Damar Hamlin: A Tragedy with Hope
Football field

Sports injury context past and present.

There is no need to detail the specifics of Damar Hamlin’s tragic injury. If you were one of the few not watching it live, certainly you’ve heard the story about a young man – age 24 – who nearly lost his life (and is still fighting for it, laying in critical condition in a hospital) playing a football game.

So much to unravel, but as everyone agrees, our thoughts and prayers are with Damar and his family.

This was a crucial game for playoff seeding between two top teams, that ended with a football-crazed country collectively saying, “Who cares?” and a 24 year old athlete fighting for his life. This was not a common game, to have grown men in tears and on their knees, No, this was different and we all knew it.

Maybe we should start, before all of the opinions and controversies, with lauding the training staffs of both teams, as well as the doctors on site, and their quick responses to the sudden tragedy?

Truthfully, if this had been a car accident with this injury, there is little doubt this person would have died. He got the best of care instantly, as it should be, so let’s the focus a bit on the real heroes: 

  • The trainers from both teams
  • The doctors on site and at University of Cincinnati Hospital
  • The ambulance personnel (on site because, thankfully it is a requirement)

All these people helped save his life.

In other words, we know that injuries are likely  to happen in games like this, but nobody knew this was going to happen. But thank God, they prepared for it! 

Our hats off and kudos to those first responders!

OTHER FALLOUT

  • We have a collision in a violent sport and at least one former pro (Bart Scott) blaming the wide receiver, Tee Higgins, for his part in the collision. Scott has come under fire for his opinion.
  • We have many criticizing the NFL for taking so long to call the game, but more critical that before Hamlin was carted off the field, according to ESPN, the NFL told the teams they would have “five minutes to warm up” again. What!? The NFL denies this while ESPN stands by this story
  • We have the mega media sports outlet, ESPN, who is often and appropriately criticized, but who, in my opinion and across the board, were off the charts amazing! And special kudos to Dan Orlovsky, who days later literally prayed on the air for Damar, instead of stating the obligatory “our thoughts and prayers” are with him.
  • We have seen the best of humanity as Hamlin’s GoFundMe page, designed to help children in need, went from $2,500 to almost $8 million!

But let’s start with this: 

Yes… it is a game, but this is also about one of the biggest businesses on the planet, one that makes about $13 billion a year.  Damar nearly died on the field (my wife contends he did die and was brought back to life as he had to be resuscitated with CPR and a defibrillator, so I guess technically he did?) Truth be told, athletes die playing football, basketball, (see below) soccer, race car driving (remember Dale Earnhardt? etc.).

The injury aside, we all know that football is a violent game, played by amazing athletes, who get bigger, stronger and faster every year, while the field remains the same size (I am a believer that NBA basketball courts should be enlarged and the rims raised due to the size of today’s players). These amazing athletes going full speed at each other, can create violent collisions, every single play.

Believe me, as somebody who has been around the game for most of my life, you really cannot appreciate just how physical and fast this game is until you see it live and in-person (and from a sideline).

Also, some people don’t realize that there is no protection for some areas of your body, like the chest, which is exposed. Many years ago, I played football, not nearly at this level, so don’t get me wrong! I am not comparing myself to an NFL player of today or of any age for that matter. What I’m trying to say is that in my tenure as a player, I had concussions, a knee injury, and a broken leg in only a brief career, so we know it’s a physical game and we know that it sometimes leads to devastating injuries, which are the pitfalls of a collision contact sport.

Years later, my son wanted to play and I encouraged him to do so because I know what the game teaches you. My son had a fine career in high school, winning three state championship rings, but he also suffered a Lisfranc injury which ended up costing him the remainder of his football career, and probably something that he will occasionally feel and live with for the rest of his life. Yet, I don’t believe he would go back and give up those days playing and practicing with his teammates. Several years ago I wrote a blog post responding to Brandon Steiner, who wondered if football should be banned after the tragic death of a high school player in New Jersey.

IT HAS HAPPENED BEFORE

Chuck Hughes is the only NFL player to die on the field. A wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, Hughes suffered a blood clot in one of his arteries during a game against the Chicago Bears. On Oct. 24, 1971, Chuck Hughes was 28 years old, playing wide receiver for the Detroit Lions in a game against the Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium. The Lions trailed, 28-23. As Hughes headed back to the huddle, he collapsed. A blood clot had formed in one of his arteries. He was pronounced dead later that day.

That scene, 51 years ago, was not so different from the horrifying one that played out Monday night in Cincinnati, when Buffalo Bills defensive back Hamlin, who remains in critical condition at an area hospital, went into cardiac arrest midway through the first quarter of a game against the Bengals.

