Damar Hamlin

I am not a big pro football fan. And just to be clear, I mean the NFL, the National Football League, rough-and-tumble, smashmouth, American Football. There are many reasons for this, but mostly I just didn’t really grow up in a huge football household and we didn’t really have a “home” team living in Southern Oregon. My dad would watch the occasional Bears game when they were featured on the west coast, since he grew up in Chicago; I just never really found the sport all that interesting. I certainly hadn’t planned to watch Monday Night Football on ESPN tonight with my last evening of holiday vacation before going back to the weekly grind.

What I did watch for years, and now MAYBE do watch again, is college football. Having been in the marching band for 3 years when I was at uni at a Pac-12 school, I couldn’t avoid it. In my day though, my school was TRASH at the game, leading to taunting from the band with chants like “IF THE GAME WERE OVER NOW, WE’D WIN,” every time we scored first or “NO MATTER WHAT THE SCORE, THE BAND ALWAYS WINS,” when the team quickly gave up their 3-0 lead and failed to score for the remainder of the game. Believe me, this happened regularly.

So today, my team is not playing, but there are 2 other Pac-12 teams in a couple bowl games, so I’m watching some football this afternoon. When the second game ended, programming switched seamlessly to NFL coverage and it took me a bit to notice. I switched channels before kickoff and figured I was done for the night. But before I turned the TV off entirely, something made me turn back to the football game. There was no football game.

What I turned back on to was all the sports talking head guys discussing an injured player, Damar Hamlin, a 24yo member of the Buffalo Bills’ defense. I was a bit confused by what they were saying and it didn’t look like the game was going to restart anytime soon so this wasn’t JUST your average compound fracture or ACL tear (yes, these MAJOR injuries are often normalized in football so it would be hard to understand the game not continuing). As I watched and listened, and they sent to broadcast to the studio guy who normally would be on until halftime, I learned that this otherwise healthy and athletic young man made a tackle on the offensive player, the two fell to the ground, he stood up right away, and then collapsed shortly thereafter. He was immediately tended to by the team training staff and then by on-staff medical professionals who performed CPR ON THE FIELD OF PLAY for minutes before he was transferred to an ambulance and taken to the local emergency room. At the time of this writing, roughly 7 hours after he collapsed Damar Hamlin is in critical condition, sedated and on a ventilator, according to sources.

I couldn’t bring myself to turn the program off. I have to hand it to the ESPN crew; I think they handled it pretty well. They DID NOT show any footage of the actual time Mr. Hamlin fell over. Since it didn’t sound like it would be a triggering event for me (heinous injuries, blood, etc. REALLY do a number of my emotional state), I sought out the video that was, of course, readily available online. As I thought, the footage was not graphic and, confusing as it was, the prior play wasn’t even that, well, violent. It looked like a regular tackle. He wasn’t hit in the head at all, which is ALWAYS the first thing one thinks of when you hear about football injuries.

But despite the “tameness” of the video, ESPN DID NOT show it again, that I saw. Instead, the two guys, one skinny white guy (Scott Van Pelt) and one athletic black guy who was obviously a former player. I had never seen him before, SVP was familiar to me, but it appeared that they have worked together, likely on this Monday Night Football program, for a few years at least. So SVP was trying to fill time, he’s trained to bloviate and pontificate on sports for a living and he’s not bad at it, and he asked his colleague for his perspective as a former player who had experienced injuries and teammates’ injuries over the course of his career. His responses were so heartfelt, so amazing, I don’t believe that anyone watching, even the most gristly old spectator, wasn’t holding back tears.

He talked about how in this moment, football doesn’t matter. The ONLY things that matter are this young man and his family, both on and off the field. He talked about how one of the most difficult things to do as a teammate is see one of your own go down with an injury and how, no matter what care they are receiving, every single team member is waiting with baited breath for that injured player to raise his arm and give a thumbs-up gesture to indicate that he was conscious and was gonna be OK. Damar Hamlin never gave that thumbs-up to his teammates. Then he talked about how this man and every single one of his teammates were doing EXACTLY what they loved and wanted to be doing when they ran onto that field. He was living out his dream, despite the sacrifices he made in the past to get there or the risks he faces during every single game.

I have never been so moved by any sports programming in my life. This is what representation and diversity looks like, FEELS like. When the executives at ESPN brought in a black man, a former player, and not one whose name is so commonly known as an offensive juggernaut, we will never know what they were trying to accomplish. Whether their intent was to check a box, or whether it was to fill a legitimate, acknowledged need, to reach more people or to add a live wire example of empathy and post-traumatic growth, but they got all of that and they should be incredibly thankful.

Now, a different example. I shift my focus briefly back to my phone where I find some sort of YouTube livestream broadcast where there was supposed to be a press conference in front of the hospital eventually. In the meantime, the livestream chat was hopping! Some people with their real names, presumably, since Google owns YouTube, commenting from all over the country and sending well-wishes for Mr. Hamlin. I would say 50-60% of the comments were well-wishes and prayers and another 30-35% were innocuous with intent that could not be determined; examples include: “duh,” “bruh,” “ok,” etc. That left 5-20% and those were the trolls.

  • “DONALD TRUMP”
  • “But was he vaccinated?!?”
  • “Fauci = MURDERER!”

I could go on. While I am somewhat heartened to see that a majority of these NFL fans had no interest in this noise, I’m still completely flabbergasted about how people exist that would co-opt the chat on a livestream intended to share news about a player who nearly died WHILE PLAYING A SPORT FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT. I’m not sure I can wrap my head around that one.

Meanwhile, back in the ESPN broadcast, someone who, again, I cannot credit by name, happened to mention that when Damar Hamlin first entered the NFL less than 2 years ago, he had set up a charity foundation to raise money to support the community where he grew up which is a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. Presumably for the holidays, Mr. Hamlin or someone on his team started a GoFundMe page to raise $2500 for a toy drive at a daycare center in his hometown. When I looked at the time earlier this evening, they had raised $2.5 million. As of this writing a little after 1am on the US west coast, the number is up to $3,142,120.

There is so much good in the world, and some bad, some REALLY bad, and sometimes bad things happen to incredibly good people senselessly, without cause or reason. I had never heard the name Damar Hamlin before tonight, but now I will never forget it. And while I do not pray in the traditional sense, you can bet he will remain in my thoughts and I KNOW the thoughts of a great many more people until we hear of his improved condition.

And to anyone who would like to contribute to his GoFundMe, you can find it here.

I have a few morals to my story tonight.

  • Diversity matters. You never know who or how someone may connect with your work, but if you aren’t purposefully trying to be bland/popular, partnering with someone who ISN’T LIKE YOU in some fundamental way and treating them as a true partner with respect and deference to their experience is GUARANTEED to improve whatever it is you are trying to produce, content or otherwise.
  • Empathy rules, even in a competitive sports arena. Not a single spectator threw a fit or behaved badly that I could tell as they slowly and sadly filed out of the stadium having only seen a few minutes of the game they intended to fill their evening. It was reported that many of them drove to the hospital and prayed outside for Mr. Hamlin, who played on the visiting team.
  • Give me a professional journalist or two, even if they have a radically different political opinion or outlook on life than me, over a publicly-accessible message board for any breaking news event anywhere at any time. Hands down, no question, ’nuff said.

Be well, all, and prayers up for my man, Damar Hamlin.

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