It’s a comeback story to top all comeback stories — a miracle that keeps becoming more miraculous. From dying on a football field to playing on one again. Unbelievable. Or, in this case, un-Bill-ievable.
At a pre-draft news conference Tuesday, Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane dropped the bombshell that just three-and-a-half months after Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped beating following a routine tackle during a Monday Night Football game, the third-year safety has been medically cleared to play again.
“He’s fully cleared,’’ Beane said. “He’s here [participating in voluntary offseason team workouts] … he’s in a great head space to come back and make his return.”
Beane said Hamlin has been examined by a variety of specialists and they all reached the same conclusion and said he can return to the NFL. “It’s not two-to-one or three-to-one or anything like that,’’ Beane said. “They’re all in lockstep of what this was and that he’s cleared. [He can resume] full activities just like anyone else who was coming back from an injury or whatever.”
The thing that makes this so remarkable is that Hamlin isn’t merely coming back from an injury or whatever. He’s coming back from death.
“I died on national TV in front of the whole world,’’ Hamlin said in a news conference following Beane’s at the team’s Orchard Park facilities.
He died, but was revived, thanks to the quick action of the Bills’ medical staff, especially assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington, who immediately diagnosed the problem and began performing CPR. Hamlin revealed Tuesday that cardiologists told him commotio cordis is what caused his heart to stop and led to him collapsing on the field during that January 2 game at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium. “It’s a direct blow at a specific point in your heartbeat that causes cardiac arrest,’’ he explained. “Five to seven seconds later, you fall out, and that’s pretty much what everyone saw (that night).”
Neither anyone at Paycor Stadium that early January night or any of us watching on television will ever forget that horrifying scene as athletic trainers and doctors worked furiously to resuscitate Hamlin. Indelible, too, were sights of Bills and Bengals players sobbing, attempting to console one another and make sense of what had just happened to their fallen comrade. The longer it took for Hamlin to be loaded into that ambulance, the more concerned we all became. When he finally was placed on that stretcher and taken to a nearby trauma unit — fortunately just blocks away — we had no idea if he was going to make it. That night’s game was wisely suspended, then canceled. Nobody was in a state of mind to play, coach or watch football.
Two days later, we received the uplifting news that Hamlin had awakened from his coma. His attending cardiologists offered a positive prognosis and conveyed an inspirational exchange between them and Damar. Unable to speak because of a breathing tube, he took the note pad he was given and scrawled the question: “Did we win?”
“Yes, Damar,’’ responded Dr. Timothy Pritts. “You won the game of life.”
Indeed, he had.
Hamlin realized he was blessed to be alive; to be given a second shot. Each day brought more progress. By week’s end, he was able to transfer from the Cincinnati Medical Center trauma unit to Buffalo General Hospital. Not long after that, he was released, and soon was paying visits to the Bills training facilities so he could reconnect with his teammates and coaches. He even watched the Bills playoff loss to Cincinnati on January 22 from a Highmark Stadium suite. At one point that afternoon, the Jumbotron showed him making his trademark heart symbol with his hands. The gesture inspired thunderous applause.
Since then, Hamlin has been on a whirlwind. Beane has jokingly referred to it as the “Damar tour.” A few days before this year’s Super Bowl, the young man from the Pittsburgh exurb of McKee’s Rock received the NFLPA’s highest honor — the Alan Page Community Award for helping others. Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation, which provides camping opportunities and toys and book bags for underprivileged kids, had raised more than $9 million through GoFundMe in the days and weeks after he was hospitalized.
The night of the Super Bowl, Hamlin was on the field to fete the first responders from the Bills and Bengals training and medical staffs. He hugged and thanked each of them.
He was in Washington, D.C. recently to visit with President Joe Biden at the White House and promote bipartisan legislation known as “Access to AEDs,” which would increase the availability of automated external defibrillators and related training, on school campuses. He also became the face of the NFL’s newly launched Smart Heart Sports Coalition, a collaboration with several groups to help prevent fatalities among high school athletes who suffer sudden cardiac arrest.
Two months ago, Hamlin resumed working out under the supervision of his doctors. He began visiting various specialists and held onto his hope of playing football again.
“My heart is still in it,’’ Hamlin explained Tuesday. “My heart is still in the game. I love the game. It’s something I want to prove to myself, nobody else. I just want to show people that fear is a choice and you can keep going in something without knowing what’s at the end of the tunnel. You might feel anxious or any type of way, but you just keep putting your right foot in front of the left foot and you keep going.”
Few are happier about this latest development than Beane, who spent several days with Hamlin and his family in that Cincinnati medical center after the near tragedy.
“However, many months later to be talking about how he’s been fully cleared is pretty remarkable,’’ Beane said. “I’m excited for him and his family at where they are in this journey.”
It’s a journey that’s featured a death-defying comeback — a comeback Hamlin hopes to continue when the Bills kick off their season this September.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.m