Under normal circumstances, you would be seeing stories about the New England Patriots here this morning. About Jakobi Meyers and Tyquan Thornton; about the team’s mindset heading into its regular season finale.
Those remain in the pipeline, for now, because the circumstances are very much not normal. That became clear rather quickly on Monday Night Football.
Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin made a disturbingly routine tackle against Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins in the first quarter of that game. 13 yards, first down. He did get up briefly before collapsing onto the ground.
Players staying down in a full-contact sport is nothing new, but it became obvious rather quickly that something was up. You just needed to look at other players’ faces for confirmation. Josh Allen’s blank stare. Mitch Morse consoling Tre’Davious White. Isaiah McKenzie pacing up and down the field. Carlos Basham and A.J. Epenesa embracing one another. Teammates and opponents alike on their knees, praying.
As was later announced by the Bills, Damlin had suffered a cardiac arrest on the field. The 24-year-old had to be reanimated right then and there before being transported to a local hospital in an ambulance.
All along the way, information was scarce. ESPN was cutting to and away from the game while scrambling for any answers, ultimately settling on a somber way to continue coverage as news started trickling in. Hamlin being alive, and his vital signs returning to normal the most important among them.
While those were positive, the scene in itself was a shocking one. A worst-case scenario for the NFL, which decided to temporarily and eventually permanently suspend one of the biggest games of the season. How exactly all of that went down will be subject to debate for a long time, with the league apparently giving teams five minutes to warm up before the team’s coaches, Sean McDermott and Zac Taylor stepped in and reason prevailed.
Of course, none of that matters in the grand scheme of things. Hamlin’s well-being was and is paramount, and discontinuing the game in light of what happened was undoubtably the right thing to do.
Any and all football-related questions, meanwhile, are secondary in nature. They do, eventually, have to be asked, though.
How will the suspended game be handled, especially with a large portion of the Bills flying back to Buffalo? Will it be declared a tie, or a forfeit from one side? Will it be moved to later this week? Will it be moved to next week? What does it mean for the Patriots, who were set to play in Buffalo this coming Sunday? And the playoffs, scheduled to start one week later?
Answers will come, but the NFL was not confronted with questions like these in a long time.
One of the similar but still not truly comparable incidents happened in the 1978 preseason, when Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was unable to get up following a hit from then-Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum. Stingley had suffered a broken neck, and had to spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic before dying from complications at age 55.
Back then, play continued. It also did when the Detroit Lions’ Chuck Hughes suffered a heart attack in 1971, with less than a minute to play in a game against Chicago; he was pronounced dead in a nearby hospital just over an hour later.
Whether immediately or not — and again, suspending operations on Monday was the right call — the game will continue. It always does.
But it will also leave a mark on those who play it, or are closely associated with it.
It is hard to forget the pictures of Damar Hamlin lying on the ground, unconscious. Or of his teammates and coaches trying to get a grasp on the gravity and emotions of the situation. Their well-being is important as well, as is Higgins’, the Bengals receiver involved in the play that left Hamlin unable to get up.
The hope is that they all will get the support and time that they need in order to overcome what had transpired. The same is also true for those watching from afar, either in the stands or in front of the television.
The league has made tremendous strides when it comes to player safety and operational procedures since the days of Stingley and Hughes. The number of serious injuries of all nature are way down compared to the 1970s or even the early 2000s.
However, there are no protocols that can prevent what happened on Monday night; a player suffering a cardiac arrest in play and having to receive CPR on the field. In a way, this is uncharted territory for the league and all those involved.
At the end of the day, though, it all breaks down to basic humanity. From Hamlin receiving the medical support he now needs, to fans flocking his charity’s GoFundMe to donate over $3.2 million within hours of him going down.
What will happen next both on and off the field remains to be seen. But for now, it really does not matter.
Some things are just bigger than football.