ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Damar Hamlin stood on the field at Highmark Stadium, barefoot, and just looked ahead.
For the first time since suffering cardiac arrest on Jan. 2, Hamlin was preparing to play in a regular-season football game.
Around an hour and a half later, the Buffalo Bills were announced out of the tunnel, with Hamlin the last player out. He ran all the way to the other end of the field, sticking out his arms as he got closer to the goal line. Jumping into the end zone, Hamlin took off his helmet and dropped it as he shouted with the Bills fans who filled the stands. He then took a knee before going to the sideline.
“That moment was everything to me,” Hamlin said of running out of the tunnel. “I think it was more so about promising to myself than anything else — just showing myself that I have the courage, I got the strength, that I got the pride, everything … in me to be able to go through something so traumatic and to be able to come back from it. To be able to still do what I love at the highest level in the world is amazing.”
Hamlin was a healthy scratch for the Bills’ first three games due to the number of defensive backs on the roster. But with safety Jordan Poyer sidelined due to a knee injury suffered last week, a game-day roster spot opened up for Hamlin to play in the team’s 48-20 win over the Miami Dolphins.
If Poyer’s injury keeps him out for more games, Hamlin will have increased opportunities to be active for the Bills.
While fifth-year safety and free agent addition Taylor Rapp filled in for Poyer on defense, Hamlin played a large role on special teams, appearing on most kickoffs and punts — 18 snaps (64.3%), including the opening kickoff.
He did not play a defensive snap, as expected, with Rapp and starting safety Micah Hyde — who noted after the game he was “extremely proud of” Hamlin — playing 100% of the snaps on defense.
“Oh, felt like he never left, felt like he never left, man,” Bills defensive back and special teams player Siran Neal said. “When [Hamlin] got called up this week, he was excited, and then I was excited too. And it’s a huge blessing to see him back on the field doing what he loves to do — and all week he’s been smiling, all teeth.
“He helped me out from the inside, playing inside on punt return, playing on kickoff return, kickoff and that — just him running out, running down on that field — is a huge blessing.”
Hamlin has been full participant in practice since late in OTAs, after being announced as physically cleared to return to football in the spring. He played in all three preseason games.
Returning to football was a choice that Hamlin made, which he reiterated after Sunday’s contest. He said he knew his opportunity to play in a regular-season game again would come: “Just all about staying ready and being ready to do my part. That’s been my goal ever since I became a Bill.”
The moment was significant for far more than just Hamlin.
“What an afternoon overall. You just set the win aside for a second … nine months ago, this young man is in the situation he was in, and now he’s back,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “The spring, training camp, preseason, and now a regular-season game at an NFL level. You know, just a surreal moment … to watch.
“The cameras, you guys, the cameras were all flocking around him. I made sure I stayed over here, but he deserves the attention he gets. I love the fact that he makes it about the team in so many ways.”