With heavy hearts, NFL players go back to work
A Buffalo Bills banner hangs in a window in Buffalo, N.Y., on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.
Lights on at night at the home of the Buffalo Bills, Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023
By JENNY VRENTAS
With Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin still in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital after his collapse during a game Monday night, NFL teams on Wednesday returned to practice, somehow, for the last games of a regular season that suddenly felt stripped of joy.
The family of Hamlin, 24, a second-year player who suffered cardiac arrest during a nationally televised game against the Cincinnati Bengals, asked for prayers. The most recent update from the Bills on Hamlin’s condition was a statement Wednesday afternoon that said he was still receiving care in the hospital’s intensive care unit, “with signs of improvement noted yesterday and overnight.”
Week 18 will begin Saturday, but players and coaches across the league were still reeling from Hamlin’s collapse and anxiously waiting for updates on his condition.
“I’m praying that you pull through bro,” Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, the player Hamlin tackled before he collapsed, wrote on Twitter hours after the game was suspended. “Keep fighting 3,” Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox posted, referring to his former teammate at the University of Pittsburgh by his jersey number. Some of the NFL’s biggest stars, including Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Arizona defensive end J.J. Watt, openly pleaded for Hamlin to be OK.
In a memo sent to teams Tuesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the game between the Bills and the Bengals would not resume this week and no decision had been made about when or whether it would be rescheduled. The NFL has also not announced any changes to the Week 18 schedule.
As a result, players returned to work Wednesday, just 36 hours after Hamlin’s medical emergency — the most serious the NFL has seen in decades — unfolded in front of millions of viewers.
Ryan Clark, a retired NFL safety who is now an analyst for ESPN, wrote on social media that “the next snap of football will be one of the scariest snaps we have ever watched.”
Nyaka NiiLampti, the NFL’s vice president of wellness and clinical services, sent information Tuesday to each of the league’s 32 teams about available mental health and support resources, according to Goodell’s memo. Teams may also request additional resources, such as on-site services, the memo said.
Teams around the league found ways to express their support for Hamlin. Each team changed the avatar of its Twitter account to an image of Hamlin’s No. 3 Bills jersey with the message, “Pray for Damar.” The Miami Dolphins posted a photo of their stadium lit up in the Bills’ blue and red Tuesday night.
The Eagles and the New England Patriots canceled coaches’ press availabilities Tuesday, while Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin opened his news conference by talking about his personal connection with Hamlin, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area.
Tuesdays are usually off days for players around the league, though with games scheduled for Saturday, some teams were on the practice field this week. The Tennessee Titans, who are scheduled to play the Jacksonville Jaguars Saturday night, spent time in a team meeting Tuesday talking about Hamlin and praying for him and his family.
This is usually one of the most exciting weeks during the NFL season, with teams jockeying for postseason bids or more favorable seeding. The Bills and the Bengals met Monday night with the No. 1 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye still in reach for both teams. Hamlin’s collapse rendered those stakes relatively unimportant.
If the Week 18 schedule remains intact, both teams will take the field again Sunday, with the Bills hosting the Patriots and the Bengals set to host the Baltimore Ravens.
The NFL has rescheduled games before. In 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the league postponed all of its Week 2 games until the end of the regular season. During the 2020 season, the NFL rescheduled 15 regular-season games because of coronavirus outbreaks among teams but completed the season on time.