After days of grief, worry and finally hope, the Bills played football again

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 8, 2023; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Members of the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots pray at mid field after the game at Highmark Stadium.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – John Brown carried the football to the Buffalo Bills sideline, searching for the right person. He had caught a touchdown pass in the third quarter, another moment of cathartic release for a team and city still processing the unthinkable. Brown spotted Denny Kellington, the athletic trainer who on Monday night had rushed to the middle of a football stadium in Cincinnati and found Damar Hamlin lying still on the turf. Brown paced toward Kellington and handed him the football.

Six days after Hamlin made a tackle that rattled the NFL, after he collapsed, after a player’s heart stopped on the field and emergency physicians saved his life in front of his teammates, the Bills returned. For nearly six days, they grieved and worried. They hoped and celebrated. On Sunday, they played football again, and they won.

Playing in tribute to Hamlin as he watched from a hospital bed, managing frayed and contradictory emotions, wearing a patch with Hamlin’s No. 3 on their left shoulder, the Bills concluded the regular season with a 35-23 victory over the New England Patriots. The game provided a swirl of elements – normalcy, profundity, spirituality, dread, joy.

The notoriously boisterous tailgate lots around Highmark Stadium filled. Veteran running back Nyheim Hines, typically a role player, returned two kickoffs for a touchdown. Players who wondered how they would ever play football again strapped on pads and took the field.

“What courage it took for them,” Bills Coach Sean McDermott said.

None of the 70,753 fans present, thousands of whom waved signs with hearts and No. 3, will ever forget the opening kickoff. Hines bolted through and past the Patriots’ coverage team for a 96-yard touchdown. Hines leaped into the front row, a fan behind him holding aloft a homemade sign that read, “Love For Damar.” On the sideline, as teammates raced past, quarterback Josh Allen placed his hands on his helmet, smiling in disbelief.

“If you want the truth, it was spiritual,” Allen said. “It really was. Bone-chilling.”

After the game, Allen choked up, and his eyes reddened as he noted that it had been three years and three months since the Bills’ last kick return touchdown.

For some Bills, the moment carried a toll. At 2:31 a.m. Sunday, cornerback Tre’Davious White received a text message from Hamlin. “I’m thinking about y’all,” it read. “I’m sorry that I did that to y’all.” To White, it reaffirmed Hamlin as one of the most “pure” people he has ever met.

White was on the field when Hamlin collapsed, chasing the same ballcarrier Hamlin tackled at the exact wrong moment. He watched trainers pound on his chest and emergency physicians restart his heart.

“It’s just something I can’t unsee,” White said. “Every time I close my eyes. I try watching TV, and every time TV goes to commercial, it’s the only thing that comes to my mind – the vision of that.”

The harrowing moment lingered in insidious ways beyond the horrific image. Though Hamlin’s injury appeared to be a freak accident, unprecedented in professional football, it reaffirmed the game’s inherent violence. It reminded players “it can really happen to anyone of us,” Bills linebacker Tremaine Edwards said.

“I don’t know how some of us did it,” White said. “Some of us had a different view of what went on. That’s traumatizing. I’ve seen traumatic things in my life, just growing up where I grew up, in the environment I’ve been raised in. I [always saw] the end result. . . . It was never a time where I saw everything transpire.”

In the famously rowdy tailgate lots around Highmark Stadium, Hamlin’s recovery had granted fans permission to gather around hot grills and guzzle Labatt beer and enjoy the communion of a Bills game. “It could have been very solemn except for three words: Did we win?” said Ken Johnson, referencing the first words Hamlin communicated after he awoke. “It brought us back.”

An outpouring for Hamlin blended with normalcy. A local radio station broadcasting from famed tailgating spot Hammer’s Lot offered the chance to sign a card for Hamlin. “Come and see us,” the host continued. “The Patriots suck. Go Bills.”

A sign at Johnson and Peter Papagelis’s tailgate pronounced there would be “no ketchup & mustard extravaganza today.” Johnson, known by his nickname “Pinto Ron,” has for years allowed himself to be smeared with condiments before every Bills home game, 90 minutes before kickoff. Was Sunday’s absence in deference to the gravity of Hamlin’s scare? “No,” Papagelis said, chuckling. “To be honest with you, we’re getting old for this s—.”

On Big Tree Road, a central artery near the stadium, signs and placards paid tribute to Hamlin. One house displayed a giant, red 3 leaning against a flagpole (Stars and Stripes on top, Bills logo just beneath). Next door, a yellow heart with a blue 3 inside rested on the lawn. Across the street, a heart with a 3 inside was tucked inside the window of an RV. No. 3 was everywhere: Fastened with paper clips to jerseys, taped to the sides of cars, affixed to a handheld stick, carved out of wood, painted on faces.

