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Ben Volin | On football

Damar Hamlin’s condition is far more important than football

Bills players surrounded injured teammate Damar Hamlin as he receives emergency medical attention on the field Monday night in Cincinnati.Kirk Irwin/Getty

Sickening. Gut-wrenching. Heart-breaking. Frightening. Numbing.

Plenty of adjectives to describe the terrifying scene that played out in Monday night’s Bengals-Bills game, and none of them good.

Bills safety Damar Hamlin needed emergency medical attention after collapsing moments after taking a shot to the chest while tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins in the first quarter. According to ESPN, Hamlin received CPR on the field. The NFL said Hamlin, 24, was in “critical condition” at a Level 1 trauma hospital in Cincinnati.

The NFL took the extraordinary step of postponing the game about 70 minutes after the hit. Players were in tears on the field. The coaches met and agreed that they couldn’t continue playing.


The game meant everything in a football sense — playoff seeding, MVP race, a big-time matchup for ESPN — but there was no way this game could continue.

The NFL took too long to make that decision, and callously tried to restart the game after a five-minute warm-up, but it ultimately came to the right place.

This from a league that glorifies violence and doesn’t stop games when players are carried off on stretchers. From a league that is loathe to postpone games and ruin the weekly rhythm of the schedule.

The Steelers resumed play the same night that Ryan Shazier was paralyzed in 2017. The Bills had to play a game in Detroit this year because of a 7-foot blizzard, but the NFL made sure the game was played.

That’s how scary the situation was Monday night. The NFL doesn’t just postpone games. This, though, felt very much like a matter of life and death.

The updates were scarce, which only made the matter more frightening. Hamlin’s marketing rep, Jordon Rooney, provided an update around 10:30 p.m., saying Hamlin’s “vitals are back to normal and they have put him to sleep to put a breathing tube down his throat. They are currently running tests.”


Later, the Bills said Hamlin had suffered a cardiac arrest. “He is currently sedated and listed in critical condition,” the team said in an early-morning statement.

Buffalo players and staff pray after teammate Damar Hamlin collapsed in the first half of Monday's game.Joshua A. Bickel/Associated Press

Hamlin, a sixth-round pick in 2021, is not just a safety who started 13 games for the Bills this year, but a son, a brother, and a solid member of the community. He started a foundation and began a toy drive in 2020 in his hometown outside of Pittsburgh.

I couldn’t help but think of my old classmate George Boiardi, a former Cornell lacrosse player whose heart stopped when he took a ball to the chest in 2004 and died on the field.

The logistics of when to replay the Bengals-Bills game, and what to do about the Week 18 schedule, can be figured out later. The Patriots may be affected, as they are set to play in Buffalo on Sunday.

Who cares? Hamlin’s condition is far bigger than football.

Seeing the fear and anguish in the faces of the Bills and Bengals players was enough to bring anyone to tears. Football is supposed to be a game, played for fame and fun and large sums of money.

The NFL has tried to make football safer by outlawing certain plays, instituting a concussion protocol, and improving the pads. But Monday night was a frightening reminder that it’s a violent sport — not a contact sport, but a collision sport. Those collisions are getting increasingly vicious as players get bigger, stronger, and faster. And the NFL can only make football safer up to a point. It’s an inherently dangerous game, and tragedies are an unfortunate inevitability.


There aren’t many sports where players wonder whether they will be able to walk off the field at the end of the game; where lives can be altered forever in a flash.

Football is one of them. The players know this when they sign up. It doesn’t make it any less jarring when tragedy does strike.

There is nothing left to do now but pray for Hamlin. And pray for the other 2,000 NFL players that a similar fate doesn’t befall them.

Tragically, it can happen any time they lace up their cleats.

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Ben Volin can be reached at