Hamlin, who has been in the NFL for two years, grew up in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. He started a charity, the Chasing M’s Foundation, “to positively impact the community that raised me,” he wrote on its GoFundMe, and had been raising money for a community toy drive for kids who lost parents to COVID-19. Since last night, people have donated more than $4 million to the cause. Fans in Bills and Bengals attire gathered for a vigil outside the hospital he’s currently in.
The possibility of death isn’t foreign to football. Over the last decade, at least 41 high school players have died from injuries suffered on the field, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. In August 2001, Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died from heat stroke during a practice before the season, sparking a paradigm shift away from brutal training methods that limited water breaks. In October 1971, Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died after suffering a heart attack in the fourth quarter of a game, which resumed once he was transported to the hospital.
Yet after years of heightened attention on player safety and advancements in protective equipment and physical training, seeing a player at the sport’s highest level come so close to losing his life on the field left people across the football world shaken.
On SportsCenter later that night, ESPN reporter Lisa Salters broke into tears while delivering her dispatch from the field, and former player Ryan Clark recounted the moment as “the most afraid I’ve ever been watching a football game.”
For those watching it live on television, the horror intensified in sudden snippets. The camera was panning the crowd when Hamlin collapsed, and you could hear the collective wince inside the stadium among those who noticed it in real time. When the camera was back on the field, trainers were clustered around a Bills player on the ground. The announcers took us to a commercial break. When the broadcast returned, an ambulance was on the field.
The replay of Hamlin’s body falling limply to the ground made clear something abnormally scary was happening. Then, after the next commercial break, the stricken faces of his teammates signaled that whatever was happening was beyond the bounds of what even professional football players could psychologically brace themselves for. TV announcer Joe Buck reported that medical personnel had been administering CPR, describing the effort as “feverish.”
After the referee announced to the stadium that the game would be “temporarily suspended,” the spectators offered a hushed ovation to the players exiting the field. How could anyone play football in those circumstances? How could anyone want to watch it? Only the NFL seemed unsure whether the game should play on. It would be another half hour or so before the league announced that the game would be officially postponed.
In the hours that followed, the sports world was unified in expressions of well-wishes for Hamlin, and unanimous in agreeing that the game couldn’t continue. Former players and longtime analysts said they’d never seen anything like this. Everyone was sure to note that Hamlin’s health was the top priority and that trivial questions about game logistics and season implications should wait.
There wasn’t much to say beyond that because we still don’t know the details of why Hamlin’s heart stopped. Tagovailoa’s concussion in Cincinnati came four days after a hit in a previous game left him wobbly, leading to a wave of criticism toward the league and his team for allowing him to play so soon after. His injury was avoidable, and in response, the league announced changes to its protocols aimed at identifying possible concussion symptoms during games.