Perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals have a Mafia as well.
Unless you’re old enough to remember the unexpected death of Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers in 1990 or Arena League player Al Lucas from an on-field injury in 2005, the situation Monday – when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field after what appeared to be a fairly normal, by NFL standards, tackle of Bengals wideout Tee Higgins – must have felt unprecedented.
And, given the presence of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” machine, which was only heightened by the playoff implications surrounding a pair of teams vying for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, an incident of this magnitude had surely never received such widespread coverage.
Thankfully, it appears that the human spirit shines brightest when the spotlight is cast on unthinkable adversity.
In that vein, all credit goes to the team trainers and medical responders who acted immediately as the gravity of Hamlin’s situation became clear to the rest of us. We can only hope and pray that their efforts were not in vain.
And, as my colleague Chris Bumbaca so eloquently stated, ESPN – particularly lead broadcaster Joe Buck, sideline reporter Lisa Salters, SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt, and NFL studio analyst Ryan Clark, formerly a league safety – deserves significant credit for its careful, appropriate, and (as much as possible) coverage of an unfolding tragedy on a football field.
In this regard, it appears appropriate to acknowledge the Bengals and their fans.
Monday night’s game was arguably the most anticipated in the history of Paycor Stadium, which was packed to the gills.
Yet, almost from the moment Hamlin crumpled to the ground, Cincinnati’s players transformed from adversaries to football brothers. Joe Mixon, the Bengals’ running back, immediately signalled that Hamlin was in trouble. Mixon’s teammates wasted no time in comforting their stunned and emotional Buffalo counterparts, with quarterback Joe Burrow quickly checking in with stunned Bills counterpart Josh Allen.
The crowd, which included a sizable contingent of the “Bills Mafia” who travels to support their beloved team on a regular basis, seemed to remain on their feet in respectful silence for the better part of an hour before quietly filing out of the building once the game was officially postponed. On NFL Network Tuesday morning, Bills radio analyst Eric Wood, a former Pro Bowl centre for the team, described the dramatic shift from a raucous environment to pin-dropping silence in an instant.
A sizable crowd of fans from both teams flocked to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Hamlin was transported and remains in critical condition as of Tuesday afternoon, and where he remained vigil throughout the night.
“Last night was supposed to be a great night for the NFL and a great showcase for our hometown,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said in a statement.
“As medical personnel undertook extraordinary measures, both teams demonstrated respect and compassion while fans in the stadium and people around the country bolstered the support for Damar and love for each other.
“The Bengals are grateful for everyone’s love and compassion. “I’m praying for Damar.”
It appears that special recognition is also due to fourth-year Bengals coach Zac Taylor.
We haven’t heard from any Bengals players or Taylor yet, but it was clear he was doing his best to support Bills coach Sean McDermott as he and his players struggled to accept reality as medical personnel worked to revive Hamlin. McDermott pulled his team off the field shortly after speaking with Taylor, and the coaches later spoke with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell outside the Bills locker room before the game was officially suspended.
Higgins was one of many players and fans who tweeted their support for Hamlin and his family.
Taylor went above and beyond, joining some Bills players at UC Medical Center on Monday night, and Hamlin’s family said in a statement released Tuesday, “We also want to thank Coach Taylor and the Bengals for everything they’ve done.”
It’s been nearly five years since the Bengals, led by former quarterback Andy Dalton, upset the Baltimore Ravens in the regular-season finale – a win that propelled Buffalo, led by a relatively unknown rookie coach named Sean McDermott, into the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
On one level, that joyful moment in 2017 bears no resemblance to what happened Monday evening, but it was heartening to see so much humanity returned from Cincinnati to a player and team in such obvious distress.
Football is a violent sport played by tough men who frequently sustain serious injuries.
The NFL also likes to say “Football is Family,” and it’s encouraging to see how that can be more than just a catchphrase.