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Damar Hamlin and America’s emotional attachment to football

The attachments come out of how we use the games as a reason to gather to celebrate being alive

LAS VEGAS — By Saturday afternoon’s kickoff at Allegiant Stadium, football fans around the country were reassured that Damar Hamlin was OK. There were tributes all around for the Buffalo Bills’ young defensive back: a ton on the big screen before the game, Hamlin’s enlarged No. 3 on the playing field, players wearing “Love for 3 Damar” T shirts. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes wore a specially designed hoodie with Hamlin’s image.

Beginning last Monday evening, when Hamlin was taken from the field to the Cincinnati hospital, fans were given play-by-play accounts of his condition after he collapsed and went into cardiac arrest following a collision with Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins.

There were Tuesday updates, Wednesdays updates. The breakthrough came on Thursday when Hamlin awoke from medically induced sedation. Physicians said Hamlin had asked in writing who won the game. Their response was “Damar, you won — you won the game of life.” Hamlin’s breathing tube was removed Thursday night.

The news kept getting better: On Friday, Hamlin spoke with his Bills teammates via Zoom during the Bills’ team meeting. Hamlin told teammates, “Love ya boys.” that became the most quoted phrase of his medical drama. Hamlin made a heart with his hands, and gave his teammates a long-awaited thumbs up. We learned that the Bills reacted by standing up, clapping, and yelling encouragement.

In an emotional interview, Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins said “It’s all that matters. We got our boy. The excitement was beautiful. It was amazing. It has given us so much energy, so much bright, high spirits, whatever you want to call it. It is giving it to us. To see that boy’s face, to see him smile, in the camera, it was everything. And then to hear him talk to us. It was literally everything. And that’s what we needed. Literally, that’s all we needed.”

On Saturday evening, Hamlin in an Instagram post expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support he has received.

“When you put real love out into the world it comes back to you 3x’s as much. The Love has been overwhelming, but I’m thankful for every single person that prayed for me and reached out. We brung the world back together behind this. If you know me you know this only gone make me stronger. On a long road keep praying for me!”

That was the signal everyone associated with NFL football needed to clear the mental and emotional barrier for players getting back on the field playing with the same reckless abandon, the same violent intensity that distinguishes the game. Everyone needed to know, to feel, that Hamlin was OK. We heard that multiple times from multiple players when asked what they needed to hear. They needed to hear encouraging news.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said as much after Saturday’s game: “It helped a lot that he was able to make that video,” Mahomes said. He did not see Hamlin’s video but heard accounts of it. “That gives you a little bit of that final thing: Alright, let’s go do what we’re supposed to be doing. Let’s go out there and give joy, not only to us but the rest of the world watching us.”

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes wears a shirt in honor of Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills during warmups prior to playing the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on Jan. 07, 2023, in Las Vegas.

Chris Unger/Getty Images

In nearly every case, players said they needed to hear that Hamlin was OK. Now they know. The league made sure of it. We can all proceed — guilt free — with our fantasy teams, our betting our enjoyment of the games, the rituals and traditions surrounding the game.

The tributes to Hamlin will likely continue throughout the playoffs and into the Super Bowl. It’s also likely that NFL fans across the nation would have flocked to games even had the news out of Cincinnati had not been optimistic. The NFL has been reluctant to postpone games.

The day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941; three games were played.

In 1963, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle made the decision to play NFL games after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Rozelle later admitted he that he made a mistake. The rival American Football League cancelled its games.

Since then, the NFL has observed a certain decorum. Games were interrupted for a week after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon. The NFL played just nine games in the 1982 season because of a player strike. Five years later, a strike resulted in the third week of the season being canceled. Last week, the NFL stopped the Monday Night Football game between Buffalo and Cincinnati and later cancelled the game.

There was virtually no chance that games would be cancelled in the wake of Hamlin’s injury. But it was important for the league to pump out the good news of Hamlin’s apparent progress, for everybody to be able to play the game and watch the game in good conscious.

There is a deep-seated emotional attachment many of us have in this country to football. This is not necessarily an ingrained lust for violence and blood. The attachments come out of how we use the games as a reason to gather to celebrate being alive. The fact that young athletes lease their bodies to teams and make a living playing football is part of the arrangement. The game is often background music to our reunions and celebrations. They satisfy our need for human interaction.

The games are a reason to share special moments with loved ones.

On Saturday I took my 98-year-old mother to the Raiders-Chiefs game.

Janet is a longtime football fan, even now during football season she spends Sundays in her apartment at the assisted living complex watching NFL football.

Janet and my late father moved to Las Vegas in 1991. There was no pro football in Las Vegas for most of their years here. Saturday was Janet’s first time at the Raiders’ new stadium and her first football game in several decades, probably since the Chicago Bears played football games in Wrigley Field.

The game-adventure was a welcomed change of pace and an opportunity to watch her favorite sport in the unique environment of big screens, large crowds, blaring music, and big, strong, fast players colliding.

Janet Rhoden, 98, at Allegiant Stadium for the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders in Las Vegas.

Bill Rhoden/Andscape

I suppose that everybody has a story about the roots of an emotional connection to one sport or another. For me the connection happened to be football.

I was introduced to organized football at the age of 12, trying out for the Pop Warner Harvey (Ill.) Colts. The moment that stands out from that afternoon nearly 60 years later is that my birth mother, Dolores, had taken me to the tryout and had stood in a light drizzle without an umbrella and watched. I had no way of knowing that I would not have my mother much longer. She was fighting breast cancer and would die a month before my 13th birthday in August 1963.

Janet stepped into my life a couple years later, during my high school football career. I remember one evening, the night before a big game, when I was nursing a pulled hamstring. Janet stepped in and gave me a rigorous massage, replete with pressure and karate chops to the affected area as I lay on my bed. The massage was as painful as the muscle pull, but I was able to play the next day at near full strength.

On Sundays, my younger brother and I had a ritual: we would go to Janet’s house in the fall and watch football. Fast forward. On Sunday in 2015, I was covering a Carolina Panthers game in Charlotte, North Carolina, when I received word that Janet had fallen and broken her hip during a cruise to Thailand. I dropped what I was doing and flew from Carolina to Las Vegas to help coordinate her flight back from Thailand to Las Vegas and her months-long recuperation.

We watched football, of course, as she recuperated.

Janet turned 98 last month, and although she has lost her short-term memory, she knows who I am, and knows that my younger brother is an opera singer who lives in Germany (she was never clear about what I did).

I am not sure if Janet will remember the great time that she had on Saturday. I’m certain that she won’t. What I do know is that she lived in the moment, she enjoyed that moment: the smiles, the laughs, the impromptu interactions with fans. I enjoyed the moment with her.

For those of us fortunate to have our memories, we remember births, deaths — the jubilant highs the painful lows — of life. We’re presented with choices.

There’s a difference between losing memory, forgetting, and choosing to move on. NFL players, executives and fans will never forget what happened to Damar Hamlin last Monday in Cincinnati.

We’ve simply chosen to remember and move on.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.