Orchard Park, N.Y. — Before the Buffalo Bills could ever think about playing on Sunday against the New England Patriots, they needed to hear Damar Hamlin’s voice.
The 24-year-old safety, whose heart stopped on the field on Monday night in Cincinnati, woke up on Wednesday night, was able to communicate on pen and paper on Thursday, and then started talking on Friday.
“We got our boy man,” Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins said on Friday. “It’s all that matters. We got our boy. … To see that boy’s face, to see him smile, see him go (flex his muscles) in the camera. It was everything. And then to hear him talk to us. It was literally everything. And that’s what we needed. Literally, that’s all we needed.”
The Bills (12-3) host the New England Patriots at 1 p.m. on Sunday in the regular season finale at Highmark Stadium. When Hamlin was injured on Monday, and the world seemed to stop while waiting for every possible update, the game and the Bills’ season took a backseat to the health of their teammate.
McDermott said the news the team received on Thursday when Hamlin woke up and began to communicate was a huge lift. Allen said a call from Mario Hamlin to the team on Wednesday also helped give the team their objective.
Mario Hamlin said that the Bills made goals before they started the season and he demanded that the team get back to focusing on those goals. He said that’s what Hamlin would have wanted.
Allen said the team must honor that request.
“We’ll be playing with, I guess, less heavy hearts,” he said. “Knowing that (Thursday’s) news was a lot of tears of joy, I’ll tell you that. But to know that’s what he wants. That’s what his dad wants. I think guys are excited to get out there.”
The atmosphere inside the stadium is going to be unlike anything that most football fans have experienced. Bills general manager Brandon Beane said on Friday that because of the national and international attention on Hamlin’s story all week, the game is going to be a massive celebration of life.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a great seat if you’ve got a ticket to come here and just to be a part of this atmosphere,” he said. “The hair on the back of my neck is standing up right now thinking about it.”
When the game begins, the players on Buffalo’s side are going to face challenges. The emotional toll the week has taken is hard to understand. Hamlin’s progress has brought the team new energy, but when the players have to play football it’ll be about managing their emotions.
“There are going to be tears out there and that will be more of a challenge than the Xs and Os piece of it,’ Beane said. “It’s going to be a cool deal and the only thing better is if Damar was out of (the hospital) by then. I don’t know if that would happen but, anyway, we’re excited for Sunday.”
Allen said it’s difficult to picture what to expect on the field Sunday because it’s going to be a different experience for individual players. Getting the helmet back on at practice this week was a good thing for the team, he said.
Thinking back to Monday night, it’s impossible for anyone who was on the field or watching inside the stadium or on TV not to recall the horror on the faces of the Bills players. Watching Hamlin receive CPR and the medical team use a defibrillator to restart his heart was traumatic.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say some people will be changed forever, you know, after being on the field and witnessing that and feeling those emotions,” Allen said. “But again, the best way that we can continue to move forward, obviously, the updates that we keep getting on Damar really lift our spirits, leaning on each other, talking to each other.”
Players know the risks of stepping on the field and playing a sport as violent as football, but Hamlin’s life-threatening injury can make it hard to play the game the same way.
“It’s hard not to let it creep into your mind,” Allen said. “We’ve been reassured this is the freakiest of freak accidents, and it took the worst possible timing for this to happen.”
Allen said the mental aspect of the game is so important.
“Going out on that field, if you have that thought (about the injury), that’s putting yourself at risk even more, putting your teammates at risk even more,” he said. “I know coach is going to do a good job and he’s been doing a great job about making sure guys understand that and understand mentally like you have to be bought in too. As humans, it’s hard to not feel that way and just to know that, again, the track record of the league, and obviously there’s injuries and that’s part of the sport and this is the worst possible case scenario you can ever think of. We’re just happy Damar’s alright.”
Hamlin posted on his Instagram Saturday night with a powerful caption:
“When you put real love out into the world it comes back to you 3x’s as much. The Love has been overwhelming, but I’m thankful for every single person that prayed for me and reached out. We brung the world back together behind this. If you know me you know this only gone make me stronger. On a long road keep praying for me!”
Allen said he expects there to be a lot of no. 3 jerseys in the stadium and it’s going to be surreal to be at home in front of the Buffalo fans.
McDermott said it’s going to be emotional in the stadium and unlike anything he’s seen before.
“We’re going to have to balance some of that, you know, in order to perform the way we need to perform,” he said. “How do I know that we’ll be able to overcome (the emotions) is we have to. Just like we’ve done many times before, and this city, and the people of western New York that have dealt with what they’ve dealt with. That’s what you do.”
McDermott said that it’s kind of ironic that the Bills had a home game taken away when it got moved to Detroit in November. The team has dealt with adversity away from Highmark Stadium and it’s fitting that this particular game is at home.
“I’ve never been around a city or region like this that is so in sync – their teams and their fan base, and I mean that,” he said.
Allen said there’s one person that’ll be on the collective mind of the organization on Sunday.
“We want to go out there and play for three and he’ll be a huge driving force,” Allen said. “and the emotion and the love of the game that we play with and for each other. Hopefully, we can get him back soon.”