Damar Hamlin puts aside fear and practices in pads for the first time since cardiac arrest

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Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) walks to the field before practice at the NFL football team's training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Of the thousands of emotions — trepidation among them — running through Damar Hamlin’s head Monday while pulling on his pads for practice for the first time at training camp, the one that ultimately won out was joy.

For everything the Buffalo Bills safety has overcome in seven months since going into cardiac arrest during a game and needing to be resuscitated on the field, Hamlin leaned on his faith in God and himself, along with the support from his family and teammates, to take another step toward resuming his playing career.

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“This is just a another milestone on the journey — might be one of the biggest ones,” Hamlin said after practice.

“I made the choice to play. But I’m processing a thousand emotions. I’m not afraid to say that it crosses my mind of being a little scared here and there,” he added. “My faith is stronger than any fear. That’s what I want to preach up here. And that’s the message I want to spread on to the world that as long as your faith is stronger than your fear, you can get through anything.”

Though Hamlin was cleared to resume practicing in mid-April, he did so wearing a helmet and shorts with his teammates through their spring sessions and first four days of training camp, as mandated by NFL rules. The magnitude of the Bills’ first day in pads wasn’t lost on Hamlin, given it marked the first time he was in full uniform since collapsing on the field in Cincinnati on Jan. 2 after making what appeared to be a routine tackle of Bengals receiver Tee Higgins.

“It’s a superblessed space. To be able to do what I love again,” Hamlin said. “Just trying to keep everything as normal as possible.”

The normality of football struck him about an hour into practice when Hamlin took the field for the first time during a team red-zone running drill in which tackling was still not allowed.

On his second play, Hamlin showed no hesitation when bursting toward Damien Harris and wrapping him up with both arms.

Hamlin’s biggest contact came on the final play of practice, when he avoided a block to work his way into the backfield and help a teammate stop tight end Quintin Morris for what would have been a loss.

“That first little moment of contact, that was just letting me know. I felt alive, man. I felt like I’m here,” Hamlin said with a wide grin. “So it felt good. It was just that moment of: ‘All right, let’s settle in and let’s just take one play at a time. Let’s just keep going.’”

The 25-year-old from the Pittsburgh area is entering his third NFL season. Selected by Buffalo in the sixth round of the 2021 draft out of Pitt, he opened last season as a backup before starting 13 games after Micah Hyde sustained a season-ending neck injury.

This year, Hamlin is competing with offseason free agent addition Taylor Rapp for a backup role behind Hyde and Jordan Poyer. As for Hamlin’s next hurdle, it’ll come Aug. 12, when the Bills open their preseason schedule at home against Indianapolis.

Rapp, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, might be new to Buffalo but is impressed with how Hamlin has handled himself.

“How far he’s come and what he’s able to come back from late last season and just seeing how he goes about himself and attacks the rehab at the facility is nothing short of inspiring,” Rapp said.

A day earlier, coach Sean McDermott said he was walking a fine line by treating Hamlin much like any other player while keeping in mind what he’s gone through.

“I think awareness is important, right? You’ve got X amount of guys out here and then you have Damar in there as well and trying to make it as a normal as possible,” McDermott said. “We’re going to support him through this, and to this point he’s done a phenomenal job.”

Before practice, Hamlin played catch with his younger brother, Damir. During the stretching period, the team’s head trainer, Nate Breske, went over to shake Hamlin’s hand. Following his news conference, Hamlin wandered over to a large group of fans to sign autographs.

Hamlin’s influence is evident on the training camp grounds, where fans can receive CPR training at an American Heart Association tent. With his Chasing M’s Foundation, Hamlin made stops in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to promote CPR training and hand out free automated external defibrillators to sports organizations.

And he received a stunning reminder of what had happened to him just before training camp began when NBA star LeBron James’ son, Bronny, went into cardiac arrest during a basketball workout at Southern California last week. He has since been released from the hospital.

“It put everything back in perspective for me,” said Hamlin, who reached out to the James family after they supported him during his recovery. “I wanted to let him know I’ll be there for whatever he needs in his journey as far as his recovery and getting back to his sport, if that’s what he chooses to do.”

Hamlin made his choice and is sticking with football for as long and far as it takes him.

“Some of these emotions will never leave. Whenever everybody’s not paying attention to me no more, I’ll still be processing these emotions myself,” he said.

“I kind of look at it like a challenge,” Hamlin added. “Not too many people get this level of overcoming something and being able to stand for so many good things. ... It’s a blessed space, and it’s a bunch of opportunity in there as well, if you choose to look at it that way.”


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