After spending a lifetime in the game — 45 years in pro football — you become, if not immured to injury, at least accepting of it as an occupational hazard.
Having been on practice and game fields for more than a half-century and having suffered injuries myself at the lowest level of college football, I know players are used to dealing with injuries to themselves and others. You are always sincerely concerned for their well-being, but the game goes on. At the professional level, “next man up” is the ethos.
Monday night in Cincinnati was different.
As of this writing, we know Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is in critical condition after suffering cardiac arrest resulting from his collision with Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. Many doctors on television have explained how a blow to the chest at precisely the most inopportune time (between heartbeats) could cause this occurrence. They pointed out that these incidents, while rare, are also seen in lacrosse, hockey, baseball and auto accidents. It is not unique to football and it’s almost unpreventable.
Hamlin’s future is uncertain, but thanks to the great work of the team doctors, trainers and EMTs, he is alive.
Here’s a look at medical staff that are on-site at every NFL game pic.twitter.com/xtfC4w2q8y
— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) January 3, 2023
There is an emergency protocol for these types of situations in the NFL game operations manual. All club executives and on-field officials are well versed in their tenets and aware of the steps when an incident such as what occurred Monday night takes place.
In recent years, the NFL has added a pregame meeting that includes all on-site medical personnel to cover and be prepared for any incidents. They were held Monday night, and they acquitted themselves magnificently. They literally saved Hamlin’s life.
One of the practices called for in the emergency procedure protocol tasks the on-field officials with moving all players and non-medical personnel away from the injured player to allow the medical people to do their jobs. That did not happen Monday night. The sight of Hamlin fighting for his life was so shocking the game officials joined the circle of players and coaches from both teams surrounding and praying for him.
Tony Dungy and I spoke about a similar, though thankfully not as acute, cardiac incident that befell one of our players, Jahmile Addae, during the 2006 training camp. The incident occurred during the morning practice, and we canceled the afternoon session. The doctors at our camp in Terre Haute, Indiana, ruled out heat stroke and eventually diagnosed heart issues that were immediately treated in Indianapolis. Thankfully, Jahmile is now fine and coaching defensive backs at the University of Miami.
Tony reminded me how shocking the incident with Jahmile was and how Monday night’s developments brought back those bad memories for both of us.
The front offices of both Buffalo and Cincinnati performed admirably. The first response by all Bengals personnel was outstanding. They immediately rushed to Hamlin’s aid and joined their colleagues with the Bills in treating him. I’m certain both front offices collaborated in locating and making sure Hamlin’s mother and other relatives at the game could be with him before the ambulance left the stadium. Given the strict security measures in today’s NFL stadiums, that is no small feat.
Attending games as both a scout and GM, I sat in the press box. During practice, I stood directly behind the huddle. When an injury occurred in practice, our medical staff quickly treated the player. If he wasn’t immediately ambulatory, we changed fields and continued practice. Twice, I left the press box and went down to the field because an injury incurred by one of our players appeared potentially serious. Thankfully, both those players were okay, but that doesn’t lessen the incredible anxiety you feel when you see one of your own “down.”
We in the game are used to injury, but unlike fans and media, we personally know the players. Be it a player, coach, scout, athletic trainer or GM — we are all teammates. When a teammate goes down, we all feel for him and his family in a deeply emotional way.
In addition, the players, regardless of team, are a brotherhood with real respect and concern for each other. You saw that on display abundantly Monday night. The overwhelming majority of football people have never seen a life-threatening issue as we did Monday night; their shock and dismay were evident.
After Hamlin was placed in the ambulance, the Bills knelt in prayer around Sean McDermott. It seems, from TV observation, that McDermott, Bengals coach Zac Taylor and their players were not enthusiastic about continuing the game. Both teams were sent to their respective locker rooms after consultation with on-site league official Dawn Aponte and the league office in New York; the game was suspended and postponed. This was a life-and-death situation few in the game have ever witnessed.
As we all went to bed Monday night, I’m sure millions of Americans said a prayer for Hamlin. Please also say a prayer of thanks as well for the multitude of first responders, emergency doctors and nurses who deal with thousands of catastrophic injuries such as Damar’s every day. Just as first responders on the field saved Damar’s life, their brothers and sisters around the country bravely save lives every day.
God bless them, and God bless Damar.
Bill Polian is a former front office executive and a six-time Executive of the Year award winner who won Super Bowl XLI with the Indianapolis Colts. Polian’s career as an executive earned him an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
As told to Vic Carucci