Cody Foster purchased a No. 3 Hamlin Bills jersey at the team store in the stadium. He pulled it over a jacket and tailgated in Hammer’s Lot, washing a breakfast down with a Molson Cold Shot.

“I wanted to support and pray for Damar,” Foster said. “I’ve been a Bills fan my whole life, and obviously I’ve never seen anything like that happen. It definitely shook me a lot.”

Hamlin’s recovery, though, had allowed him to embrace the game. “It feels important,” Foster said.

Across the country, most acutely in Buffalo, anguish and fear yielded to relief and joy. When ESPN’s broadcast showed the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans kneeling together at midfield before their kickoff Saturday night, at least one Buffalo sports bar broke out in applause.

Del Reid, the fan who coined the moniker “Bills Mafia,” owns and runs 26 Shirts, a charitable apparel company that donates $8 from every sale to charity. In the immediate aftermath Monday night, Reid debated whether to print T-shirts in support of Hamlin, worried it would seem opportunistic. Then he received innumerable requests over social media. The company designed a shirt based on a tweet Hamlin made last year: The words “show love, it costs nothing,” three fingers representing the W.

26 Shirts made the shirts available on its website Wednesday. By Saturday night, it had become the company’s best-selling shirt ever. Customers from coast to coast had bought more than 10,000. Reid’s business will be cutting the Chasing M’s Foundation, the charity Hamlin started as a college football player at Pittsburgh, a check for more than $80,000.

It has been a tragic year in Buffalo. In May, an avowed white supremacist killed 10 people at a Tops grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood, police said. Last month, a blizzard claimed the lives of at least 28 people in Erie County. Reid noted that volunteers delivered free food to residents in the neighborhood that houses the Tops, and Buffalonians mobilized to clear snow out of areas known to have high elderly populations.

“The story isn’t all about the horrible things that have happened in Buffalo,” Reid said. “The story is how we responded. And it’s love.”

“Being in sync with the fan base, the fan base being in sync with the team, that’s real here in Buffalo,” McDermott said. “We need them like them like they need us.”

Before the national anthem, the public address introduced the Bills’ medical and training staff. They locked arms as their names – Kellington, Nate Breske, Tabani Richards and many more – echoed through the stadium. The crowd gave them a massive standing ovation.

Seconds before kickoff, somebody released a silver helium balloon shaped like the number three. It floated over the field, up over the edge of the stadium, shimmering against the gray sky. Fans made circles with their thumb and index finger, raising the remaining three fingers in the air.

As McDermott prepared late in the week, he thought to himself, “Wouldn’t it be special if we could take that kickoff back?”

At the opening kick, Hines stood near the goal line. He had arrived in Buffalo in a midseason trade and struggled to adapt to a new role in a new place. Hamlin had helped. He introduced himself to Hines when both were in the cold tub, and Hamlin spoke with him every day thereafter. In team meetings, Hamlin would smile and blurt, “Free Hines!”

Patriots kicker Nick Folk booted the opening kickoff. Hines caught the ball at the 4-yard line and sprinted forward. At the 21, he saw an opening and darted right. The crowd roared as he beat Mack Wilson to the sideline, the unthinkable coming into focus. Hines left Folk in his wake by midfield, only green turf ahead. At the 10, Hines outstretched his arms, holding the ball in his right hand.

Hamlin, watching the game on television from his hospital bed in Cincinnati, wrote on Twitter: “OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Hines gave the Bills the lead for good when he returned a second kick for a touchdown in the third quarter, a feat accomplished only 10 previous times in NFL history. “All that was for him,” Hines said. “I’m happy for the things that happened for me. But I felt like he was out there with us.”

At the end of the game, Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins orchestrated one last tribute. In the huddle, before taking a final knee to drain the clock, the Bills’ offensive players all raised three fingers in the air.

When they retreated to their locker room, Hamlin joined them on a FaceTime call. Teammates presented him a game ball and asked if he would break them down, football parlance for starting a collective chant.

“Love y’all boys,” Hamlin told them. “Bills on three, Bills on me.”

Hamlin paused and counted to three. The entire team joined him in screaming, “BILLS!”

They are still waiting for Hamlin to join them again in person. Hamlin sits two seats away from White in the defensive backs meeting room. Every day, Hamlin would bounce in with a smile, look at White and announce, “T-Weezy!” in his high-pitched voice. The Bills can feel his presence. They won a football game Sunday. They still wonder what comes next.

“I just want to hug the s— out of him,” White said. “I can’t wait to hear his voice and be able to touch him. It’s been a hard week. It’s been a hard week.”