By Billy Witz and Jenny Vrentas
Inside the stone walls of Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School, where students at the all-boys school must stash their phones in lockers and ties and collared shirts are required, it is easy to forget that the adjustment to such a place would be challenging for some teenagers.
Damar Hamlin -- the Buffalo Bills safety who collapsed and went into cardiac arrest during a game on Monday night, and was still in critical condition in a Cincinnati hospital but had “shown remarkable improvement over the past 24 hours,” according to a statement by the Bills on Thursday -- never did.
After he graduated and played football at the University of Pittsburgh, and then matriculated to the NFL, where he earned a spot in the Bills’ lineup as a defensive back, Hamlin regularly returned to Central Catholic.
He spoke at youth football camps, letting middle schoolers know what lay ahead, and pulled aside players who aspired to follow in his footsteps but needed direction.
Wherever he lent a hand — talking to young athletes, visiting with kids at his mother’s day care center, launching a holiday toy drive for those who grew up with a bit less — Hamlin surely saw a little of himself.
On Tuesday, the nation began to learn more about Hamlin, 24, after he suffered a cardiac arrest following a collision during a nationally televised “Monday Night Football” game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He was taken to a Cincinnati hospital, where he was still in the intensive care unit and in critical condition Tuesday, according to the most recent update from the Bills.
Hamlin was driven by two desires growing up, in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, a hard-luck but tight-knit community on the south bank of the Ohio River: making it to the NFL and helping others along the way.
“I’ve said the word ‘steady’ about 106 times today,” Terry Totten, his coach at Central Catholic, said in a phone interview earlier this week. Like many who were interviewed, he described Hamlin as reserved, serious and blessed with a warm smile that he used judiciously.
“Whether it was adversity or high times, working for his charity, or helping an athlete or student of lesser caliber. Whatever it was, he was steady, calm and confident in himself. A true leader by example. He’s an incredible person.”
As Hamlin chased his dream of playing in the NFL, he caught the eye of the football greats in his city, including Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and former All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who grew up in nearby Aliquippa. In a statement Tuesday, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi called Hamlin “a hero to thousands of Pittsburgh kids.”
“I’ve known that guy probably since he was about 12,” Tomlin said at a news conference Tuesday. “I’ve just got a lot of respect and love for him as a human being, his commitment to the pursuit of his goals and dreams of doing what he is right now, which is playing in the NFL.”
Support for Hamlin has come from near and far since his medical emergency. Nearly 200,000 people have combined to contribute more than $5 million to a GoFundMe page he created two years ago for the toy drive serving his hometown. Michael Rubin, the CEO of sports apparel company Fanatics, said in a tweet that the company would donate all proceeds from sales of Hamlin’s jersey — the top-selling item on the website since Monday night — to Hamlin’s charitable foundation.
“We’re hunkering down, and we’re praying,” said Archie Brinza, the president of the McKees Rocks council, who ran the local sports league in which Hamlin played football, baseball and basketball as a youth. “He’s a Rocks guy that lives by what he says and says what he does. Now we’re here to fight for him.”
Hamlin was shaped by his experience growing up in the Rocks. When he was 12, his father, Mario, served nearly four years in prison for selling crack cocaine, and in the ensuing years he lost several friends and former teammates to violence. One of his close friends from high school, Jamain Stephens, who played football at California University, died from complications from the coronavirus.
As his father’s sentence began, Hamlin went to work with his mother, Nina, at the cleaning business his family started. Nina also co-owns a day care center that serves kids in McKees Rocks.
Brinza said that while there was a lengthy list of cousins, aunts, uncles or others looking after Hamlin, his father — a former high-school football player in McKees Rocks — asked him to keep close watch over his son while he was incarcerated. Brinza helped him get the attention of coaches at Central Catholic, where his own son played.
By the time Hamlin was a senior, in 2015, he had become a leader of the defense, which called itself the Chain Gang. It was a team brimming with the talent of players who would go on to Penn State, Notre Dame, Clemson and Pittsburgh, about a dozen scholarship players in all.
All that talent didn’t matter when the Vikings lost to a nemesis, North Allegheny, late in September. The coaches sent the team home that night with a message: See you back here at 9 a.m. the next morning for practice.
When the coaches rolled in the next morning, coffee mugs in hand, the entire team was waiting for them on the field stretching. They’d arrived 90 minutes early because one player told them to — Hamlin.
Central Catholic did not lose another game, winning a state championship.
By then, Hamlin could have gone to school almost anywhere. Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame all pursued him. Instead, he chose Pitt — whose campus is within walking distance of Central Catholic — so he could be close to his family, including his father, who was out of prison, and his younger brother, then a toddler.
By his final year, in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Hamlin was a captain at Pitt, leading the team in tackles and pass breakups. As soon as he finished his college eligibility, he organized the first toy drive, which became an annual event.
Hamlin was a sixth-round draft pick by the Bills in 2021. He stepped into a starting safety role this September after Micah Hyde suffered a neck injury that ended his season. During the same game when Hyde was injured, another Bills player, Dane Jackson, was immobilized on the field and taken off in an ambulance after colliding with a teammate while making a tackle. Jackson avoided serious injury, but Hamlin, who grew up with Jackson and played with him at Pitt, said at the time that it was a “terrible” feeling to see one of his brothers go down.
In an interview with the “One Bills Live” show in November, Hamlin said that he had grabbed Jackson’s hand a little bit harder during their weekly defensive back prayer. He was grateful for this opportunity, playing in the NFL, that they got to share.
“You never know when the last day could be that you get to experience something like this,” Hamlin said at the time. “I’m cherishing it every moment I can.”