When the Buffalo Bills returned to practice Thursday, the players lifted 3’s and made hearts with their hands as they thought of their friend and teammates at a Cincinnati hospital.
When Damar Hamlin finally spoke to them the next day via FaceTime, after having his breathing tube removed overnight, he needed only three words to respond: “I love you boys.”
The players stood. Hallelujah! They joyfully called back Hamlin on the big screen in the team boardroom.
“We got our boy, man,” left Dion Dawkins interjected and later told reporters. “That’s all that matters. We have our boy. The excitement was sweet. He was awesome. You gave us so much energy, so much bright, high spirit, whatever you want to call it. It gives us. To see this boy’s face, to see him smile, to see him (flexible) On camera, it was everything. And then, when you hear him talk to us, it was literally everything.
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“And that’s what we need. Literally, that’s all we need.”
It was a call they needed from the moment the 24-year-old safety went into cardiac arrest on the field Monday night in Cincinnati and needed to be resuscitated on the field.
He was able to gradually wake up on Wednesday night from the anesthesia, hold hands with family members and medical staff and communicate in writing.
In an update Friday morning from doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Bills said Hamlin “continues to make significant progress in his recovery. His neurological function remains intact, and he’s been able to talk to his family and care team.”
That family included his teammates, with coach Sean McDermott surprising Bills players and coaches.
“We put Damar on the big screen,” said McDermott. “So, it was larger than life in there for us.”
Once Week 18 is complete, Kansas City will have played 17 complete games, but the Bills and Bengals have only played 16.
Hamlin already looked larger than life this week for the outside world to get to know. But for the Bills, the days since Monday have been very stressful because Hamlin is not a larger-than-life number to them. It’s damar. DHam. three.
On any other week, he would have sat with them in the conference room. The call was short, but it provided a boost as the Bills look forward to Sunday’s home game against the New England Patriots. The team will wear No. 3 patches as part of Hamlin’s tribute around the NFL.
“I can’t remember the order of things,” said McDermott, “and it wasn’t as long an interaction as you would imagine with his situation, but he did send out hand signals and hand gestures.”
McDermott laughed as he reenacted how Hamlin raised his arms, and leaned to the side forcefully, immediately to initiate the call.
“I caught up on them, I guess,” McDermott said with a laugh.
From there, Hamlin made a few more gestures, all true to his usual self.
“He’s just got some basic stuff that they know him for, and he does,” said McDermott. “He made the heart symbol probably more than anything else.”
Flex, flip, and thumbs up. And some words Hamlin said a lot, but that resonated more this time.
“Somewhere in the midst of that—and it was a bit hard to hear, you can imagine—he said, ‘I love you, boys,’” McDermott said. “Of course, I got the guys.”
I’ve got McDermott too. As he tried to describe it hours later, the coach was still moved by the moment.
“It probably won’t be able to do it justice, honestly, with words. Amazing.” Touching,” said McDermott. “To see Damar, from my perspective, I know it’s something I was looking forward to, kind of needed to see, I guess.”
He needed to see for himself that Hamlin would be fine. Nothing meant more than that, but the second everyone else in the room reacted.
“The hairs on the back of my neck stood erect when he said ‘I love you boys,'” said general manager Brandon Bean. “The room went crazy. It was amazing.”
Matt Worswick, an assistant head coach at Buffalo, and Tapani Richards, an assistant athletic trainer for the Bills still in Cincinnati with Hamlin, coordinated the call. But McDermott hesitated to give a heads up to the rest of the players and coaches.
“How do I know we’re going to be able to beat? We have to,” McDermott said. “Like we’ve done so many times before. This city, and the people of Western New York, deal with what they deal with. That’s what you do.”
Hope can be powerful, and it was definitely needed this week. But the flip side to hope is that it can be tough, and the coach didn’t want to give hope without making sure the call could happen at the time.
“I wanted to make sure that would actually be possible with Damar’s medical schedule there,” McDermott said. “When I said we had a treat in store, you could see the look in their eyes in anticipation of what might be next.”
“We felt it,” Dawkins said. “It was more than that even McDermott — McDermott waived it. I’ll just say it’s true.”
Part of the reason the Bills have been able to totally support each other this week is because they are so in tune with each other’s signs. Dawkins is so familiar with his master trainer’s grooming, that he knows an in-store treat can only be one thing.
“We know our coach, he’s a very direct guy. And the amount of expression with which he walked into the squad room, you already know,” Dawkins said. “If you’re smiling like that, if you have a nice little outing, Sean McDermott, there’s only one thing you’d be happy about. So just give it to us now.”
Players have been following every medical update as well. Dr. Timothy Britts and Dr. William Knight IV of UCMC gave an extensive update on Hamlin to reporters Thursday.
“He still has a lot, a lot of steps to go,” Brits said Thursday.
At that point, the next step was for Hamlin to breathe on his own, Brits said.
“This will be the next big milestone for him,” Brits said.
During Thursday night, Hamlin hit that step. But on Friday, when Hamlin raised his arms and bent, teammates were reminded of the Hamlin they know.
“Strength. Power. I think he sees the world supporting him and then I think he sees his teammates, siblings, family and immediate family supporting him.
“And when people support you positively and unconditionally, it just gives you strength. And I think that’s why when we first saw him, he went like that,” Dawkins said, also rolling over. “It’s a nice feeling, and I definitely think he feels stronger than he has been.”
For the Hamlins, strength runs in the family. Bean saw it up close, staying in Cincinnati with Hamlin and his family. There, he gets to know Damar’s parents, Mario and Nina, on a much deeper level.
“I was in awe just watching their strength through their difficult ups and downs,” said Bean. “I don’t think I would have dealt with her as forcefully if this had been my son.”
Power comes in different forms, as the Bills indicated this week, as players and staff remain vulnerable to each other. They went from overwhelming fear of the worst for Hamelin, to overwhelming joy at his remarkable progress.
Friday was a joy, finally, crying for the good news.
“We’re on a positive journey now, where we had to see our man, we had to see ‘3’ smile and that’s literally all we wanted,” Dawkins said. “As if he’s here with us and that’s all we can ask, is that he take steps forward. …
“All (the medical staff) that worked on him and cared for him and all the love and prayers, he was working. So, that doesn’t mean stop now. It means go harder.”
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