When the Buffalo Bills returned to practice Thursday, the players held up 3s and made hearts with their hands as they thought of their friend and teammate at a Cincinnati hospital.
When Damar Hamlin finally spoke to them on FaceTime the next day after having his breathing tube removed overnight, it took him just three words to reply: “I love you guys.”
players stood. They cheered. On the big screen in the team briefing room, they happily called back to Hamlin.
“We’ve got our boy, man,” left tackle Dion Dawkins later told reporters. “That’s all that counts. We have our boy. The excitement was nice. It was wonderful. It gave us so much energy, so much bright, good cheer, whatever you want to call it. There is us. Seeing that boy’s face, seeing him smile, seeing him (flex) on camera, that was all. And then hearing him talk to us, that was literally everything.
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“And that’s what we needed. That’s literally all we needed.”
It was a call they’ve needed since the 24-year-old security guard went into cardiac arrest on the field in Cincinnati Monday night and needed to be resuscitated on the field.
He was gradually able to wake up from sedation Wednesday night, hold hands with family and medical staff, and communicate in writing.
In an update Friday morning from University of Cincinnati Medical Center doctors, the Bills said Hamlin “continues to make remarkable progress in his recovery.” His neurological function remains intact and he has been able to communicate with his family and care team.”
That family included his teammates when coach Sean McDermott surprised Bill’s players and coaches.
“We brought Damar to the big screen,” McDermott said. “So he was larger than life for us.”
Once Week 18 is complete, Kansas City will have played a full 17-game season, but the Bills and Bengals have only played 16 games apiece.
Hamlin actually seemed larger than life to the outside world getting to know him this week. But for the Bills, the days since Monday have been so grueling because Hamlin isn’t a larger-than-life figure to them. He is Damar. dsham. Three.
Any other week he would have sat in the briefing room with them. The call was brief but provided a boost as the Bills look ahead to Sunday’s home game against the New England Patriots. The team will wear Patches #3 as a tribute to Hamlin in the NFL.
“I can’t remember the order of things and it wasn’t a long interaction as you imagine with his situation,” McDermott said, “but he was making hand signals, hand gestures.”
McDermott laughed as he reenacted Hamlin holding his arms up and bending them sharply to the side to start the call immediately.
“He got into her, I guess,” McDermott said, laughing.
From there, Hamlin made a few other gestures, all true to his usual self.
“He just has a few basic things that they know him for and he does,” McDermott said. “He probably did the heart symbol more than anything.”
A flex, a heart and a thumbs up. And a few words Hamlin says often but resonated more this time.
“Somewhere in between — and it was a little hard to understand, as you can imagine — he said, ‘I love you guys,'” McDermott said. “Of course the boys got it.”
McDermott got it too. As he tried to describe hours later, the coach was still touched by the moment.
“To be honest, the words probably don’t do it justice. Stunning. Touching,” said McDermott. “I know it’s something I’ve been looking forward to seeing Damar with my own eyes, kind of looking forward to I guess.”
He had to convince himself that Hamlin would be okay. Nothing would mean more than that, but followed closely by the reaction of everyone else in the room.
“The hair on the back of my neck stood up when he said ‘I love you guys,'” said general manager Brandon Beane. “The room has gone crazy. It was great.”
Matt Worswick, an assistant to the Buffalo head coach, and Tabani Richards, an assistant athletic coach to Bills, who is still in Cincinnati with Hamlin, coordinated the call. But McDermott was reluctant to give the rest of the players and coaches a heads-up.
“How do I know we’re going to be able to overcome? We have to,” McDermott said. “Just as we have done many times before. This city and the people of western New York have dealt with what they have dealt with. That’s what you do.”
Hope can be powerful, and it was certainly needed this week. But the downside of hope is that it can be cruel and the manager didn’t want to offer hope without reassurance that the call could come just then.
“I wanted to make sure that with Damar’s medical schedule that’s actually possible there,” McDermott said. “When I said we had a treat in store, you could see the look in her eyes in anticipation of what was likely to come.”
“We felt it,” Dawkins said. “It was more like McDermott — McDermott gave it away. I’ll just say it’s true.”
Part of the reason the Bills have been able to support each other so well this week is that they’re so attuned to each other’s cues. Dawkins is intimately familiar with his head coach’s mannerisms, so much so that he knew the tidbit in store could only be one thing.
“We know our coach, he’s a very straightforward guy. And you already knew the expression he had when he walked into the team room,” Dawkins said. “When you smile like that when you take a nice little walk, Sean McDermott, there’s only one thing you’ll be so happy about. So just give it to us now.”
Players also tracked every medical update. dr Timothy Pritts and Dr. UCMC’s William Knight IV gave reporters a thorough update on Hamlin on Thursday.
“There are still many, many steps ahead of him,” said Pritts on Thursday.
At that point, the next step was for Hamlin to breathe entirely on his own, Pritts said.
“That will be the next big milestone for him,” said Pritts.
On Thursday evening, Hamlin achieved this step. But on Friday, as Hamlin raised his arms and tensed, his teammates were reminded of the Hamlin they knew.
“Strength. Strength. Just strength,” Dawkins said of what he saw. “I think that he sees that the world is behind him, and then he sees that his teammates and his brothers and his family and his immediate people behind him.
“And when people have your back in a positive and unconditional way, it just gives you strength. And I think that’s why he was walking that way the first time we saw him,” Dawkins said as he also bowed. “It’s a nice feeling and I definitely think he feels stronger than he was.”
With the Hamlins, strength lies in the family. Beane saw this firsthand while staying in Cincinnati with Hamlin and his family. There he met Damar’s parents, Mario and Nina, on a much deeper level.
“I was amazed to see their strength in such difficult ups and downs,” Beane said. “I don’t think I would have handled it with the same force if that had been my son.”
Strength comes in different forms, the Bills noted this week, as players and staff remain vulnerable to one another. They have gone from overwhelming fear of the worst for Hamlin to overflowing with joy at his remarkable progress.
It was finally a pleasure to cry for good news on Friday.
“We’re on a positive ride right now where we got to see our man and we got to see ‘3’ smile and that’s literally all we wanted,” Dawkins said. “Like he’s here with us and that’s all we can ask is that he takes steps forward. …
“All the (medical staff) that worked on him and took care of him and all the love and prayers, it worked. So it doesn’t mean stop now. It means going even harder.”
A sign at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park on Tuesday, January 3, 2023 pays tribute to Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin, who suffered cardiac arrest during Monday night’s Bills-Bengals game in Cincinnati.
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