As I write this, Damar Hamlin lies sedated in a hospital bed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in critical condition. And, like the millions who watched in horror as the Buffalo Bills safety collapsed to the turf during the first quarter of Monday night’s game against the Bengals at Paycor Stadium, I anxiously await updates and pray he will be OK.
At this point, I could give a rat’s fanny about the rescheduling of this game or playoff implications. At this point, all I care about is the well-being of a 24-year-old man who should have the best years of his life in front of him. Difficult situations like this one provide a stadium-full of perspective. We are reminded this is someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s friend — a human being, not just some number on a football depth chart.
We watch sports to escape reality, but occasionally reality barges into our playpens uninvited and the games truly become matters of life and death. Although I have never seen an athlete suffer cardiac arrest on a field the way Hamlin did, I have been there for similarly harrowing, chilling moments. And some of those moments came rushing back as I struggled to sleep after finally going to bed in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
I was in the press box at then-Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 9, 2007 when Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered a near-fatal collision with Denver Broncos kick returner Domenik Hixon. Like the situation with Hamlin, trainers and doctors attended to Everett on the field, while players from both teams prayed, hugged and shed tears. In Hamlin’s case, the medical staff worked furiously to restore his heartbeat through CPR before lifting him into the ambulance that whisked him to the medical center two miles from the stadium.
After examining Everett, doctors began hypothermic treatment, which drastically lowered his body temperature and reduced swelling around his injured spine. Eventually, they were able to place him in the ambulance. Those were different, less sensitive times, and the game resumed shortly after the ambulance drove through the tunnel.
Despite their swift actions, doctors were not optimistic about Everett’s prognosis, telling us the day after the game that his injuries were “catastrophic” and “life-threatening.” But their pessimistic outlook changed dramatically 24 hours later when Everett began moving his legs and was taken off the respirator because he was able to breath on his own again. A new prognosis was issued, with doctors predicting Everett would walk again, a forecast that came true several weeks later.
Almost a year to the day after that near-death experience, Everett was back at the Ralph, walking on his own power to a midfield podium to receive the George Halas Award for Courage.
“It brought tears to my eyes, especially at the beginning of the game while I was looking at that spot on the field [where he had suffered a fracture and dislocation of his cervical spine],’’ he said. “I felt like it was a miracle.”
I was there at the Houston Astrodome on September 24, 1989, when Bills cornerback Derrick Burroughs ducked his head while making a tackle, pinching his spinal cord between the third and fourth vertebrae. That scene of Burroughs lying limp on the turf, unable to move his arms and legs, remains vivid and shocking three decades later. The looks of grave concern on the faces of trainer Bud Carpenter and Burroughs’ teammates were similar to looks I witnessed Monday night.
After immobilizing his body and sliding it onto a stretcher, Burroughs was put into the ambulance. Like after the Everett injury, the game went on. A few days later, he regained sensation and movement in his limbs and was able to fly back to Buffalo. However, he was told he could never play football again because he was diagnosed with cervical stenosis — a narrowing of the spinal column.
“I was extremely depressed for the longest time because something I loved had been taken from me way too soon,’’ he said. “But over time, I came to realize that my injury had been a blessing because it enabled them to discover my condition. Had I kept playing there’s a chance I’d have wound up paralyzed.”
I was there in the Carrier Dome on January 17, 1982, when another near-fatal experience sucked the air out of me and a raucous arena. Nearly 25,000 had shown up to watch Georgetown center Patrick Ewing’s highly anticipated Dome debut, and the Syracuse faithful couldn’t wait to give him the business. The crowd was so loud at opening tip that I struggled to converse with reporters on either side of me on press row.
A minute into the game’s first timeout, the place became eerily silent, save for the agonizing voice of a young women in distress. The Syracuse cheerleaders had formed a human pyramid, four bodies high, on the court, and at the end of their routine, 5-foot-1 inch Michelle Munn, back-flipped from the top, but no one was in place to catch her. She landed on her head, and soon, the only sounds you heard were Munn’s screams as the medics attended to her. She was taken by ambulance to nearby Crouse-Irving Memorial Hospital where she was diagnosed with a fractured skull.
The game, which was being telecast nationally on NBC, resumed, but the players and coaches didn’t seem into it. “For the first time in my life, I wanted to stop playing,’’ said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim. “It shook me up.” Forty minutes after the accident, Dome public address announcer Carl Eilenberg informed the crowd that Munn was “in stable condition.” The news was greeted with thunderous applause. Munn returned to campus after about a week and completed her engineering studies that year. Today, she lives in Boca Raton, Fla., the mother of three grown children and six grandchildren.
Fortunately, the game did not go on Monday night. Nobody was in any mood to play football after watching Hamlin fight for his life. The NFL is a tight-knit brotherhood. The players and coaches understand the dangers involved but do their best to suppress those fears. Sometimes, though, it’s impossible to keep the risks buried. A teammate collapses to the turf. Reality crashes the party. And all we can do is hope and pray for miracles like the ones experienced by Everett, Burroughs, and Munn.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
Terrific column about a terrible incident. I was never a great sports fan, and barely remember the other incidents, but I happened to be watching Monday night. I pray for Damar’s quick and complete recovery. Most of my heart wishes he well do the smart thing and retire, to avoid the possibility of future and further injury. The other part of me hopes he recovers enough to play again the game he certainly loved!