: "He was literally the savior of my life."@michaelstrahan sits down with @HamlinIsland to reflect on what happened on the football field and his remarkable road to recovery. https://t.co/EzJjRf96zj pic.twitter.com/9P4mXQScmp— Good Morning America (@GMA) February 10, 2023
Hamlin has made several references in the past week to a bigger purpose, a higher calling, than just the game of football he spent his life thinking was the most important thing.
“My vision was about playing in the NFL and being the best player that I could be, but God’s plan was to have a purpose greater than any game in this world,” Hamlin said when he stood on stage, along with the medical teams that saved his life, at last week’s NFL Honors show.
When asked by Strahan about the moments before his cardiac arrest — specifically, if he remembered the tackle on Higgins and standing up after the play — Hamlin deferred, again, bringing to light that there’s more to life than the game.
“That’s something I don’t really want to get too deep in the details of,” he responded. “That’s something I’m still trying to work through, you know, why that happened to me.”
If we listen to all that he’s told us this past week, Hamlin may have hinted that he knows the why.
“Every day, I am amazed that my experiences could encourage so many others across the country and even across the world. Encourage to pray, encourage to spread love, and encouraged to keep fighting no matter the circumstances,” he said during his nationally-televised speech at the NFL Honors show. “Sudden cardiac arrest is nothing I would’ve ever chosen to be a part of my story, but that’s because our own visions are too small, even when we think we are seeing the bigger picture.”
When asked what he plans to do with the more than $8.6 million that was raised for his Chasing M’s foundation as a show of love and support after his cardiac arrest, Hamlin said the only thing that could make any sense at all.
“I’m gonna change the world,” he told TMZ Sports, referencing the fact that he understands that there is something much bigger at play in his new life than X’s and O’s, scoreboards and leaderboards, awards and honors. “Change the world.”
So, while Hamlin very well may play professional football again (right now he is still listed as an active player in the NFL and is on the Bills’ Injured Reserve list), that will only be a small part of what his future holds — because football is just a game. The rest is life.