Hamlin’s recovery brings Americans together

Unprecedented injury on the field leads to unexpected unity across the nation

Early in January, Damar Hamlin, Buffalo Bills safety, suffered a cardiac arrest on the field during a nationally televised game after a hard hit to the chest. Hamlin was rushed promptly to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in critical condition after receiving CPR on the field. I found out when a notification popped up on my phone, and frankly, I was stunned. Of course, I had in the past seen devastating injuries on the field and read about the dangers of football, but never had it seemed so immediate nor grave.

In the United States, we are constantly inundated with grave news — tragedies like climate disasters in California and Tennessee, mass shootings (38 and counting in the U.S. since the beginning of the year) and COVID deaths just to name a few. Buffalo, New York alone is still reeling from the deaths of over 40 people as a result of a crushing blizzard last December and the aftermath of a racially-motivated mass shooting in a grocery store last May. At first, it felt, to me at least, as though Hamlin’s critical condition was just another burdensome piece of bad news to carry in my heart.

Nevertheless, I watched as Hamlin made stunning progress in his recovery; he regained consciousness on his third day of being in the hospital. The next day, his breathing tube was removed and, later that night, he took his first steps since the day his heart stopped twice. He was soon released and returned to Buffalo where he continued his rehabilitation. Every update made me sigh with relief, as it gave hope to a situation that seemed precarious at best.

It turns out, I was only one of the millions of people across the U.S. who were invested in Hamlin’s healing. Perhaps the most touching aspect of the tragedy was the magnitude of the outpouring of prayers, thoughts and donations from Hamlin’s well-wishers. Social media platforms were flooded with images of Hamlin, his jersey number three and his hands in the shape of a heart.

All 32 NFL teams changed their profile pictures to depict the words “Pray for Damar 3.” Pictures of both the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals honoring Hamlin together outside of the hospital went viral. It seemed as though everyone in America was hoping for good news for Damar Hamlin, a moment of rare unity in a country that is ever-divided by clashing political, social and religious beliefs.

To be fair, the ordeal has not been void of controversies that deserve their share of consideration as well. The NFL didn’t cancel the fateful game until an hour after Hamlin had collapsed on the field. The nature of Hamlin’s injury is causing many Americans to question the oft-ignored violent nature of the high-contact sport. I have begun to question this myself as a lifelong NFL and college football fan.

But watching Damar Hamlin in his first public appearance since the accident on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals was inexplicably reassuring. He sat in the stands as the camera panned to him briefly, resulting in roars from the crowd.

As New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman aptly put it, “Damar Hamlin’s recovery allowed us to breathe.” Even though the Bills lost their AFC championship bid, Hamlin’s recuperation and return was the story that Buffalo and, moreover, the United States needed to be reminded of our unity.