ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Buffalo Bills got a much-needed jolt of good news on Thursday.
Coach Sean McDermott and his team found out that safety Damar Hamlin has made remarkable progress in his recovery since his heart stopped during Monday night’s game.
In three days since the Bills were left emotionally devastated as they watched their teammate collapse on the field in Cincinnati, the team’s motto has gone from “Pray for Damar” to “Play for Damar.”
And a rallying message from Hamlin’s father, Mario — delivered to the Bills via a Zoom call on Wednesday — provided another boost as the Bills (12-3) resumed practicing in preparation to host the New England Patriots (8-8) in their season finale on Sunday.
“His message was the team needs to get back to focus on the goals they had set for themselves. Damar would have wanted it that way,” McDermott said during the team's first media availability since Hamlin's life was endangered. “We owe that to Damar, and we owe that to his family.”
Quarterback Josh Allen was particularly inspired by what Hamlin communicated to his bedside nurse upon waking up Wednesday evening. Unable to speak because of an oxygen tube inserted in his mouth, Hamlin asked by writing on a pad of paper if the Bills had beaten the Bengals. (He didn’t know the game was suspended after his injury.)
“As teammates, you love hearing that response, that the first thing on his mind wasn’t, you know, ‘Poor me.’ It was, ‘How are my teammates doing?’” Allen said. “For Damar to go through that and to come out on the other side and still, again, just thinking about his teammates, that’s Damar. That’s who he is.”
Though the 24-year-old Hamlin remains listed in critical condition in the intensive care unit of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, his doctors provided encouraging news on his recovery. Aside from being able to communicate, Hamlin has also been able to grip people’s hands.
“So we know that it’s not only that the lights are on. We know that he’s home. And it appears that all the cylinders are firing within his brain, which is greatly gratifying for all of us,” Dr. Timothy Pritts said. “He still has significant progress he needs to make, but this marks a really good turning point in his ongoing care.”
The test for the Bills now is focusing their attention on returning to the field. It’s yet another challenge during a year filled with adversity for one of the AFC’s best teams.
The last remnants of a blizzard, in which more than 40 people died across the region over Christmas, are still visible in melting snow piles along the region’s streets and in parking lots. The storm was the second to hit Buffalo in a month, with the first one in November forcing the Bills to relocate their home game against Cleveland to Detroit. The Bills also rallied in support of the community in May in the aftermath of a racist shooting spree in which 10 people were killed at a Buffalo supermarket.
McDermott — who sat with Allen at the podium during an emotional, nearly 40-minute news conference — is confident the Bills, much like their community, can once again show their resilience.
“How do I know that we’ll be able to overcome, is we have to. Just like we’ve done many times before, and this city, and the people of western New York that have dealt with what they’ve dealt with. That’s what you do,” McDermott said. “This is what western New York and the fans of the Buffalo Bills, this is what we do.”
The NFL confirmed on Thursday night what had become inevitable: The Bills-Bengals game won't be resumed. While the Bills may be relieved they don't have to return to Cincinnati, removing a game from their schedule creates a new obstacle in their pursuit of the top seed in the AFC. Kansas City (13-3) would now lock up the No. 1 seed by beating Las Vegas on Saturday.
Buffalo had hoped all year to earn home-field advantage and avoid another playoff trip to Kansas City, where it lost a thrilling, back-and-forth divisional playoff matchup in overtime last season. The Bills did their part by beating the Chiefs on the road on Oct. 16.
Under a proposal Thursday from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that was pending approval by clubs, the Bills would indeed escape that return trip.
Goodell proposed that potential AFC Championship meetings between the three teams affected by the canceled game — Buffalo, Kansas City and Cincinnati (11-4) — be played at neutral sites if the team that earned home-field advantage benefited from playing an unequal number of games.
None of those details were of much concern Thursday to McDermott, who said seedings and playoff scenarios took a backseat to the team’s focus on Hamlin’s health. McDermott and Allen were still dealing with the emotional toll of watching medical staff performing CPR on Hamlin.
McDermott had to pause for 10 seconds when discussing the outpouring of worldwide support for Hamlin, whose charitable foundation has received more than $7 million in donations since Monday.
“It’s amazing to me to know the impact that this has had on so many people,” McDermott said, his eyes welling. “And for now, Damar to be awake and his mom to be able to share that with him is incredible.”
Allen said it will be difficult to determine what it will be like for the team to play on Sunday.
“I think for every person, it’s going to be a little bit different. I think putting that helmet back on today was a really good thing for our team,” Allen said. “But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say some people will be changed forever, you know, after being on the field and witnessing that and feeling those emotions.”
What encouraged the quarterback was a conversation he had with Mario Hamlin after his son was hospitalized on Monday night.
“The only thing he said was: ‘My son’s going to be all right,’” Allen said.
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