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How ESPN viewers learned of Damar Hamlin’s injury

Buffalo Bills players and staff members pray for Damar Hamlin during the first quarter of an NFL game. (Joshua A. Bickel/AP)

The eerie and heartbreaking scene that unfolded on the field in the aftermath of Damar Hamlin’s collapse during Monday night’s Buffalo Bills-Cincinnati Bengals game presented a virtually unprecedented scenario for ESPN’s football broadcast. As the network toggled between the game broadcast crew in Cincinnati and a subdued studio set in New York, a news outlet that had prepared to cover one of the season’s biggest games suddenly found itself covering a medical calamity.

Viewers at home watched the developing story unfold slowly as commentators Joe Buck and Troy Aikman and sideline reporter Lisa Salters received information and relayed it in real time. Over the next three hours, the broadcast was measured, informative and emotional. Analysts, hosts and reporters tried to make sense of a lengthy delay and an initial report that play would resume; grappled with the obvious severity of the injury; and then finally made impassioned appeals for the game to be suspended for the night, a choice the NFL eventually made.

The injury occurred on a seemingly innocuous play in which Hamlin tackled Cincinnati’s wide receiver Tee Higgins. After noting the injury, the telecast initially cut to commercials as Hamlin was attended to, common practice after injuries during NFL games.

Video showed players kneeling and fans applauding as Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin was taken off the field in an ambulance during a Jan. 2 game in Cincinnati. (Video: @cosmicbooknews via Storyful)

The telecast returned to show an ambulance on the field and an increasingly disturbing scene of Bills players stunned and in tears. Bills quarterback Josh Allen appeared on screen with his face in his hands. “There’s just nothing to say,” said Buck, the play-by-play voice, before the telecast went to commercial again.

The game returned with a report from Salters, who said medical personnel had been working on Hamlin for nine minutes but that the extent of the injury was unknown; there were no concrete updates on Hamlin’s condition during the entire delay. Buck told viewers that CPR had been administered as the camera showed the pained faces of Bills teammates. The telecast returned to commercial once more.

Following that break, the camera showed a wide shot of the players gathered around Hamlin. The players, Buck said, were so tight around Hamlin that cameras couldn’t show him. “Maybe that’s for the best,” Buck said.

The camera showed Buffalo star receiver Stefon Diggs with what appeared to be a tear running down his cheek. “There’s nothing more to say at this point,” Buck said before the studio crew took over.

Suzy Kolber, former defensive lineman Anthony “Booger” McFarland and reporter Adam Schefter then offered their own somber reactions in what became the centerpiece of ESPN’s coverage.

“Just to watch the emotion in players’ faces — the fear,” Kolber said. “Really just terrifying.”

“We play a violent game,” McFarland said, sounding shocked. “Man, you just hate to see it. I just pray for the young man.” Asked how players might be thinking about resuming the game, McFarland was quick to dismiss the idea. “I don’t know if any of these players are thinking about that right now,” he said.

“It’s chilling to watch the whole thing,” Schefter said. “There’s no other way to describe it.”

The network then returned to Cincinnati, where Bills players were seen in a prayer circle as Buck and Aikman told viewers that the players had been given five minutes to prepare for the game to resume — news that was met with incredulity by many viewers. That plan never materialized. “No one’s out there really warming up,” Buck said before the players jogged back to their locker rooms. “I assume they’ll have a real frank discussion as to whether they want to go back out there and play this game.”

“I would think so, too,” Aikman added. “Is that off the table? … I can’t imagine going in and being able to regain any kind of composure and expect to play a competitive football game.”

Bills, Bengals players in tears as sports world reacts to Damar Hamlin injury

That theme came up repeatedly in the studio as the analysts struggled with the gravity of what had unfolded.

“As a player, played nine years in the league, I broke plenty of bones, got banged up, been carted off,” McFarland said. “I’ve been there. During all of those times, my teammates never had to worry about life and death. … When you’re giving CPR to a young man, you’re worried about life and death, because he can’t breathe, and I think that’s where the tone, the facial expressions, the sensitivity from all the teammates from both teams, I’ve never seen that before. I don’t think any of these players have ever seen that before.”

As the delay continued, the studio hosts began forcefully advocating for the game to be postponed.

“I cannot see a way forward that football is played tonight. … The game is not important now,” Kolber said. “Life is important now.”

McFarland added: “It’s time for the NFL, the players association, whoever needs to make the call, whoever that is — we’re done playing football tonight. We’re done. Let’s move on. We as a network, we’ll figure out what to do. We’ll put something up. … Nobody’s concerned about football right now all the way around. America right now is concerned about one thing: the health and safety of this young man.”

Soon afterward, ESPN announced the game would not be completed Monday night.

Scott Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter” followed the game coverage, and that news program became a meditation on the violence of football and the sanctity of life.

“So many times in this game, and in our job as well,” said former player and ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, “we use the cliches ‘I’m ready to die for this,’ ‘I’m willing to give my life for this,’ ‘It’s time to go to war.’ And I think sometimes we use those things so much we forget that part of living this dream is putting your life at risk, and tonight, we got to see a side of football that is extremely ugly, a side of football that no one ever wants to see or ever wants to admit exists.”

Salters, who appeared to be on the verge of tears describing the scene on the field, told Van Pelt that players had formed a wall so bystanders couldn’t see what was happening with Hamlin. Whatever was happening behind that human wall, she said, “We shouldn’t be seeing. They were trying to respect that young man’s privacy, and rightfully so.”

“It’s hard,” she added, “because this is a human being and all you can really think about is I hope that guy is okay. We’ve seen players go down with head injuries before and, as horrible as that might sound, we’ve grown accustomed to that. … And when [he didn’t give a thumbs-up to the crowd], I think this entire stadium was just devastated.”