I was in a sports bar with friends and family, eating chicken wings and having a beer to celebrate the New Year. "Monday Night Football" was on all the TVs, soundless. I looked up at the broadcast and saw the look on Josh Allen's face and I knew immediately that something was very wrong. My hunger became a knot in my stomach.
Since Monday night, I've reflected on many things I've witnessed in a 25-year career in or around the game of football. My thoughts keep doing battle between "The game isn't that important" and "The game is so meaningful."
I've seen an outpouring of positive thoughts for Damar Hamlin from those who know him, and those who are just getting to know him beyond his No. 3 jersey. He strikes me as a tremendous teammate, someone who feels blessed to be where he is, filled with gratitude that his hard work and sacrifice have allowed him to play in the NFL. By all accounts, he takes every opportunity to pay that forward in the communities where he was raised and now lives.
Hamlin's scary night is a stark reminder that world-class athletes are human beings with vulnerabilities both physical and mental, and emotions that go beyond a primal scream while coming out of the tunnel. It's important to keep at the forefront of how we cover and consume America's game.
I think of 2004 and hearing the news of Pat Tillman's death while serving in Afghanistan. His story touched the hearts and minds of nearly every football fan, and frankly, transcended sport.
I think of 2007, when I oversaw content for the Washington football team. Defensive star Sean Taylor was murdered during a home robbery late in the season. I watched his teammates, and an entire community, mourn. The sorrow felt by all, but especially Santana Moss and Clinton Portis (who also played with Taylor at the University of Miami), was gut-wrenching.
I think of this season and J.J. Watt. Watt had a terrifying heart issue that fortunately was treatable. Watt returned to the field only days later, and just last week, announced his retirement upon season's end.
The common thread amongst these memories, and today with Hamlin, is that games are meaningless. It's the GAME that is rich with meaning. The people make it so.
Tillman's story is one of self-sacrifice, giving up something of personal gain for a greater good. One of the lessons woven into the fabric of football beginning in Pee-Wee.
Taylor's teammates felt their greatest comfort on the field amongst their brothers. There was nowhere they could pay him greater tribute than by playing football with 100 percent effort and teamwork.
Watt, while acknowledging his shifting priorities were a huge factor in his retirement, has played the last games of his storied career as if he's an undrafted rookie trying to make it in this league. It seems as if the game has never meant more to him, grateful for every down he plays.
There are many things you can point to in football that bring us together. But there is something unseen -- from coast-to-coast and across rivalries – that galvanizes people around the game, even when a game is no longer important.
I think of the Cincinnati Bengals fans who migrated to the hospital where Damar was receiving care, if only to feel like they were doing something rather than feeling helpless.
I think of the first responders who cope with seeing this kind of trauma weekly and are expected to carry on and be prepared for their next call.
And I will think of Damar every time I need a reminder that the human is infinitely more important than the player.
The news of continued improvement coming out University of Cincinnati Medical Center later in the week was a lift to the spirits of the entire football world. On behalf of the Cardinals and our fans, we send love and positive thoughts to the Buffalo community and most importantly, Damar and his family.