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Football changed Buffalo Bills S Damar Hamlin’s life as much as he’s changed the game

Even before the game changed his life, Damar Hamlin was a game-changer for the world around him.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin never asked for life to play out the way it did at just 25 years old. Growing up in the Pittsburgh metropolitan borough of McKees Rocks, Pa., Hamlin faced life head on through every difficult situation handed to him.

Despite the challenges he’s faced, Hamlin has always stood by his hometown, and to this day he has an affinity for so much of Pittsburgh and its sports teams. Hamlin wanted to become the greatest ever, a game changer. But life granted him that opportunity in the most traumatic way.

And it all began in childhood. Hamlin found himself absent a father, who went a way to prison and served 3.5 years on a 10-year sentence for intent to sell drugs. Then one after another, far too many of Hamlin’s friends became victims to the violence that has historically plagued McKees Rocks. Mario Hamlin eventually returned home, during Hamlin’s sophomore year of high school. Though the two were able to reconnect and Mario Hamlin is doing well today, the younger Hamlin had already adapted to life without his father — which required him to grow up much sooner than he ever expected.

Hamlin’s path to the NFL sprouted healthy roots during high school, when he earned accolades as the top-rated defensive player in his class (per Rivals and 247 Sports). After graduating from Central Catholic High School, the highly coveted four-star recruit stayed close to home despite receiving offers from almost 50 schools, enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh just a few blocks away. Hamlin has said that his decision to attend Pitt was borne out of a desire to remain close to home for his much younger brother.

As a Pitt Panther, Hamlin was converted to safety and became a force to be reckoned with — named honorable mention All-Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and ultimately earning team captaincy his senior season. Hamlin would enter the 2021 NFL Draft while finishing his college career with a degree in communications.

Hamlin signed a four-year rookie contract with the Buffalo Bills after being selected in the sixth round, No 212 overall, of the 2021 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he spent the season in a reserve role, learning behind All-Pro safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Then in Week 2 of the 2022 NFL season, Hyde suffered a scary neck injury that ultimately required season-ending surgery. Hamlin stepped in for Hyde, starting the next 13 games of his sophomore season.

With a reputation as a heavy hitter, Hamlin began to show promising development the more he saw the field. Damar Hamlin wasn’t known as the fleetest of foot, nor the savviest defensive backfield player defending the pass, especially against NFL talent. But he made up for it with a true nose for the football and a dedication to keeping the play in front of him — a heady player built for Buffalo’s nickel defense. Hamlin was mainly seen as a reserve player to spell the All-Pro tandem ahead of him, but he began to make a name for himself while helping his teammates navigate a truly challenging season.

Navigating trauma

That is, until everything went black on Jan. 2, 2023. Trauma cast its foreboding shadow over Paycor Stadium at 8:56 p.m. EST. That’s when the rest of the world was introduced to Damar Hamlin.

The Bills were in Ohio, facing the Cincinnati Bengals in a huge matchup for Monday Night Football. From the outset, things appeared off for Buffalo, who were helpless to stop the Bengals offense and struggled to keep pace on the scoreboard.

On a fairly routine pass play between quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins, Hamlin made a solid, typical tackle. He stood up, then stumbled and slumped over, dropping to the ground laying motionless on the field. Almost immediately, fans who were gathered together and those on social media began to speculate.

“Perhaps it’s just a concussion”; “Is it possibly the same sort of injury Micah Hyde suffered?”; “Maybe it’s just that he had the wind knocked out of him?” But it wasn’t any of those things. Instead, a far more sinister emergency was at play — one that would forever change the game for Damar Hamlin.

On the few brief replays showing the play, Higgins’ shoulder was observed slamming into the left side of Hamlin’s chest. Few people understood at the time that Hamlin had suffered traumatic cardiac arrest as the result of making a tackle. For Hamlin, an exceedingly rare medical emergency involving blunt impact during a specific 40-millisecond span in his heart’s electrical cycle played out in front of a national audience.

Damar Hamlin had suffered commotio cordis, a condition that medical experts say is 97% fatal if treatment isn’t rendered within three minutes — cardiac failure absent cardiac damage. Within seconds and due to incredibly quick thinking, paramedics and the Bills’ training staff — namely assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington — were on the field. Kellington began providing CPR to Hamlin, while others used Automated External Defibrillation (AED) and administered additional care for over 10 minutes.

NFL announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, largely and understandably speechless, attempted to keep audiences informed, wondering how the game could resume. If it would finish. Eventually, Hamlin received oxygen and an IV, all while his teammates, the Bengals’ organization and fans looked on. Once able, Hamlin was transferred to a stretcher and placed in an ambulance while his teammates knelt nearby on the field.

Twenty-seven minutes later Hamlin arrived in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, where he was intubated. In the days following his near-death experience, Hamlin began to show signs of progress while sedated and on a ventilator. While unable to speak, he communicated using his other faculties, and almost immediately asked “Did we win?” to those in the room with him — who in turn told him “Yes, Damar. You won the game of life.”

