The Cincinnati Bengals played the Buffalo Bills on Monday night, but that doesn’t really matter. Joe Burrow and Josh Allen met for the first time in what could have been a matchup of thrilling young quarterbacks, but that didn’t matter, either. The coveted first-round bye was potentially on the line, but that seems so small and insignificant, doesn’t it?
That’s because Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed.
Now, this wasn’t just any football fall. This wasn’t even the stereotypical, helmet-to-helmet shot that gets so much media attention. It was innocuous in some ways, if only because it’s the type of play you expect to see in a football game. But what happened after was so sickening, it’s the sort of moment that will reverberate and shake football down to its foundation.
After catching the ball for a short gain, Bengals receiver Tee Higgins turned up field and collided with Hamlin. It was a typical, every day, ho-hum tackle. Nothing out of the ordinary. Hamlin popped right up.
And then he fell.
He stayed down. Players gathered. For a long time, no one really knew what was going on. Whispers began to circulate. The paramedics performed CPR. An ambulance appeared. Football, suddenly, was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
The worst part was not knowing. Was he conscious? Or breathing? Or alive?
And the players. The coaches. The crowd. Those poor people.
They could do nothing but sit and wait. The Bills players were absolutely devastated, shedding tears on the football field. The Bengals players looked shell-shocked as well. How could they not? They had all been playing football together and then bam - a player was on the ground. Not moving. His heart had stopped.
How could anyone play football after seeing that? For all anyone knew, Hamlin was dead. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s not hyperbole. No one knew anything.
And I don’t want to lash out too much at ESPN - there’s only so much they could do - but could they have been less helpful? They couldn’t tell us anything. Instead, we got to hear their talking heads agonizingly stalling for time.
I feel in particular for Booger McFarland. Of ESPN's three Monday Night Football panelists, he was the only one who played professional football. He looked particularly shaken. At times, he looked like he was about to break down. How could he not?
The game doesn't matter anymore. A young man’s life was on the line. Damar Hamlin is twenty-four years old. He’s a kid, really. A tremendously successful, best-player-from-his-hometown, living-out-his-dream kid. He was probably Superman to his family and friends. And in a heartbeat, he wasn’t.
Damar Hamlin was a sixth-round pick in 2021. He played sparingly as a rookie, and he’d stepped into a starting role in year two. Most sixth-round picks don’t become household names. To add to the sadness of Monday night, Damar Hamlin may only be remembered for his critical collapse.
But Damar Hamlin was also a good football player. He helped organize a toy drive for children in his hometown. He was a good person. He was living his life to the fullest. He deserves to be remembered for those things, too.
At the same time, though, it’s impossible not to wonder how the ripples of this moment will affect the Bills, the Bengals and the entire NFL, as the season continues. The players were devastated. Completely and absolutely. They were scared and confused. Everyone was.
Credit to head coaches Sean McDermott and Zach Taylor of the Bills and Bengals, respectively. After the league decided to give the players five freaking minutes to collect themselves, McDermott and Taylor, like the stand-up guys they are, determined to take matters into their own hands. They agreed to postpone the game. Eventually, the NFL got its shit together and suspended the game for the night. It was the obvious solution - and thank God somebody finally came to their senses.
It reminds us how fast this game is. Not just on the field, with its superhuman players making superhuman plays, but off the field, when careers that last five years can be considered “fairly lengthy”. And not just the game of football, where careers end in an instant, but the game of life, which can come to an abrupt end, too.
Damar Hamlin’s life was in jeopardy on Monday night. The players who chose to suit up next week are built of some strong stuff. Football is inherently risky, and injuries are expected. But this was different - this was more than football. A young man nearly gave his life for the game, and that price is far too steep.
It’s all unfair. It’s unfair for Damar Hamlin - his life and career could be cut short. It’s unfair to the Bills players - they just watched their brother collapse. It’s unfair to the Bengals and the Cincinnati fans - no one wanted any of this. Just a good, clean, hard-fought game.
But of course, life isn't fair, and instead, we got the worst-case scenario. The doomsday scenario. The scenario talked about only in hushed tones. A player nearly died on the field. It’s unthinkable, unspeakable, unimaginable - but here we are. It just happened.
It’s impossible to know what will happen from here, but as we should all know by now, football isn’t going anywhere. There will still be those willing to take the risks. The dangers don’t outweigh the rewards - not for everybody.
This game doesn’t need to be rescheduled. Call it a draw. Let these two teams heal. They suffered enough on Monday night.