By JOHN ANDERSON
For days, the world prayed as Buffalo Bills' safety Damar Hamlin was on a breathing machine in critical condition at a Cincinnati trauma unit.
During that time, football fans to the casual observer found out what Pittsburgh residents have known for years.
Damar Hamlin's life is not defined by football, but rather as a caring son and a young man who made it his mission to make his community a better place for children while still in college.
There have been horrific injuries during NFL football games over the years, but none as emotional, scary and shocking enough as what took place Monday night.
During the first quarter of the Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals game, Hamlin made a tackle, jumped up, but then his body went limp as he collapsed. On national television, fans watched as paramedics performed CPR and players and coaches fought back emotion.
After an ambulance took Hamlin and his family to a local trauma center, the teams got together and decided to go to the locker rooms. Later, they postponed the game. The Bills stayed in quiet, stunned, as a team at the stadium until 12:21 a.m. when they left on buses. The NFL announced the game would not be played this week out of respect for Hamlin's condition and hopefully recovery.
in reaction to this news, Buffalo Bills fans, known as the Bills Mafia, and fans around the country, offered not only prayers, but donations to Hamlin's foundation, the Chasing M's Foundation. Initially intended as a toy drive in his neighborhood and to help his mother, Nina, who was starting a daycare center, the donations went from $2,500 to just over $8 million since the injury.
On Wednesday night with a breathing tube still in his mouth, Hamlin was alert enough to write to his doctor, "Did we win?" His doctor wrote back, "Yes, you won. You won the game of life."
On Friday, he was able to FaceTime with his Buffalo Bills' teammates. The NFL announced teams can wear #3 clothing pre-game and the Bills will have his #3 on their uniforms when they host the Patriots.
The Bills released a Stefon Diggs jersey today with the #3 on it. The NFL is also allowing teams to pain the 3 in the 30-yard-line in Buffalo Bills blue and red across the league.
Damar's mother, Lana, told Buffalo Bills' General Manager Brandon Beane that she talked to her son about the donations. She mentioned when he raised $2,500, they would fight over who got which toy because they had so many kids and not a lot of money.
Beane said Lana told Damar, "You're gonna be passing out cars next year, not toys!"
HOW IT BEGAN
McKees Rocks is less than four miles across the Ohio River from Acrisure Stadium where the Pittsburgh Steelers play.
Growing up in McKees Rocks, Hamlin, 24, was a football and basketball star. But it was in football he made his mark, and current Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knew him by name at just 12-years-old.
"I'll say this about Damar Hamlin, this is a very personal thing for me, being a Pittsburgher, and that young man being a Pittsburgher, I've known that guy since he was about 12. I've got a lot of respect and love for him," Tomlin said Tuesday. "As a human being, his commitment to the pursuit of his goals and dreams to be doing what it is he's doing right now, which is playing in the NFL. To watch him making personal decisions and making a realization, it's just an honor to get to know young people like that."
Hamlin made such an impact on Tomlin, that Tomlin would make sure he talked to him after an NFL game.
"I've had an opportunity to express that to him whenever I see him. We played Buffalo each of the last two seasons and he and I got to have a moment. It's just cool to not only appreciate these guys for where they are now, but to know them since they were younger people and watch their maturation and development," Tomlin said. "To watch them to earn what they've been chasing. He's an example of that, I have a lot of love for that young man and lifting him and that organization up in prayer. I have reached out to (Buffalo Bills head coach) Sean McDermott to lend whatever assistance I could. But I don't have a lot to add other than I hope you can respect how personal it is for me and all of us. People who thrive in this space, this is nothing you ever want to see."
As a senior at Central Catholic, Hamlin led his football team to a 15-1 season and a PIAA state championship. He was recruited by the best of the best in Division I, from Ohio State to Alabama. He was the top-rated cornerback in the state and the 13th best in the nation according to ESPN. However, there was only one place he wanted to be — Pittsburgh.
"I was just so Pittsburgh. Everything was Pittsburgh for me," Hamlin told the Point Park Globe when he signed with the University of Pittsburgh. "I wanted to give my city bragging rights, bring my city something and just give the city another reason to smile."
And did he ever.
Hamlin led the team in tackles, switched to safety and continued to make plays and interceptions and was voted a team captain during his award-winning senior year in 2020.
The Buffalo Bills thought highly of Hamlin. In the sixth round, they used a spot from a trade with the Houston Texans to draft Hamlin as the 212th overall pick. He led the Bills in tackles this year, the same he did in college.
When he was in college, Hamlin started the toy drive. While most seniors in college were preparing for life and work, he was figuring out a way to start giving back. Hamlin also started his own clothing line and donated clothes to those in need in the Pittsburgh area.
Ty Dunne of GoLongTD.com saw a lot in Hamlin and wrote a feature on the player.
"I wanted to give him that image growing up," Hamlin told Dunne. "Me growing up ... I didn't have anybody I could look up to or lean on. That's why I stayed home at Pitt. I chose Pitt over everybody. Just for that one reason — for my brother."
Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi said after the draft, "The Bills got themselves a gem of a player and person," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said after Buffalo made him a sixth-round pick in 2021, per The Athletic. "Damar was the quarterback of our defense. He's smart, tough and such a sure tackler back there. He is going to be a difference-maker for Buffalo."
In his GoFundMe set up in college, Hamlin wrote, "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. 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."
During the pandemic, he said, "This campaign gives you the opportunity to contribute to our first initiative and positively impact children who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. 100% of the funds raised will go toward the purchase of toys for kids in need. The time to act is now."
Hamlin also encouraged residents who could not afford to donate money, to donate toys or spread the word on social media.
"Thank you so much for supporting me on and off the field. I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with you to help make the holiday season a little brighter for the kids in our community," Hamlin added.