INDIANAPOLIS – The situation Monday night at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium brought 65,500 fans and two teams to a sudden, emotional standstill.
It reverberated 120 miles to the north. Like most of the NFL-crazed country, members of the Indianapolis Colts were watching as the life of Buffalo Bills’ cornerback Damar Hamlin changed in an instant.
“That’s probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen happen,’’ wideout Michael Pittman Jr. said Wednesday. “I mean, absolutely gut-wrenching.
“When it happened, it didn’t feel real.’’
“I think it just shook everybody,’’ offered center Ryan Kelly, who’s spent much of the past two days speaking with players across the country as the Colts’ player rep with the NFLPA and vice-president of the union’s Executive Council. “It brings you back down to life.’’
Interim head coach Jeff Saturday was watching the Bengals-Bills game with wife Karen and daughter Savannah.
“They are in tears,’’ Saturday said, recalling the moment. “Listen, I’ve been around the game for a long time. I’ve never seen anything like that.
“That’s as scary as I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine being on the field.’’
Saturday also probably couldn’t imagine being Rodney Thomas II.
The Colts’ rookie safety was a teammate of Hamlin at Central Catholic H. S. in Pittsburgh, Pa. They talk every day, including Monday.
“That’s my brother,’’ Thomas said.
He was watching the game, but had strayed from it briefly. As it turns out, that’s when Hamlin was stricken.
“My dad called me and told me about what had happened,’’ Thomas said. “It was kind of like me and him on FaceTime the whole time, just sitting and waiting, just kind of seeing what was going on, like what the next steps were.’’
There was no question the next step for Thomas.
With his “brother’’ fighting for his life at the University of Cincinnati Health Center, Thomas began figuring out the logistics for making the hour-and-a-half drive down I-74.
The decision, he insisted, was made “real quick.’’
“There wasn’t even a question in my mind. I knew I was going over there,’’ he said. “It was just a matter of when I could get there.’’
Driving to Cincinnati was difficult. The only information Thomas had was from what he heard on television. His close friend was in critical condition, sedated and on a ventilator.
Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest after tackling Bengals’ wideout Tee Higgins. First responders gave him CPR on the field for several minutes before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance.
Meanwhile, Thomas was making plans to be by Hamlin’s side.
“I had a goal. I knew where I was going,’’ Thomas said. “I was on the road and just went.
“Just trying to be there. He’s a soldier. He went down and he needed troops behind him.’’
Once he arrived at the hospital, Thomas sought out Hamlin’s family. Then, he was allowed in Hamlin’s ICU room. He had to see him.
During his visit, Thomas reached out and touched Hamlin’s hand and talked with him.
“Just letting him know I was here . . . talking to him,’’ Thomas said. “I know he can hear me. Even if he can’t hear me, it don’t matter. I said what I had to say.
“He’s doing good. Just regular hospital procedure. They have him sedated so they can let the machines do the work and just build up his strength so he’s able to walk out of there.’’
The experience – spending a few minutes with Hamlin, sharing time with his family – made the drive home easier.
“It was definitely positive,’’ he said. “Just for me and my mind. I know how I am. Literally just being able to see him and just see his people, it calmed me way down.
“I could just go home and just know he’s going to be straight. I’ve got him. We’ve all got him. You see what’s going on. Everybody is behind him.
“When he walks out of there and he sees the support that he has, it’s going to be real.’’
The Buffalo Bills announced Wednesday afternoon Hamlin “remains in the ICU in critical condition with signs of improvement noted yesterday and overnight. He is expected to remain under intensive care as his health care team continues to monitor and treat him.’’
Games go on
Thomas won’t flush the memory of Hamlin being given CPR on the field or the sight of him in an ICU room when the Colts’ close the season Sunday against the Houston Texans.
“I never put it aside,’’ he said. “I’m putting it right where it’s gotta be, right in my mind. I’m playing for him, doing all this stuff for him.’’
That’s how several Colts reacted to a player nearly losing his life during a game. Every player understands and accepts the risks of participating in the violent world of the NFL. It’s not a contact sport. It’s a collision sport.
Hamlin’s situation was a tragic, extreme anomaly.
“From what I heard, you get hit at the right second at the right place,’’ said Kelly. “It was a freak accident.
“You sign up and you incur injuries. There is 100% injury rate in the NFL. Guys with ankles going different ways, legs going different ways, but seeing a guy who’s truly out of it and come back to life, that’s a different level of trauma.’’
“As a player and as a guy who has to go out and play on Sunday, I’m a little numb to it because this is our profession,’’ said linebacker Zaire Franklin. “It’s tough, man, but it’s the profession that we’re in.’’
He added Hamlin’s situation is “more life and death, but this is what we signed up for. This is how we feed our family. You just kind of put (injuries) in the back of your mind and understand what we’re playing for.’’
Saturday’s NFL playing career spanned 14 seasons, the first 13 with the Colts before a one-year stint with the Green Bay Packers. Hamlin’s situation, as extreme as it was, reinforced the risk every player accepts.
“It drives home the risk every time you walk on the field,’’ he said. “I told the guys this morning how grateful I was to them every day they come out and put their health on the line.
“I prayed with the team this morning. When I tell you this is a shaking-you-to-the-core event in your life, that is not an overstatement to what we just witnessed.’’
The longer Saturday watched things unfold Monday night, the more it became apparent it was a dire situation.
“I think for everybody at home watching, just the realization, ‘Oh my word. This young man might lose his life on this field,’’’ he said. “That’s not he broke his leg. That is a whole other level.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.