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Opinion: Damar Hamlin deserved Comeback Player of the Year Award

Presenting Damar Hamlin with Comeback Player of the Year was a no-brainer. The voters got this one wrong.

Buffalo Bills v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

Normally I’m not one to get worked up over a professional sports league’s annual awards ceremony, but in the case of the NFL Honors, handed out Thursday night in Las Vegas, NV, the NFL and its voters horribly botched the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who died not once, but twice on the field against the Cincinnati Bengals, somehow lost out to Cleveland Browns quarterback Joe Flacco for the honor.

There is no clear-cut definition for the Comeback Player of the Year award, which meant it was up to the 50 voters — print, television, radio, and online digital reporters across the country who cover the league — to determine what qualifies someone as being worthy of winning the honor.

Hamlin was up against Flacco, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield, who merely performed better on the field this year than he did in 2022, and Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who each rebounded from injuries to play great in 2023.

It should have been a no-brainer.

The whole country watched in horror as Hamlin went into sudden cardiac arrest in the first quarter of the Buffalo Bills’ game on January 2, 2023, at the Cincinnati Bengals. He needed both CPR and a defibrillator to be resuscitated on the field. The incredible, quick-thinking work of the Bills’ training and medical staff saved his life. Hamlin spent several days in a hospital in Cincinnati, part of that in an induced coma — and once he was released he faced months of tedious rehabilitation not knowing if he’d be able to resume his career.

Buffalo Bills v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

In April, Hamlin was fully cleared to return to football and was a full participant in both training camp and the preseason. He made the Bills’ 53-man roster and would see the field for 94 total snaps this year — most of them on special teams — while dressing for seven games, including both of Buffalo’s playoff contests.

Just the fact that Hamlin played a single snap after dying twice should have been enough to clinch the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Instead, Flacco, who came back from nobody wanting to sign the journeyman quarterback, was honored by the league.

No disrespect to Flacco. What he did, getting up from his couch in the middle of November and playing exceptionally well in leading the Browns to the playoffs, was impressive. But not as impressive as the adversity Hamlin overcame to return to playing the sport he loves with the teammates who have become his second family.

Can you imagine the doubts and the worries running through Hamlin’s mind the first time he lined up on defense or ran down the field as part of Buffalo’s special teams unit? What would happen the first time he absorbed a punishing hit? How would his heart respond?

All Hamlin needed to do this year to win this award was step back on the playing field. Granted, in his role as the Bills’ fifth safety, Hamlin’s productivity didn’t jump off of the stat sheet (two total tackles), but his on-field productivity should not have factored in the voting. Remember, this is an award with no definition.

Instead, he was denied by the voters. Hamlin’s snub bothered me, and it bothered a lot of not only Bills fans, but football fans across the country. I took to Twitter to comment on the topic, and boy, I didn’t think there’d be so many people willing to stay on the “but Damar Hamlin didn’t play well” hill when discussing Comeback Player of the Year.

Some posters tried to say the award is about coming back to produce a remarkable performance. I don’t know about you, but returning to play the game he loves after dying twice on the field seems like a pretty remarkable performance worthy of this honor.

And that’s before you factor in Hamlin’s off-field efforts. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 365,000 people suffer a cardiac arrest incident outside of a hospital annually, with between 60-80 percent of people dying before they can receive potentially life-saving treatment. Thanks to the life-saving actions of the paramedics and first responders, Hamlin became the exception.

Hamlin’s road to recovery inspired people across the world, and his impact reached far beyond the playing field. In true Damar Hamlin spirit, he’s spent much of the past year visiting schools, colleges and sports teams across the country advocating for CPR training through his Chasing M’s Foundation.

He’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to both first responders and to increasing access to automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) across the country, and he also helped introduce the “Access to AEDs Act” in March of 2023. On Friday afternoon in Las Vegas, it was announced that Chasing M’s is donating $100,000 worth of AEDs to 47 high schools with athletic programs in Nevada.

Hamlin’s comeback journey isn’t complete. Rather it’s still happening. He’s writing the next chapter of his life’s story more than a year after that on-field cardiac arrest incident. It’s exciting to see the good work that came out of this horrific incident. It’s just a shame Hamlin’s comeback journey doesn’t include winning Comeback Player of the Year. Because in my mind, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more deserving recipient than Damar Hamlin.