From that point forward, there were continual signs of progress, and hope that Hamlin would fully recover to lead a normal life after a freak accident — but a life absent of professional football.

All roads eventually lead back home

Once Damar Hamlin was able to breathe on his own, and after a week of inpatient care, he was discharged from UC Health Center and flown to Buffalo General Medical Center (BGMC) for further testing. Two days later, Hamlin was discharged from BGMC and allowed to return home where he continued his recovery.

Hamlin remained in the news as his teammates began their playoff run. On Jan. 22, 2023, the Bills hosted the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Twenty days after dying on the field, Damar Hamlin made his public return, this time as a spectator cheering on his teammates from a suite inside Highmark Stadium.

Now healthy enough to make public appearances and travel, Hamlin became an oft-requested guest in nearly every media, entertainment, and news circle, as well as other major events.

But Hamlin wasn’t content just to discuss his accident, and he didn’t want to remain on the sidelines after being given a second chance — even if home will always be where his heart longs to be. Now, Hamlin was ready for something bigger than he ever imagined.

An unexpected life mission

While in the throes of battle to stay alive, it was impossible for Damar Hamlin to understand what his future held. But at the moment his heart stopped, Hamlin became a game-changer.

Hamlin — a genuinely kind person — has always been humble and driven to help others. He started a fundraiser in 2020 to purchase toys for children in the community where he grew up during the Christmas season. A GoFundMe Page was established as part of the “Chasing M’s foundation Community Toy Drive” — where Hamlin wrote at the time:

“As I embark on my journey to the NFL, I will never forget where I come from and I am committed to using my platform to positively impact the community that raised me. I created The Chasing M’s Foundation as a vehicle that will allow me to deliver that impact.”

What began as a grass-roots effort to help those in his hometown, “Chasing M’s Foundation” has sprouted new wings in the aftermath of Damar Hamlin’s on-field medical emergency. Buffalo Bills fans are among the most philanthropic fan bases in all of sports, continuously giving to countless charities, especially those that impact the collective heart of Bills Mafia, and which are tied to players and those in the community who leave an imprint on their lives.

Mere hours after Hamlin entered the hospital in Cincinnati, his charity had grown from a few thousand dollars to well over $2 million. As of this writing, it sits at over $9,140,000 with over 248,000 donations and counting.

What little most people knew of Hamlin, they knew him as a grounded and charitable man. And people were compelled to support him in his greatest time of need, knowing that he’d continue paying it forward.

Hamlin’s mission in life had now become clear, and he was up for the challenge having triumphed over the greatest adversity of all.

The beat goes on

The charity that Damar Hamlin started continued to undergo significant organizational changes, ultimately reaching 501(c)(3) certified charity status during the spring of 2023. Hamlin’s charity had become a major game-changer for people around the world, and the best was yet to come from “The Chasing M’s Foundation” Charitable Fund by The Giving Back Fund, which endeavors to support “programs, partnerships, and events that will encourage young people to live their dreams, raise awareness of sudden cardiac arrest and inspire others who face adversity.”

“I’m honored to lead this new charity, Chasing M’s Foundation, which is dedicated to the development, health & safety of youth through sports, engagement activities, training & programming. Because of what happened to me, I’m working to make sure that kids across the country have the same access to life-saving care that I did if they need it.”

Thus began Hamlin’s journey to positively impact the world around him, after the world embraced him.

A game changer, for everyone

In March 2023, Damar Hamlin went to Washington, D.C., in support of the Access to AEDs Act, a bipartisan bill to assist schools in obtaining and using AEDs. The bill was passed, and Hamlin, with a team of experts, began a national MLB ballpark tour during the summer of 2023. The tour aimed to provide CPR training and access to life-saving AEDs through events involving the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Steelers, plus additional events supporting the same initiatives for youth sports programs within the community.

But Hamlin had yet to make another profound impact on the gridiron, despite his being cleared to resume all football activities as of Apr. 18, 2023 and announcing his intention to return to the NFL and Buffalo Bills.

Positive milestones continued to surface for Hamlin, from participating in his first fully padded training camp practice, to making his first tackles in a live-game setting during preseason action. At that point, the once-palpable tension began to ease as Hamlin incredibly appeared back to his old self once again. But this was the new version of Hamlin. A man fully aware of the gift he’s been given, and ready to use his platform as an NFL player to improve outcomes for others who might one day find their own lives hanging in the balance due to commotio cordis.

Hamlin has become the NFL’s face of traumatic cardiac arrest awareness and care, and continues his outreach to communities around the country and elsewhere. In the seasons to come, it’s possible that Hamlin’s life-changing medical emergency will serve as ground zero for new technology to better assist those in similar situations. While Hamlin isn’t the first person nor the first athlete — professional or otherwise — to fight for his life on the field of play, his influence is far reaching to the benefit of all.

Each step of the way, Hamlin remains humble, a genuinely kind, caring person who finds the greatest joy in family. Hamlin has said there are times he wishes he could simply hide in the background while making his comeback, though he understands that life has asked bigger things of him — and he approaches every opportunity with a heart full of life and love.