There is actually no video of this player collapsing on the field, but there is a radio call and this is one of the big distinctions of what happened the other night. Monday Night Football, on January 2, 2023, was a primetime game. There were really no other events going on because it was technically a New Year’s Day (College Bowl games) event, so essentially every sports fan was watching. 

This would cap a terrific sports day starting with the Cotton Bowl, NHL’s Winter Classic (an outdoor game between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins at Fenway Park) and the Rose Bowl. However, the cherry on top, Bills vs. Bengals, proved to be sour and ill-fated, causing many at the very least a restless night’s sleep.

HANK GATHERS A SURE TOP NBA DRAFT PICK

Another sad event happened in college basketball on Sunday, March 4, 1990.

Loyola Marymount Hank Gathers was one of the top players in college basketball. But he had a known heart problem. As a junior, Gathers led the nation in both scoring (32.7 points per game) and rebounds (13.7 rebounds per game).

In the conference tournament semifinals to be held the following day, Gathers was on the receiving end of the pass, and he elevated effortlessly to slam home one of his most thunderous dunks. Trotting back to take his position in the pressing defense, as he reached midcourt, Gathers turned to face Portland’s inbound pass. He took two lateral steps to his right. Then he collapsed. Gathers had been unable to make any effort to break his fall, and the impact of a 220-pound man hitting the floor was loud. A spectator later said that even if you had not been watching Gathers at that particular moment, everyone heard him fall. Play stopped instantly, and players from both teams, including his best friend , Bo Kimble, instinctively went toward Gathers. 

He struggled to get up from the floor and was on his hands and knees, attempting to stand. By this time, he was surrounded by medical personnel who were telling him to stay down. Gathers went back down to the floor, on his back, and appeared to lose consciousness. The game clock was stopped with 13:34 remaining in the first half. It was 5:14 p.m. One of Portland’s players that day was future NBA coach Erik Spoelstra. Decades later, he was still shaken. “The absolute silence in the gym after he fell,” he would say, “it’s something I’ll never forget.”

After a few minutes, Gathers was lifted onto a stretcher and taken out of the arena as the team physician began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The crowd filed out silently. Gathers was pronounced dead at 6:55 p.m.

HOME-PLATE UMPIRE DIES ON OPENING DAY

Veteran umpire John McSherry yelled out “Play ball” on his 25th opening day. Baseball was his life. 

With a 1-1 count on the Montreal Expos third batter, McSherry called time out. The game was seven pitches old. McSherry,57 by then, backed away from the plate, waved to the other umpires, took a few labored steps, and collapsed at 2:11 p.m. EST. He fell before reaching the tunnel leading to the umpires’ dressing room.

Trainers from both teams sprinted to his aid. Doctors bolted from the stands to help. All tried to revive McSherry but could not get a response.

Less than an hour later, he was pronounced dead at University Hospital.  The hospital said McSherry had sudden cardiac death, in which the heart beats out of control. After the head umpire collapsed, the rest of McSherry’s crew decided to resume the game. But neither the Reds nor the Expos wanted to play, and it was postponed.

The mood in both clubhouses was somber. Red-eyed players stopped by the umpires’ dressing room to try to console them after the game was called off. “It’s a family thing,” Expos manager Felipe Alou said. “For most everybody[(in baseball], the family is the baseball people – the umpires, the media, the coaches, teammates. That is the family. That is baseball. When somebody goes through something like what McSherry is going through, we’re family.”

Reds starting pitcher Pete Schourek put it starkly and simply: “I watched a man die today.”

After McSherry’s collapse and before the players left the field, Cincinnati manager Ray Knight comforted a distraught Tom Hallion, the third-base umpire, for several minutes. McSherry was believed to be the first major-league umpire to be fatally stricken during a game. Ray Chapman is the only player to die after an on-field accident.  He was beaned by Carl Mays in 1920.

BRINGING IT BACK TO THE PRESENT

OK, now that I have helped either educate or depress you, let’s try to recover from this tailspin drama. Let us focus on some good news. Please see the above, regarding some of the comments about Damar’s fundraiser, and some of the things that we saw from the television folks, and the great job by people who are trained to help. 

Here’s more good news: Since the beginning of writing this article, Damar has improved dramatically and is alert! I don’t know if he will make a full recovery and I certainly doubt he will play football again, but at the end of the day this terrible incident seems to have galvanized, not only sports fans, but people from all walks of life. Hopefully, we can ALL work together and build bigger and better things in this new year.

Let us hope 2023 gets better each and every day like Damar Hamlin!

God Bless & Happy New Year!!

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