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A flood of memories came rushing in as I flew to Buffalo a week ago to cover the story of Damar Hamlin – the Buffalo Bills safety who suffered cardiac arrest during a game Monday night.
Buffalo feels like home.
Growing up, I had never seen an NFL game in person, but that changed when I ran through the tunnel to play in my first NFL game in 2002. My childhood dream came true here in Buffalo. I would end up playing six of my nine NFL seasons here in front of the best fans in the world. Being a member of the Buffalo Bills is one of the greatest honors of my life.
But this week was tough. I played safety – the same position as Hamlin – and I have a sense of what the players on this Bills team were going through this week.
In 2007, I was on the field to witness one of my Bills teammates, Kevin Everett, become paralyzed from a hit during a game. We saw his body convulsing on the field. The ambulance came, and so did the tears and fears. We huddled around him in prayer on bended knee. So it was difficult to relive all of that while imagining what this current team, and this city, were going through this time.
Buffalo has endured tragedy after tragedy recently – a deadly mass shooting seven months ago, a snowstorm about two weeks ago took the lives of dozens. And now this? Buffalo seeing one of their beloved Bills – to whom they look to as a source of strength through difficult times – going down on the field like that was a gut-wrenching shot straight to the soul.
But if any city was going to come out stronger on the other side of adversity like this, it was Buffalo.
Hamlin showed continued progress as the week went on. He started speaking with the team via video calls and thanking the world for the love it was showing him. His GoFundMe charity drive to buy toys for kids – which originally aimed to raise $2500 – skyrocketed to nearly $9 million.
This went from being a story about Hamlin to a story about humanity. Buffalo brought out the best in us.
Then something magical happened. On the very first play of Buffalo’s first game since #3 suffered cardiac arrest on the field … Buffalo’s NyHeim Hines took the opening kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown.
It had been 3 years and 3 months since the Bills’ returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Bills star quarterback Josh Allen said, “It was spiritual. Bone chilling.” Hamlin, watching from the hospital, tweeted, “God behind All This, no coincidence.”
Maybe it is coincidence that 3 is the number of God. The Holy Trinity. But probably not.
The Bills would go on to win the game 35-23. But this was so much bigger than a game.
Through this tragedy, the world came together to show support for Hamlin. The displays of humanity – grace, compassion, empathy, and love – have been something truly special.
There is nothing in this world that brings people from all races, places, ages, socio-economic and religious backgrounds together more than sports.
And that’s been made undeniably clear here in Buffalo.
One heart may have stopped, but it made the whole world come together to beat as one.
And this story is not done.