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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It ended with the Buffalo Bills in victory formation and all the players on offense holding up three fingers in honor of their fallen teammate Damar Hamlin.
Hamlin was watching from that room of a Cincinnati hospital where’s he’s spent the past week fighting for his life.
Pretty soon Hamlin was, through FaceTime technology, in the Bills victorious locker room. He was talking to his teammates who had won their first game since his cardiac arrest last Monday night. He was part of the celebration of a team that just completed a 13-3 regular season with a victory over the New England Patriots.
And he was there feeling like he’s every bit a part of a team that is moving on to host the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs next weekend. Because Hamlin and the Bills training staff that saved his life got the game ball.
“Bills on 3,” Hamlin told the entire team. “1, 2, 3, Bills!”
Bills Overcome ‘sh*tshow’ Week
“There’s a good feeling in there, no doubt,” quarterback Josh Allen said about the Bills closed locker room.
That good feeling is not how this week began. We know that because Hamlin wasn’t breathing on that field in Cincinnati a week ago. And everything that happened for the next few days was pretty much terrible.
“This week has been, excuse my language, a s**tshow, man,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “For something like that to happen and for it to happen like that? The chances of something like that to happen on a football field, you never see it. And then for it to be one of our brothers and then for it to be in our DB room?”
White paused a minute to compose himself.
The Bills defensive backs, you see, are a strongly bonded group. They hang out together beyond the field. They hang out and don’t even discuss football so they like each other as people as well as teammates.
“So anytime you have a bond with guys like that and see something transpire, for me, I know to see it, to see it all transpire … from the hit, to him getting up to then falling is just something I can’t unsee,” White said. “Every time I close my eyes it replays.”
Bills Unleash Emotions Amid Hamlin Saga
White grew up on one of the poorest parts of Shreveport, LA., and he saw unpleasant things as he grew in some rough neighborhoods. But all that was after the fact. After something had happened.
The Hamlin moment happened right in front of him.
“I try watching TV and every time the TV goes to commercial that’s the only thing that comes to my mind,” White said. “The vision of that. So it’s been a tough week. A tough week for the whole team.”
The Bills got good news about Hamlin on Thursday when doctors announced he is neurologically intact and progressing. Now he is breathing on his own and obviously tweeting and texting.
But while that was a relief for this team, the emotion of the week was still raw and unpredictable until the opening kickoff.
During the national anthem there were Bills players crying.
“Some guys had tears rolling down,” Allen said. “The feeling of uncertainty of going back out there but Nyheim put that to rest.”
Nyheim Hines took the opening kickoff out of the air and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown. It was a lightning bolt as if from heaven.
That definitely is how it was received along the Buffalo sideline.
“To tell you the truth it was spiritual, it really was,” Allen said. “Bone chilling. It was special.
“I can’t remember a play that touched me like that in my life. It’s probably No. 1 … I was just going around to my team saying, ‘God’s real.’ You can’t draw that one up, write that one up any better.”
Bills Kick Returns 3 Years, 3 Months Apart
This is the part where cynics may roll eyes and say God doesn’t exist. Or God is too busy to concern himself with an NFL kickoff return.
What if I told you that Hamlin wears No. 3. And that kickoff return came three years and three months since the last Buffalo kickoff return?
What if I told you that the night before the game as coach Sean McDermott was collecting his thoughts on the start of the game, he said he decided to defer the kickoff to the Patriots if the Bills won the coin toss?
And the Bills then lost the coin toss and New England coach Bill Belichick elected to kick?
“When you get to situations like this, I really believe that God was showing us the way,” McDermott said. “That’s probably not the answer you’re looking for but that’s how I honestly feel about it. You got to trust your gut and then ask God to move this team and lead this team in the right direction.”
Don’t buy it? The Bills do.
Hines returned another kickoff for a 101-yard touchdown even though two TD returns in one game has never happened since the NFL moved its kickoffs to the 35 yard?
The Bills offense scored on 3 TD passes.
The Bills defense, meanwhile, recorded three interceptions even though Patriots quarterback Mac Jones hadn’t thrown an interception in nearly two months.
I asked Allen if he thinks God was speaking to the Bills.
“I think He was talking to the world,” the quarterback said. “The whole way the nation came together in support of Damar, we’ve had a lot of talks that maybe we wouldn’t have had without something like this happening. So I think it’s been pretty eye-opening for a lot of people.”
This whole saga has been captivating. And eye-opening. And heart-wrenching at times.
Damar Hamlin Blames Himself?
One of those times came at 2:31 a.m. on Saturday. That’s when Damar Hamlin, obviously still awake as he lay in that hospital bed, texted the entire group of defensive backs.
“What he said was, ‘I’m thinking about y’all. I’m sorry that I did that to y’all.’ “White said. “And for him to check on us when he’s the person going through what he’s going through, man, it shows the type of person he is.”
He is a person at that heart of this game. This team. And their coming playoff run.
But on that note Hamlin was wrong.
“Damar in no way, shape or form should feel bad or apologize for him putting his teammates through this,” McDermott said. “I think we would all agree that God’s hand is in this and has been in it from the first moment.”
How? Why, coach?
“When you watch at times how divided we can be as a country and a world,” McDermott continued, “I think the thing we all recognize this week is when people can put love first and people first, and come together, how powerful this country and this world can be for the good.
“Maybe it took a sporting event for that to happen but I think that’s a great example to all of us and we should continue with that moving forward.”
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero