SANTA CLARA — Like so many football fans across the country, Damar Hamlin spent his Sunday posting to social media, rooting on his NFL team as it played the final game of the regular season.
The Buffalo Bills player’s recovery from cardiac arrest lightened the mood around the NFL as play resumed this weekend. Still, the scare from his near-death experience on Monday kept Hamlin top-of-mind, even 2,000 miles away from his hospital bed in Ohio.
The theme of Sunday’s 49ers-Cardinals game was “Love For Damar.” Players and coaches from both teams wore t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase. We also saw the slogan on the Levi’s Stadium screens and on handmade signs in the stands. The Niners honored Hamlin before the game began, and the “3” in the 30-yard-line markings were outlined with red, an homage to the player’s jersey number.
As the 49ers and Cardinals players suited up to take the field for the first time since Hamlin’s horrifying collapse, there were dozens of reminders of one of the scariest moments in NFL history.
How do you play a game under those circumstances?
NFL players are masters of that.
In asking several of them about that ability after the Niners’ 38-13 win, I heard the same thing again and again:
“We play football.”
Translation: The players know the risks of the game. They play anyway.
“It was something that was on my mind. It was amazing to see the love and support for Damar, the shirts and the color on the field,” Fred Warner said. “When you see how horrific that moment it was, it puts things in perspective… It made me feel more blessed to play this game. I’m so grateful that prayers are being heard and [that] he’s recovering. ”
The brilliant athletic feats on an NFL field are easy to see. You can’t misinterpret Nick Bosa tossing an offensive lineman aside en route to sacking the quarterback, or George Kittle performing a ballet act to stay in bounds for a touchdown catch.
But what’s not seen on Sundays — and what is rarely celebrated — is the level of discipline required to reach the highest level of the sport, specifically, the mental fortitude to separate the game’s good from the bad and to charge into the fray, full-speed.
It’s easy for us in the press box, in the stands, and watching on TV to ignore the realities of this game we watch religiously every week.
It’s impossible to do that as a player.
For them, being between the lines of the field means straddling the line between life and death.
“You can’t go out there and play this game timid,” Warner said.
That makes pushing aside the brutal reality of the sport a requirement, too.
Hamlin’s cardiac arrest challenged that mindset. It was a sobering moment for the whole league.
But on Sunday, the Niners were able to push the risk aside and play for the reward — the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They received some help in the morning from the Bills, who returned the opening kick of their game 96 yards for a touchdown.
“I saw it, and it lifted me up and gave me momentum going out there,” Niners fullback Kyle Juszczyk said.
Still, the reality of the sport wasn’t forgotten.
“We play a dangerous sport — every time we step out there,” 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell said. “You’re always going to have it in the back of your head, but it’s the sport you play — you just got to go out there and not think about it.”
“That’s what football is,” safety Talanoa Hufanga said. “Any snap you’re out there, anything can happen.
“We go out there and play this sport with a passion, with a love for it. That’s what you need to go out there and play freely. You never know when your last snap is going to be… We’re risking our lives [for] when we go out there. But if you play with a positive mindset, hopefully, things can be in your favor.”
No one comes out of the NFL in better condition than they entered. Football isn’t a contact sport — it’s a combat sport. It’s not just a dangerous game — it’s a degenerative one.
Players being stretchered or carted off the field (all while the league’s television partners cut to commercial) is an uncountably frequent occurrence.
That’s why when Hamlin fell to the synthetic turf on Monday in Cincinnati, little was thought of the situation. It was just another injury.
And when it became apparent that the scenario was anything but ordinary, it was impossible not to think the absolute worst — that Monday was the day of reckoning that everyone knew, deep down, had been looming and inevitable for decades.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Hamlin spent the early part of this week in critical condition in the hospital, fighting for his life. Yet his cardiac arrest seems to be something of a freak occurrence. It could have been the result of a hit to an exact part of the heart at the exact wrong time, measured in milliseconds.
Yes, football is likely the reason Hamlin nearly died. Yet in a sport where nearly every play ends in a collision, Hamlin’s incident seems to be the first time in modern NFL history that someone’s heart stopped following a hit.
How do you make sense of that?
The truth is, you don’t.
You push it to the side and play the game.
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