Finally playing as the starting safety for the Buffalo Bills, Damar Hamlin had everything going for him... until an unexpected injury left him hospitalized. But, the NFL community pulled together in his honor and did the unthinkable.
Meet Damar Hamlin
As the NFL season hits its peak, players are getting more and more hungry to make it to the playoffs with hopes of reaching the Super Bowl. And the Buffalo Bills might have their chance this year.
With one of their star safety players, Damar Hamlin, on their side, the Bills are currently holding a 12-3 record, making them a favorite for appearing at this year's Super Bowl. The star safety has dominated the fields all season - that was, until a recent game changed everything…
Destined for Success
Before becoming an NFL star, Damar Hamlin grew up with big dreams of one day making it to the NFL. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Hamlin attended Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, where he was named first-team All-State and the Class AAAA Defensive Player of the Year.
Following his high school career, he was a four-star recruit and was scouted by major college football programs, from Ohio State to Temple. But he ended up becoming a Panther at the University of Pittsburgh. However, after just 3 games as a freshman, he was injured and received a medical redshirt exception for that year.
As a redshirt freshman, Damar was unable to play any games due to his injuries, but he still practiced with his team and built up the strength to dominate the field come sophomore year. After returning to the football field, he recorded 41 tackles with one interception in 9 games that year.
Despite his injuries, he continued to thrive and saw a successful college career, eventually becoming named team captain in his final season. The aspiring NFL player was named to the All-ACC second-team and earned ACC Co-Defensive Back of the Week honors for his performance in one of his final games against Virginia Tech.
Besides being a superstar athlete, Hamlin invested his time in another passion of his during his college career: fashion. While attending the University of Pittsburgh, the young entrepreneur started a fashion line for men and women called Chasing Millions.
Chasing Millions was built for a "community of young hustlers," per the official website. The brand focused on telling "the story of your come up through clothing and put a community of like-minded people behind you to help achieve the life you want."
The Chasing M's Foundation
In addition to having an eye for fashion, Damar was cooking up something else that would eventually blow up. In 2020, the football star started a non-profit supporting youth and community members through education, sports, and enrichment opportunities, with an annual Christmas toy drive in his hometown of McKees Rocks, Pennslyvania.
"As I embark on my journey to the NFL, I will never forget where I come from, and I am committed to using my platform to positively impact the community that raised me," he said. "I created The Chasing M's Foundation as a vehicle that will allow me to deliver that impact, and the first program is the 2020 Community Toy Drive."
Amid his philanthropic efforts, Hamlin still had one thing on his mind: getting drafted into the NFL. The once hopeful Damar Hamlin was finally getting closer to playing professionally, but pressures were higher than ever when it came closer to draft day.
Making it to the NFL is every football player's dream, but it's a cut-throat competition to make it to the top. And only some talented players from the NCAA make it into the NFL. There are approximately 1.1 million football players in high schools, with only 6.5% making it to the college level and 1.6% making it to the big leagues.
With 32 teams in the league, each team is allowed a max of 55 players on its roster, with only 48 players eligible to play on game days. So, when it comes down to it, a small percentage of those lucky enough to make it to college football will eventually be drafted into the NFL.
The NFL Draft system basically filters out the top playing college athletes who declare their availability. And secondly, the draft aims to create a balance across the league in order to prevent 1 team from dominating each season. The draft order is chosen when the win percentages of all the teams are ranked from best to worst.
The 2021 NFL Draft
The team holding the worst win percentage is given the first pick in the draft, while the Super Bowl champions are handed the 32nd pick. The NFL teams partake in seven rounds of drafting, each getting one 'pick' per round, with trading options open. So, when it came down to Hamlin's draft year, where would he go?
Stakes were high, but the determined young player was ready to make the NFL his home. After years of practice, dedication, sweat, blood, and tears, Damar Hamlin was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round as pick 212 and signed a 4-year rookie deal.
The Buffalo-based franchise is one of the most loved in the league. Although they've never won a Super Bowl, the team appeared in a record four consecutive Super Bowls between 1990 and 1993. The team suffered from quite a few tough years, never seeing a playoff game - but they returned to the postseason by the late 2010s.
Despite never taking home a Super Bowl win, the Bills have been considered home to some of the most influential NFL players to date. The team has retired three numbers in franchise history: 12 for Jim Kelly, 34 for Thurman Thomas, and 78 for Bruce Smith.
Like many rookie players, Damar spent his first year as a Bill a reserve player. Although he had finally made it to the NFL, it would take some time before the safety player saw any playing time. But things were about to change, and Hamlin would get his playing time.
At the beginning of this season, during week 2, starting free safety player Micah Hyde suffered a tragic season-ending neck injury, forcing him to be placed on injured reserve, making room for Damar to step on the field and do his thing. And just like that, he became one of the Bills' starting safeties.
