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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Opinion: The lesson from Damar Hamlin isn’t about violence in football; it’s stupid chance

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If you watched the horrifying scene that unfolded after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during the Monday Night Football game and assumed it must have been the result of a hit to the head, you weren’t alone. At the very least, I was right there with you — and maybe millions of others, too.

Then the replays came. Thankfully, ESPN didn’t roll the tape nonstop, but it was clear this was something different. Not a hit to the head, but a hit to … you know what? That looked like a play we’ve seen thousands of times on a football field.

All Hamlin did was make a routine tackle on Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. It was in the first quarter, if that matters. The score was 7-3, if you care.

Hamlin falling straight on his back after getting up was unnerving, but adding to the terror was the fact that, again, this all looked so routine. Just a tackle in a football game.

People who know a lot more than I do about health and trauma have been using fancy medical terms like “ventricular fibrillation” and “commotio cordis.” Look those up if you want, but here are the plain facts: Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field. Medical personnel performed CPR, and his heartbeat was restored on the field. He was taken to a hospital and sedated. He remains in critical condition, according to the Bills.

When someone collapses or even stumbles on a football field, especially after being involved in a collision, we’re all thinking about the brain. Say what you will about the game’s reluctance to prioritize player safety, but there’s a reason I pay attention to see if a player’s head bounces off of the turf: We talk about this stuff a lot now.

But as we grapple with what happened to Hamlin, let’s remember this doesn’t fit into that big box of “injuries unique to the violence of football.” This is something else. It’s about terrible, stupid, unforgiving, blind, indifferent chance. It’s about a universe that marched on just fine before I got here and won’t have a problem doing the same when I’m gone.

Whether Hamlin took a strong enough hit to the chest at just the right moment that it shut his heart down, or whether there was something else already brewing that only needed a nudge to rear its ugly head, I’ll say again that this was a play we’ve seen countless times on a football field.

And no, the lesson is not to live life in constant fear that tragedy is lurking.

It’s a reminder that life doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t have to. The whole of space and time doesn’t care if we sink into despair or sprout wings and fly. What happened to Hamlin showed us that truth in a shocking way because millions were watching, including close friends, teammates, coaches, family and the rest of us who, at best, might have known Hamlin as a second-year player out of Pitt.

It seems like sometimes life is kind enough to only give us a nudge — that not-too-serious thing that opens our eyes just enough — and then other times it sends us a five-alarm emergency. Not that a pitiless universe cares if we thank it or curse it. And yet here we are, contemplating it anyway.

Nobody should have to go into cardiac arrest — or worse — to make us appreciate the frailty of life. But as long as we’re thinking about things that matter and things that don’t, let’s not waste the chance.

By the way, a GoFundMe page for a toy drive Hamlin organized has more than $4 million (the goal was $2,500). You can find that here.

Contact senior staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or email tylerf@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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