It was January 2023, a late-season Monday Night Football matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. Midway through the first quarter, Hamlin, one of the Bills’ safeties, tackled the Bengals receiver Tee Higgins near midfield and fell to the turf. He got up, briefly, and collapsed again. Football is a violent game, and Joe Buck, the MNF play-by-play announcer, figured that this was the sort of collision that, while scary, is more or less inseparable from the sport. “You see a player get up and then immediately go back down, I’m used to going, at least mentally, Well, this is a head injury,” Buck told me. “The last thing you think about is cardiac arrest. That’s never crossed my mind in any sport I’ve covered.”
Before long, Hamlin was surrounded where he lay, motionless. “I couldn’t see Damar, but I could see the people working on Damar feverishly giving compressions on his chest,” Buck said. “And it went from, Oh, this is just one of those bad situations with a head injury, to, Oh, my God, what are we looking at?”
On the field, Hamlin’s friend and teammate Dane Jackson was among the first to grasp the severity of what had occurred. “We locked eyes as soon as he popped up from the ground, and I was able to tell by the look in his eyes that something wasn’t right,” he said.
Members of the Bills’ training staff gave Hamlin treatment, including CPR, for nearly 20 minutes. It felt longer. “Whatever was going on down there was making players react in a way that I had never seen,” Buck said. Players wandered the field aimlessly, broke into tears, gathered and knelt in prayer. The broadcast, meanwhile, continued, with Buck and his partner Troy Aikman attempting to make sense of what they had witnessed. “We’re coming back from commercial, and we have no more information than anybody sitting at home on their couch,” Buck said. “We’re all just watching it together.” Instantly, there were questions, many of them unanswerable. Would the players refuse to finish the game? Would the league make them? Was…Hamlin…? What on earth had happened? “It went from a sporting event to a news event,” Buck said. The game was suspended, Monday Night Football giving way to a shell-shocked edition of SportsCenter. Well-wishers, watching at home and unable to do much else, found an outdated GoFundMe page that Hamlin had set up for a toy drive in 2020 and poured over $5 million into it during the first 24 hours after his injury. (That number would eventually cross $9 million.)