Calm Before the Storm
Replacing Hyde as one of the starting safety for the Bills, Hamlin immediately impressed the nation with his quick skill and superb talent. The young 24-year-old athlete had so much potential, and the league was just starting to see him shine.
In Week 9 against the New York Jets, the newly tapped-on starting safety player led the team with 12 tackles and a sack, showing off his abilities as a team player. Things were looking up for Hamlin - until one game on January 2, where everything changed.
The Game That Changed Everything
At the start of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, tackling wide receiver Tee Higgins caught a pass and ran downfield, leading with his right shoulder, which collided against Hamlin's chest. As a safety, Damar tackled the player bringing him to the ground, but things quickly escalated.
Just after the play ended, Hamlin stood up for a second before passing out and falling over. The 24-year-old athlete was motionless when paramedics and the teams' trainers rushed the field within the first ten seconds, but nothing was happening.
As he was pulled off the field, most of the athletes from both teams came to a kneel in his honor, clearly upset and worried about his well-being. After being taken to the Univesity of Cincinnati Medical Center, the Bills later confirmed he had suffered cardiac arrest and was in critical condition.
After performing CPR, automated external defibrillation procedures, and other treatments for ten minutes, an ambulance was rushed onto the field. Damar was administered an IV solution and oxygen before being taken out on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital.
Bills vs. Bengals
Despite the current tragic situation, the NFL had to decide what to do in regard to the unfinished Week 17 game. The next day, the league announced that the game would not continue that week, but there was no update on when it would be rescheduled for.
A few days following the accident, the NFL made a final decision that the game would, in fact, be canceled entirely. The decision was "difficult, but necessary," but under the "extraordinary circumstances," it felt like it was the best move for the teams moving forward.
Once the news of Hamlin's collapse broke, there was an instant outpour of love coming from fans around the world praying for his speedy recovery. There's always a risk of getting hurt on the field, but Hamlin going into cardiac arrest was something the world hadn't seen before.
While the world anxiously waited for answers, friends, family, and fans wondered what they could do to in the meantime to support Hamlin. Well, remember that charity the once-budding football star began back in college? Hamlin's supporters were about to do something remarkable...
In honor of the injured star, supporters gathered together to raise money for the athlete's charity, The Chasing M's Foundation - and the response was overwhelming. The tragic news of Hamlin's accident generated an enormous volume of donations, leading to The Chasing M's Foundation raising $5 million dollars in less than a day!
With news of the charity circulating, NFL stars left and right were donating huge sums of cash in Damar's honor. Tom Brady even donated $10 thousand dollars to the foundation, being one of over 250,000 people who have donated thus far. But he wasn't the only familiar face to do so.
Levi Wallace, Tre Norwood, Terrell Edmunds, and Cameron Sutton all arrived with bags of toys, books, and supplies to rep the Steelers' support toward Hamlin during this time. The daycare where Hamlin's mother served as the charity's director had been the site for the annual toy drive since his days at Pitt.
"It's just a way that we can give back," gushed Wallace, who played with Damar in Buffalo in 2021, to Steelers.com. "Just to be able to give back to kids that he works with and his community he loves so much. We're doing it just to honor him and show our love for him that we're supporting him here in Pittsburgh."
Truly a Brotherhood
"This is beyond football. It's bigger than just the game," Cameron Sutton told Steelers.com. "This is truly a brotherhood, regardless if you know the individual personally or just came in contact with him across the league. D. Ham is affiliated with this community, having played here."
The Steelers football cornerback continued, "Just doing something special as an organization in the sense of giving back, coming together, and just offering a positive uplift. That's all we can do right now." At the end of the day, it's all about coming together during hard times - and that's exactly what was happening.
More Key Players
In addition to the love and support from the Steelers, plenty of other athletes have donated items to the foundation for their annual toy drive. Los Angeles Rams Quarterback Matthew Stafford, Olympian Michael Phelps, Professional wrestler Chris Jericho, and former tight end Rob Gronkowski all donated thousands in Damar's honor.
Besides his fellow athletes, Indianapolis Colts Owner Jim Irsay, New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft, the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and more sports teams have joined in on the donations. Even Russell Wilson and Ciara made a generous donation to the foundation.
A Deeper Meaning
Among the endless list of donators was Jason Hanold, one of the top donors to Hamlin's toy drive, donating $20K. Hanold is the CEO of Hanold Associates Executive Search, with an elite clientele ranging from the MLB to The New York Times, Big Ten Conference - and of course, the NFL.
So when it came down to giving back, Hanold told Pittsburgh Action News, "The amount is less relevant to us because whether it's people giving $5 or $10, we are all on it at the same level, at generosity, at heart and wanting to do something when there is really nothing we can do."
