The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The terrifying moment that stopped the NFL cold

Players from both teams were shaken after Damar Hamlin’s collapse in a Bengals-Bills game. (Emilee Chinn/AP)
7 min

For once, the NFL stopped. It stopped cold. The relentless sport had to, even if it didn’t really want to, because the horror was inescapable. On Monday night, before a national television audience, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed. He did not rise. This time, the violence could not be minimized.

Hamlin, a 24-year-old from McKees Rocks, Pa., who became a starter in September after teammate Micah Hyde suffered a neck injury, made a typical football play in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals. He absorbed a blow to the chest as he tackled wide receiver Tee Higgins. He got up, then fell backward. Next came a frantic rush to resuscitate the young man, who had just hugged his parents during pregame warmups. He needed CPR, defibrillation, an ambulance. Amid the chaos, the reaction of the players made it clear the situation had turned dire.

Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen stood frozen, hands over his mouth, eyes wide. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs wept and swayed. Cornerback Tre’Davious White placed his hands over his head and mouthed words of disbelief as tears trickled through his eye black. The entire Bills team knelt in prayer as the ambulance drove away.

As Bills safety Damar Hamlin remains hospitalized after suffering cardiac arrest, players and medical experts discuss his care and ways to make the game safer. (Video: Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

Hamlin went down at 8:55 p.m. Eastern time. For the next 66 minutes, as medics rushed him from Paycor Stadium to a hospital and NFL officials scrambled to make the decision to suspend the game, the sport did not matter. This game — one of the most anticipated of the season, a Week 17 showdown with major implications for the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC — could not be played. With Hamlin fighting for his life, there was no “next man up” mentality on this night. There would be no next play.

On “Monday Night Football,” a great American tradition, we witnessed one of the most chilling moments in televised sports history. A play that terrifying can happen in any game, at any moment. But it occurred on the grandest of stages — during the only pro football game of the night, in the final Monday night showcase of the season. It was a reminder of the sport’s unremitting brutality. It forced all of us to deal with the harsh reality of this beloved game.

Football isn’t a sport that happens to be violent. It is an intrinsically vicious sport that many spectators deem justifiably brutal. Most don’t enjoy it despite the constant collisions. They love it because of them. It’s surprising that, throughout its history, the game has avoided an abundance of frightening scenes. But no matter how well the coaches teach proper fundamentals, no matter how disciplined the players are at controlling their aggression, this is the sport’s nature.

We may have never seen a player’s heart stop on “Monday Night Football.” But we’re accustomed to athletes being carted off the field or examined under a blue pop-up medical tent on the sideline or transported to a hospital during a game. The action seldom stops for long. Crash, clean up, crash again. Crash, clean up, crash again. That’s the rhythm. Not even the coronavirus pandemic could cancel NFL games. Moving on — or plowing through — is its instinct.

The addiction to it is so strong that no single moment, not even one this traumatic, will scare away the crowds. And the conclusion shouldn’t be to hate football or to feel guilty about loving it. However, it’s a warning to balance the obsession with appropriate concern for the human risk involved.

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)

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

The game is terrible at fostering such compassion, frankly. After Hamlin went down, it took more than an hour for the league to officially suspend the game. Details of the decision-making process remain murky, and the NFL has denied ESPN’s initial report that the game was set to resume after a brief pause and a five-minute warmup. Troy Vincent, the NFL executive vice president of football operations, disputed the “ridiculous” assertion that the sport would be so “insensitive.” But the public’s strong fear of the possibility says so much about the callous history of this game. The mere perception that the NFL could be so heartless should bother the league more than anything.

With Hamlin sedated and fighting for his life, there is no guarantee the NFL returns from this quickly. The trauma we all experienced in that first hour will last for days, at minimum. For players and coaches representing Buffalo, Cincinnati and the other 30 teams, the coping process will be much longer.

To understand how athletes struggle with football’s punishing ways, consider a recent Washington Post story about players’ reactions to seeing one of their own carted off the field. In the article, Baltimore Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler showed his vulnerability.

“It’s a reminder that you’re not invincible out there, even though you feel like it,” Zeitler told reporter Adam Kilgore. “It sucks. You start thinking about your career suddenly. But it’s part of the game. You have to keep on moving. It’s kind of trained into you. From college on, someone goes down in practice, you literally just move the drill 10 yards up. You leave him, and you just keep moving forward. It’s part of the machine-like part of the NFL. You have to keep going. You learn to accept that. For that brief moment, though, your humanity comes back to you.”

Our humanity must stay with us now.

During a raw ESPN telecast, former NFL defensive lineman Anthony “Booger” McFarland tried to collect himself, as did studio host Suzy Kolber and reporter Adam Schefter. As they directed coverage for most of those 66 minutes it took before the game was officially suspended, the emotion was palpable. They were processing the unprecedented as they spoke. It felt like a vigil. It was painful yet meaningful television.

“Football is entertainment,” McFarland said at one point. “Nobody is in the mood of being entertained tonight. … We’re done playing football tonight. Let’s move on.”

How ESPN viewers learned of Damar Hamlin’s injury

Said Kolber: “The emotion that we’re experiencing tonight is really hard to describe.”

In this moment, that was okay. That was the real NFL, not the slickly produced gladiator glorification that normalizes pain and human disposability.

“That’s not what we wake up to do in this game,” said ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, a former NFL safety, during a “SportsCenter” conversation about players dealing with the trauma. “That’s not what we’ve been conditioned to move on from. And that’s evident when [Bills Coach] Sean McDermott and [Bengals Coach] Zac Taylor meet in the middle of the field or they meet in the tunnel and they say, ‘We can’t go do this.’ They couldn’t put these men back out on the field to do something they’ve been built to do their whole lives, because no one should have to deal with what Damar Hamlin is dealing with tonight. They don’t teach us this. We don’t talk about this. We don’t converse about this. They’re not trying to build us up enough so that this is okay, because it’s actually not okay.”

As the medical staff encircled Hamlin on the field, Buffalo cornerback Siran Neal walked several yards away, crying, heaving, pulling at his jersey and shoulder pads. He lowered his head and dropped to his knees until a teammate, running back Nyheim Hines, bent over to console him.

The two stayed on the turf, locked in an embrace, worried about Hamlin, unconcerned about football. Until further notice, the game must defer to this anguish.