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Damar Hamlin and the Most Terrifying Night of Football

The Buffalo Bills’ 24-year-old safety suffered a cardiac arrest on ‘Monday Night Football,’ an incident so scary and traumatic that it forced the NFL to suspend one of the biggest games of the season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note: As of Tuesday afternoon, Damar Hamlin remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Since publication of this column, the NFL announced that the game between the Bills and Bengals will not resume this week. Commissioner Roger Goodell told the league’s head coaches and team executives that the NFL has not yet decided whether the game will be resumed at a later date. At this point, no changes have been made to the Week 18 schedule.

It felt different because it was different. You are smart enough to read faces and you’ve watched enough football to know. Sean McDermott saying a prayer under his breath. Reggie Gilliam looking up to the sky and yelling. Josh Allen and Joe Burrow embracing, while Stefon Diggs wiped away tears and Tre’Davious White was simply unable to look. It all happened at once, around Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old who made a routine tackle, stood up, and immediately collapsed.

On Monday Night Football in Cincinnati, Hamlin made a chillingly normal tackle on a 13-yard Tee Higgins catch that led to the worst thing I have ever seen on a football field. Only three things matter now: (1) the health of Hamlin and his ability to lead a normal life; (2) the mental and emotional well-being of Hamlin’s family, friends, and teammates, who witnessed something so traumatic; (3) and that whatever happened to Hamlin is so thoroughly investigated that we never have to go through this ever again.

Quite literally everything else can be left for another day, including the game itself, which was abandoned in the first quarter with no makeup date announced and the Bills headed back to Buffalo. The idea that the game needed to go ahead because it featured two top teams playing for AFC seeding is silly and not even all that widespread. Most people agreed it needed to be suspended. Football stakes and life stakes are two totally different things and only one actually matters. The Bills said in a statement that Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest during the play, his heartbeat was restored on the field, and he is currently in critical condition:

In the four hours before that update, we were left with the bare, terrifying facts of the situation. It was the most upsetting event ever broadcast during a football game. ESPN announcer Joe Buck described first responders pounding on Hamlin’s chest; the compressions were not visible on TV but certainly clear to those in the stadium and probably far too visible for the players who packed tightly around. The initial idea of a five-minute break and a warm-up period, as if it were a silly little delay—as if there had been a busted stadium light—was always ludicrous (the NFL later clarified there was never a plan to resume the game), but it was quickly corrected by the teams themselves. Head coaches Sean McDermott and Zac Taylor met and decided to return their teams to their locker rooms to begin to process what they had just seen. From there, seemingly the only path toward playing again would be really good news really quickly. That wasn’t coming. Allen and Burrow looked crestfallen. We all saw their faces on national television and we knew: Playing would have been impossible, even if the NFL had forced it through, which it thankfully did not.

Stopping the game was a significant and necessary act. Football normally rolls on. When a player breaks an ankle in practice, they move the drill, leaving the injured player behind while the business of football continues elsewhere. Earlier this year, on this very same field, we saw Tua Tagovailoa taken away in an ambulance after suffering a concussion, and play resumed minutes later. Players are transported to hospitals and there’s football within five minutes. It is almost impossible to grind the gears of football to a halt. It has now. That should tell you something. The league should move on. There is no right way to finish this game.

So what comes next is just as important: With the Bills planning to return to Buffalo, you can rule out a quick Tuesday-afternoon game and trying to squeeze the Week 18 games into their normal Sunday slots. Perhaps if they played midweek you could delay their Week 18 games a day. This is the best-case scenario and the easiest scenario to lay out on a white board in New York. It is not so easy in a locker room full of players who are probably as scared as they’ve ever been in their lives about the sport they love, and who might feel as helpless as they ever have. There are people whose relationships with football changed forever Monday night, and telling them to channel that into a game in 36 hours may not be advisable. Logistically, the easiest solution would be for commissioner Roger Goodell to find a way to declare this game a tie. This presents its own set of competitive hurdles to work out in such a tight playoff race, but on the other hand: who cares about that right now? Let this night and this game stay in the past.

Football has a way of reminding you about its humanity only when it is too late. Damar Hamlin started Monday as the perfect NFL story: a sixth-round pick who worked hard to replace an injured star safety for one of the best teams in football. His story is well documented. His parents opened a cleaning service to support Hamlin’s football dreams. He gave back to his hometown of Pittsburgh every chance he got. He was making it in the NFL. Earlier this season after practice he said, “I’m cherishing every moment I can.” Football can be a ghoulish, cruel sport. A special person in the midst of a special opportunity going through one of the scariest situations in modern American sports history. A kid with dreams:

The concern now is for Hamlin and those who love him. It’s also for a player like Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins, who ran down the field toward Hamlin and started the play that led to the incident and may never be the same:

Beyond that, Monday and its aftershocks are an uncomfortable reminder that a football field can be dangerous—even if nothing dangerous is happening. The consequences of football’s brutality are mostly hidden anyway. Most people do not want to peek behind the curtain. It is a sport in which “movement in all extremities” is treated as good news and not some grim line delivered with more unsaid than said. I think often of what Dan Le Batard once wrote when Jason Taylor opened up about his series of devastating and mostly secret injuries: “Take a look at what was happening in the dark. He was just a few blessed hours from having his leg amputated. He played games, plural, with a hidden and taped catheter running from his armpit to his heart. His calf was oozing blood for so many months, from September of one year to February of another, that he had to have the equivalent of a drain installed.”

Monday night was all of it in your face. Postponing its final Monday Night Football game of the year. Suspending one of the biggest games of the year. This was as close to a reckoning as you can get for such a violent sport. Football can be beautiful; it can lead you to places you never expected to go and conjure feelings you didn’t know you were capable of having, but it can also be barbarous and brutal, sad and unforgiving. The long-term health impact always seemed in the abstract. As if, sure, some guys were in bad shape but they played in the ’80s. This was a reminder, broadcast in real time, of how unfair the game can be.

Howard Glenn broke his neck in an AFL game and died later that day. Chuck Hughes died after collapsing during a 1971 Lions-Bears game. In both cases the game kept moving. A Hall of Fame player who spoke to ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. in 2013 said that Roger Goodell was “terrified” that a player was going to die on the field if the sport didn’t change. The game has gotten safer in the past decade as rule changes have taken some of the biggest hits out of the game, but there is a limit on how safe the sport can be, and that gets thrown into our face every few weeks at the very least.

My mind wandered to two soccer incidents: Denmark’s Christian Eriksen in 2021 and Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba in 2012 both collapsed on the pitch in games I happened to be watching, and both were rattling around my brain on Monday night because they felt the same: the quiet of the crowd, the obvious seriousness of the situation weighing on the faces of the players, the cameras keeping a comfortable distance so as not to show someone struggling for life on national television. Both players survived. Eriksen is playing again and Muamba, forced to retire, returned to the stadium in which he collapsed eight months later to a thunderous ovation.

The best-case scenario is that Hamlin, too, survives this and is able to lead a normal, happy, and healthy life and that this ends up as but a footnote in his bio. Anything else is unspeakable now. Football changed on Monday night—we won’t know how for years—but we know it changed, because the NFL finally was forced to stop. None of us wanted to look. This was a night of glazed eyes, thousand-yard stares, and prayer. We hope we never have to see it ever again.