Words From the Hamlins
In not even a week, Damar Hamlin's GoFundMe page supporting The Chasing M's Foundation surpassed $8 million dollars. And not before long, the Hamlin Family spoke out on behalf of their son. "We can't thank all of you enough. Your generosity and compassion mean the world to us," they gushed.
Hamlin's father shared a statement asking fans to consider donating to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center's trauma center, where Hamlin was being treated. "If you're looking for other ways to support, we ask that you buy your first responders & trauma centers lunch in support of the care that Damar has received," he said.
Just a few days after the accident and the public's incredibly inspiring response, we finally got some good news regarding Damar's health. Bills cornerback Kaiir Elam shared that the former Pitt athlete was awake and doing much better. The Bills then shared a statement on his behalf.
"Damar has shown remarkable improvement over the past 24 hours," and "while still critically ill, he has demonstrated that he appears to be neurologically intact. His lungs continue to heal, and he is making steady progress." After a couple of days of darkness, there was finally some light at the end of the tunnel.
"Did We Win?"
According to trauma surgeon Dr. Timothy Pritts, while his breathing tube was still in, Hamlin could communicate by writing things down on paper in addition to a few hand and head movements. And once the Buffalo Bills star woke up, he only had one question on his mind.
While slowly waking up in the intensive care unit, Hamlin first asked his doctors, "did we win?" to which Dr. Timothy Pritts simply responded, "Yes, Damar, you won. You won the game of life." Yes, he did! The UC Health doctors are working hard to "ensure a good outcome for him."
Just one day after news broke that Damar had woken up, it was announced that his breathing tube was taken out - and he was able to breathe and speak on his own. Although he was still in a severely delicate position, the strong survivor was able to make a very special phone call that day.
Early Friday morning, Damar Hamlin was able to join in on his team's meeting to talk to his fellow teammates and coaches. The safety player reportedly flexed, gave a thumbs up, and made a heart symbol, signaling his love for his Buffalo Bills family.
Following his heartfelt FaceTime call with the Bills, Damar took to Twitter to share an update on how he's doing and thank everyone for their support. "Putting love into the world comes back 3xs as much…thankful for everyone who has reached out and prayed. This will make me stronger on the road to recovery, keep praying for me!"
Immediately, Hamlin's Twitter exploded with comments from fans who have been praying for him and following his journey. "Sending lots of love to @HamlinIsland, his family, and all the people helping him on his road to recovery," one Twitter user wrote.
Despite his incredible medical progression thus far, there is still a long journey ahead. The NFL safety suffered from cardiac arrest mid-game and luckily received medical attention as quickly as possible. But doctors are still unable to determine his future.
According to one of his many doctors, Dr. William Knight IV, it is "entirely too early to project into the future" regarding a full recovery. Hamlin's long-term recovery is still "a little ways" away. But so far, he seems to be defying all odds and improving daily.
Just 1 day after the collapse, all 32 NFL teams immediately changed their Twitter profile pictures to Hamlin's jersey with a text that reads "Pray For Damar." Hamlin's teammates and other players have been wearing shirts with the same branding in his honor.
The league will honor the safety player during all Week 18 games. Teams will have the option to outline the number 3 in each 30-yard line number of their fields in Bills Colors, and players will be given a custom Hamlin warm-up shirt. Buffalo Bills players will wear a Number 3 jersey patch.
Tee Higgins Speaks Out
After much contemplation, it was deemed that there was no foul play in the heated exchange between Buffalo Bills' safety Damar Hamlin and Cincinnati Bengals' wide receiver Tee Higgins. The young athlete recently spoke out, explaining he had been in contact with Hamlin's mom and "everything's OK."
"Obviously, it's been hard just because I had something to do with it," he shared, but Damar's "doing good, so I'm in a good place right now." The wide receiver continued, "It feels good. Just knowing that he's OK, he's doing better – it makes me feel better inside."
Unfortunately, we have been reminded of the dangers of football following Damar's horrible accident and what this means for fellow players. "Tonight we got to see a side of football that is extremely ugly," commentator Ryan Clark said on ESPN. "A side of football that no one ever wants to see and never wants to admit exists."
Hamlin's injury was one like no other, providing a reminder to the NFL that these injuries come with a major cost. 135 players have been diagnosed with concussions this season alone, and the number is growing. In recent years the league has offered small changes with the hopes of preventing injuries in the future.
Since his accident, Hamlin has received a tremendous amount of support from his teammates, friends, family, and fans - all of which have contributed to his remarkable recovery efforts. The young Bills athlete has even been pretty active on Twitter the past few days.
"The love is felt, & extremely real. No matter race or religion, everybody coming together in prayer!" he tweeted. Hamlin continues to share updates regarding his health, The Chasing M'S Foundation, and words of support to his beloved Buffalo Bills family. And we can't wait to see what comes next...