Packers players talk about the risks and impact of Damar Hamlin's medical situation
GREEN BAY – Rasul Douglas was at a local seafood restaurant ordering dinner when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in Cincinnati.
The Monday night game between the Bills and Bengals was muted on a TV above. When Hamlin first fell to the field, Douglas’ instinct was that the tackle against Bengals receiver Tee Higgins was another concussion. Nothing out of the ordinary in today’s NFL.
Then, after Hamlin didn’t get up, Douglas saw how his Bills teammates reacted.
“I’m like, ‘Did he die?’” Douglas said two days later, standing at his locker inside Lambeau Field. “That was just my first instinct because I saw all the tears. Did he die on the field just now? What the (expletive) is going on?”
Hamlin was resuscitated on the field at Paycor Stadium and taken to a local hospital after experiencing cardiac arrest. He remained in critical condition Wednesday afternoon, the result of a medical emergency no player or coach even considered possible before.
There may be no better way to describe the severity of what unfolded Monday night. In the NFL, every player knows the injury risk involved. Packers receiver Randall Cobb punctured a lung during a 2015 playoff game at Arizona. He’s been taken straight from the field to hospital by ambulance.
What he saw when Hamlin collapsed was something he never considered possible.
“I’ve had many injuries over my career,” Cobb said, “but to see someone – see a player, one of my brothers, one of my fraternity brothers here in the NFL – go through something like that, that’s very difficult to watch. I can’t even express the emotions. It’s been a rollercoaster. I’ve had tears. I’ve been mad. I’ve been angry. I’ve been asking why, how? It’s real. We’re real people. I know that we put a helmet on, and we take the field, and we’re like present-day gladiators, but we go home to a family. I’ve got two kids at home that are expecting me to walk back through that door. I’ve got a wife. I’ve got a dad that’s here. My mom is coming up this weekend. I have family, and I have people that care about me.
“All of us, all of us players, all my teammates, all my NFL brothers, we all have this feeling. We all understand what we do to put our bodies on the line to go out and play this game, but it is a game at the end of the day. You don’t expect that you’re going to see or have someone go through what he’s going through right now.”
Cobb said he’s struggled sleeping the past two nights as he grapples with the newly introduced dangers to pro football. But the game doesn’t stop. The Packers reported to work Wednesday morning preparing for Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions, a game that will either end their season or seal a trip to the playoffs depending on the outcome. Before they focused on football, coach Matt LaFleur said he held a team meeting to discuss what happened to Hamlin.
LaFleur wasn’t watching the game Monday night, but like anyone who follows the league, from fans to coaches and players, what happened in the first quarter was unavoidable. Once someone in the Packers coaching offices mentioned Hamlin had collapsed, LaFleur turned on the game. He caught the replay and said he’d “never witnessed anything quite like that” in football.
“What we all witnessed Monday night,” LaFleur said, “it was a sad deal. It was very traumatic, and kind of puts what we do into perspective and how that supersedes anything in life, is just these players’ health and safety, and everybody’s health and safety. That was tough to watch. Obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with Damar Hamlin and his family, and the Buffalo Bills.”
LaFleur said it was a “very, very quiet” room when the Packers met, everyone still processing Hamlin’s condition. He knew the situation weighed “quite a bit” on their minds since Monday night. LaFleur texted Bills coach Sean McDermott and spoke with Bengals coach Zac Taylor, a former colleague with the Los Angeles Rams, after the game was postponed. He also had a lot of questions for Packers trainer Bryan Engel on how Hamlin’s tackle could have such devastating consequences.
In their meeting Wednesday, LaFleur invited Engel to address players on what procedures would take place if a similar situation happened at Lambeau Field. Then the coach shared his priorities with players, putting things in perspective.
“I just tried to speak from my heart,” LaFleur said, “in terms of just how serious, and how tough it was to watch. You knew something was not right with the amount of time that it took to get him into an ambulance, and how often do you ever see an ambulance on the field? It definitely supersedes the importance of any kind of game. You’re talking about life.”
LaFleur lauded the NFL for postponing Monday’s game after Hamlin left the field. He said some of his assistant coaches inquired if the NFL would postpone Sunday’s game before the league announced Tuesday it would play its Week 18 slate as scheduled. LaFleur said whatever the NFL chose on whether to play this week, he would follow its decision.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was less pleased with how long it took the NFL to postpone the game. The league has denied an original report that Bills and Bengals players had five minutes to warm up before play would resume Monday night, but he appeared to be dubious of the NFL’s sincerity.
“Whoever said five minutes,” Rodgers said, “should have their job evaluated, I think. I think from negotiations that happened a few years ago, it’s pretty evident that the league talks about player safety, but they added an extra game that was all about money. It had nothing to do with player safety. Now there were a few things added in for former players, but this was a black eye for the league, and got to do better next time.”
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With an important game looming – important, at least, in a football sense – Wednesday was a strange dichotomy inside Lambeau Field. More than ever, everyone appeared to put the game in its proper perspective. Yet players know they will be expected to perform Sunday regardless.
Safety Adrian Amos said there’s no room for hesitancy on an NFL field. The moment a player slows down, even just a little, the chance for injury increases. Douglas said he’ll lean on his ability to compartmentalize the risk he takes stepping onto the field, the same way he’s done his entire career.
“I know when you think about going out there and getting hurt,” Douglas said, “you most likely get hurt. You’ve got to play the game fast. There’s only one way to play the game. You’ve got to play it like that. You’ve got to just be smart, how you’ve always been.
“Things like that happen, and that type of stuff, I think that’s above all of us. That’s just God. So I don’t think it’s any different.”