On the Matt: The night sports stood still

Published 3:00 pm Friday, January 6, 2023

The first edition of Sports Illustrated after Sept. 11 showed an American Flag draped over a seat with the headline, “The Week That Sports Stood Still.”

It was symbolic that, for the time being, the entertainment that we know and love through sports took a back seat to an unprecedented and unforeseen real-life event.

A similar feeling arose Monday night for fans of all sports, particularly football.

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For those who aren’t aware, several minutes into the game between the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo defensive back Damar Hamlin made what looked like a seemingly innocent tackle on Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins.

After getting up for a moment, horror struck, as Hamlin got back up and fell backward, nearly into another Cincinnati player, without attempting to catch his fall.

For several minutes, he lay there unconscious, receiving CPR followed by an AED, or automatic external defibrillator, to restart his heart after what was later confirmed to be cardiac arrest.

Thankfully, Hamlin regained a pulse.

And as of later this week is now conscious but still in the hospital.

A few notes.

I am a lifelong sports enthusiast and have been involved in football as a fan, player, writer, and even coach over the last twenty years.

I had never seen anything like what I witnessed Monday night.

It’s worth noting that instances such as Detroit Lions quarterback Chuck Hughes dying on the field in 1971 from a heart attack and former Major League Baseball umpire John McSherry dying on the field from a heart attack have taken place. However, those are out of many people’s memories.

Like most individuals, my immediate reaction was concern and shock over what happened.

Rightfully, the game was suspended with no make-up date – if any – yet announced.

With that trivial note mentioned, the game itself is, or at least should be, the furthest thing from anyone’s primary concern.

In a time when everything seems so divisive, sports is – to many – supposed to offer an escape from life’s day-to-day challenges.

And, when it comes to matchups against two teams that could see each other in the playoffs, one might expect that there would be some tension.

However, as we know, football is a game at day’s end.

It’s the size of an ant compared to the size of the value of one’s life.

Amid all the horror and uncertainty, uniform support has been encouraging to see.

Hamlin runs a charity in which he takes part in toy drives. In less than 24 hours, over $4 million was raised to support him and his charitable efforts.

Paycor Stadium, the home stadium for the Cincinnati Bengals, lit itself in blue and white – the team colors for the Buffalo Bills.

Niagara Falls announced that it would be lit blue for some time on Tuesday night.

Athletes from other teams and other sports – including the NBA’s Lebron James and Donovan Mitchell – have offered support and condolences.

Even the Twitter handle of C.S. Lewis Daily, featuring various quotes from the late author and theologian, offered prayers.

Though I have sometimes disagreed with his management, I can’t help but think of what Bengals owner Mike Brown said in a released statement.

“Last night was supposed to be a great night for the NFL and a great showcase for our hometown. Instead, the human side of our sport became paramount … and in that moment, humanity and love rose to the forefront.”

Of course, as always seems to be the case, not everyone was on board.

Some responded insensitively or decided to make the occasion about something political, cultural, or otherwise unrelated to the matter at hand.

Thankfully though, those people represent a vast – if loud – minority.

Presently, it’s too soon to tell what, if anything, this will lead to.

Player safety has been much more of a focus during the last ten to fifteen years than it was prior. This fact is especially prevalent when considering concussions and the risk of head or neck trauma.

Many columns have been written – including one by yours truly – about the game getting too far away from what makes it essential in the name of well-intentioned efforts to protect players.

Does that change? It’s hard to tell, and not worth delving into until we know the true condition of Hamlin’s recovery.

For the time being, whether we’re sports fans or not, let’s be united in providing support, hopes, and – if you’re a believer – prayers for Hamlin, his family, and those who care most about him.