ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Bills safety Damar Hamlin, laying in bed at a Cincinnati hospital, fighting for his life after suffering cardiac arrest, had something he just had to tell his teammates.
He sent them a text message at 2:31 a.m. Saturday. It was an apology.
“What he said was, ‘I’m thinking about y’all, I’m sorry that I did that to y’all,’ ” Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White said after the Bills’ 35-23 win Sunday over the Patriots. “It just shows what type of person he is … I can’t wait to hear his voice and be able to touch him and just hug the (expletive) out of him.”
Hamlin was some 430 miles southwest of Highmark Stadium, watching the game from the hospital with his parents six days after he almost died on the field in Cincinnati. But his spirit lifted the Bills in their emotional return to the field.
The message “Love for Damar” was plastered on signs and flags throughout the stadium. Players and coaches on both teams wore T-shirts with “Love for Damar” on the front, including Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Players and fans held up three fingers in honor of Hamlin’s No. 3 jersey. Bills general manager Brandon Beane wore a blue Hamlin jersey under his suit. Commissioner Roger Goodell attended the game and expressed gratitude to the Bills’ and Patriots’ medical staffs during the pregame medical meeting.
The Bills honored Hamlin with a decisive win over the Patriots, which wrapped up the Bills’ regular season at 13-3 and earned them the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
“I usually sugarcoat it and say, ‘Oh, it’s just another win,’ but this one was extremely special,” said Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins. “We’re blessed ‘3′ was with us, and it’s a huge win.”
For those outside the Bills’ locker room, the win felt like a Hollywood ending.
The Bills channeled their emotions, defeated a bitter divisional rival, and had all of Western New York rocking when Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Hines later returned another kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown.
Several Bills said they felt God’s presence on those plays. They were the Bills’ first kickoff return touchdowns in 3 years and 3 days.
“It was spiritual, it really was. Bone chilling,” quarterback Josh Allen said of the opening kickoff return. “I can’t remember a play that touched me like that, I don’t think, in my life.”
Hamlin, who had to have his heart revived on the field and was on a breathing machine for much of the week, had improved so much in the past few days that he tweeted from the hospital throughout Sunday’s game. Hamlin later face-timed the Bills in the locker room and broke down the huddle.
“He’s smiling, happy, moving, talking,” said cornerback Taron Johnson. “It’s just lovely to see.”
Yet reality is a lot messier than the Hollywood script. Bills players saw their teammate and friend nearly die on the field after a seemingly normal collision with Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. They spent six days pondering their mortality and wondering if what happened to Hamlin could happen to them. Allen said the tears were flowing during the national anthem.
“This week has been, excuse my language, it’s been a (expletive) show,” White said. “For me to see everything transpire — from the hit, to him getting up, to him falling to everything, it’s just something that I can’t unsee. Every time I close my eyes, it replays. I try watching TV and every time the TV goes on commercial, it’s the only thing that comes to my mind, just the vision of that. So it’s been a tough week.”
Usually the Bills’ winning locker room would be boisterous. There were certainly a lot of smiles Sunday, especially after Hamlin joined the team huddlefrom Cincinnati, but it was a mixture of emotions.
“I would be lying if [I said] it wasn’t a little emotionally frazzled,” center Mitch Morse said. “I think the comedown is going to hit guys differently. But it was such a thankful locker room. It was just unique.”
Bills coach Sean McDermott knew he was dealing with an emotionally vulnerable team. The NFL allowed the Bills to keep the locker room closed after the game, instead bringing about eight players and McDermott into the press conference room.
“Honestly, it was probably my shortest night-before talk with them,” McDermott said. “ [It] was just, ‘Have the proper focus that we need to have and just take it one play at a time and do your job. Nothing less, nothing more.’ I think the tendency possibly would have been to, ‘I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do that.’ So I just wanted them to settle in and just do their job, knowing that that would be enough.”
The Bills honored their medical and training staffs on the field before the game. When Bills receiver John Brown caught a 42-yard touchdown at the end of the third quarter, he came to the sideline and handed it to trainer Danny Kellington, who is credited with doing the majority of CPR that revived Hamlin’s heart.
“This is a guy that hasn’t played in a number of weeks, and that was a difficult, difficult play to make,” McDermott said of Brown’s touchdown. “And then to have the wherewithal to go to the sideline 15 seconds later and hand the ball to the trainer, I think says a lot about who he is.”
The game ended with Allen taking a knee to seal the 12-point win. Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” played on the PA system, and fans held up three fingers to honor Hamlin.
The Bills cried a lot this week. But Hamlin is improving, and they honored him with a win.
“Tears are for healing, man,” linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said. “At the end of the day just to know that he’s doing well, that goes way beyond the game of football.”
Read more from Patriots-Bills
- Instant analysis: Patriots came to play, but season-long problems haunt them in loss to Bills
- Dan Shaughnessy: The Patriots were not going to beat the inspired Bills, not on this day, as Buffalo honored Damar Hamlin
- Christopher L. Gasper: This outcome was inevitable. It should help the Patriots initiate necessary changes.
- Patriots’ season ends in a familiar place — in Buffalo — but with a mind-numbing breakdown on special teams
- How it happened: Patriots’ season ends after allowing two kick returns for TDs in 35-23 loss to Buffalo
- See the 2023 NFL playoff schedule
- With the Patriots’ season over, we now know who they play next year. See their 2023 opponents.
- Damar Hamlin’s recovery is something to celebrate in Buffalo — and they’re certainly celebrating
- Bill Belichick stays mum on curious Jake Bailey, Jack Jones suspensions
- While these Patriots remain focused on this season, changes are inevitable moving forward
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.