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‘To hear him talk to us, it was everything. That’s all we needed’; Bills overjoyed seeing Damar Hamlin on video call

Bills coach Sean McDermott surprised his players Friday with a video conference with injured safety Damar Hamlin.Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

BUFFALO — When the Bills reported to Highmark Stadium Friday morning, coach Sean McDermott had a surprise for his players. Projected onto a big screen inside a meeting room was safety Damar Hamlin, calling in from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center four days after collapsing during a game as the result of sudden cardiac arrest.

McDermott didn’t want to tell the team in advance, in case Hamlin’s condition or medical schedule couldn’t allow for the video conference. But once he informed the players he had “a treat in store,” their eyes lit up in anticipation.

“Man, we got our boy!” said offensive tackle Dion Dawkins.

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Moments into the call, Hamlin proudly flexed his arms, much to the delight of his teammates. He made a couple of other hand gestures, forming a heart with his hands as well as giving a thumbs-up. His words were limited, as he had just regained the ability to speak, but Hamlin made sure to pass along a simple message.

“I love you boys,” he told the team.

“The hair on the back of my neck stood up,” said Bills general manager Brandon Beane. “The room went nuts. It was awesome.”

Friday’s video conference was one of the latest positive developments in Hamlin’s ongoing recovery. After needing a ventilator for three days, he is now breathing on his own. He can follow commands and communicate. He is “neurologically intact,” according to doctors.

The updates have uplifted the Bills, who are scheduled to host the Patriots at 1 p.m. Sunday in their regular-season finale. Beane, McDermott, and quarterback Josh Allen have all acknowledged the challenge of compartmentalizing Monday’s events while preparing to play, of containing their emotions while facing a divisional opponent.

But the recent news on Hamlin’s condition has drastically shifted the mood in Buffalo. Initially, the Bills faced questions about how they could play a game so soon after a traumatic event. Now, galvanized by Hamlin’s improvements, they’ve made it clear they’re ready to take the field to honor their teammate.

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“It’s going to be a celebration of life and ongoing life,” Beane said. “This is not only going to be a celebration in Buffalo, but the whole country.”

For Sunday’s game, Bills players will sport small patches with Hamlin’s No. 3 on their jerseys, while coaches and staffers will wear hats with an embroidered No. 3.

Across the league, players will have the option to warm up in black T-shirts with the message: “Love for Damar 3.” All stadiums can outline the No. 3 of their 30-yard line markers in either red or blue. The NFL also distributed a public address announcement to be read prior to the national anthem, cheering for Hamlin, as well as thanking the first responders and medical caregivers for their efforts.

The outpouring of support for Hamlin has been wide-ranging.

Sarah Taylor, wife of Bengals coach Zac Taylor, coordinated a collection of get-well cards from approximately 40 grade schools in the Cincinnati area. Vikings defensive end Harrison Phillips, who played four seasons in Buffalo, supplied meals for Hamlin’s family, Bills personnel, and the medical center’s intensive care unit Tuesday and Wednesday.

Throughout the week, NFL players, coaches, and executives have donated to a toy drive organized by Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, safety Devin McCourty, Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, and Raiders coach Josh McDaniels are among those who contributed. As of Friday night, the drive had raised almost $8 million.

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“Yeah, we go to battle, but in the end, life is the No. 1 battle,” Beane said. “To see that unity from players, coaches, GMs, owners, fans, it’s unheard of.”

Prayers for Damar Hamlin have come from all over the world, including the Bills' Highmark Stadium.BRENDAN BANNON/NYT

In Buffalo, locals flocked to sporting good stores in hopes of buying a Hamlin jersey. Hamlin’s jersey instantly became the top seller on Fanatics, which announced it would donate all proceeds to the Chasing M’s Foundation.

Nate Mroz, founder of the BFLO Store (the official retailer of the Bills), didn’t have any Hamlin jerseys in stock and didn’t want to design a custom shirt for fear of being insensitive or opportunistic. But, still feeling compelled to find a way to honor Hamlin, he decided to offer a special deal: Donate any amount to the Chasing M’s Foundation in exchange for a sweatshirt.

“People can give what they feel is in their hearts,” Mroz said. “It’s a somber thing, but at the same time, it’s a reminder of how people can come together in Buffalo — and beyond — to support Damar.”

Mroz, who has attended at least 100 Bills games, including Monday night’s game in Cincinnati, will be in the crowd Sunday afternoon. He doesn’t know exactly what to expect, just that the game will be unlike any of the others he’s attended.

“It’s not going to be, by any means, a normal game,” said Mroz.

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Allen and McDermott, too, don’t know what to expect. Neither do most of the other players. The positive updates on Hamlin, however, have lifted a weight off of their shoulders, allowing them to turn their focus to the game.

The stakes are high for both teams. The Patriots can clinch a playoff berth with a victory, while the Bills can ensure the AFC Championship game is played at a neutral site should they end up facing Kansas City.

Perhaps more importantly, Buffalo wants to win for Hamlin.

“To see that boy’s face, to see him smile, to see him flex, it was everything,” Dawkins said. “To hear him talk to us, it was everything. That’s all we needed.”


Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.Follow her @nicolecyang.