NFL Players Return to Practice After Damar Hamlin’s Collapse

When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during a “Monday Night Football” game from cardiac arrest, players and coaches throughout the N.F.L. caught their breath, prayed for Hamlin and his family — and then stopped to think.

Is the danger of football worth the risk?

Calais Campbell, 36, a veteran defensive end for the Baltimore Ravens, said on Wednesday that it was “just natural” to ask himself that question.

“You wouldn’t be doing yourself justice if you didn’t contemplate the risk that you were taking and ask if you want to keep putting yourself in that position,” said Campbell, who is in his 15th year in the league. Referring to the hit Hamlin took before his heart stopped beating, Campbell said, “I keep thinking that I’ve tackled like that hundreds of times and I’ve been fine. But what if I’m not fine the next time?”

The family of Hamlin, 24, a second-year player who collapsed after making a tackle during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, continued to ask for prayers. The most recent update from the Bills on Hamlin’s condition was a statement on Wednesday afternoon that said he was still receiving care in the intensive care unit of a Cincinnati hospital, “with signs of improvement noted yesterday and overnight.”

Jordon Rooney, a marketing representative for Hamlin, said in an interview Wednesday that things were “moving in a positive direction.” Rooney also clarified that Hamlin had been resuscitated only once, not twice, on Monday night, contrary to what a relative of Hamlin had said.

President Biden told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that he had spoken with Hamlin’s mother and father. Asked if he believed the N.F.L. was getting too dangerous, Biden said: “I don’t know how you avoid it. I don’t.”

  • N.F.L.’s Violent Spectacle: The appetite for football has never been higher, even as viewers look past the sport’s toll on players’ lives. Damar Hamlin’s collapse should force a reconsideration, our columnist writes.
  • In Buffalo: The Bills have offered the city a welcome distraction from a wrenching year. Now that shell of easy escapism has been shattered.
  • Schedule Scenarios: How will the N.F.L. resolve the Bills-Bengals game that was suspended after the injury? The league has a number of options.
  • ESPN’s Coverage: Within minutes of Mr. Hamlin’s collapse, the sports network transformed from being a broadcaster of a football game to being at the center of a major news event.

“I think working like hell on the helmets and the concussion protocols — that all makes a lot of sense,” he continued. “But it, you know, it is dangerous. You got to just acknowledge it.”

With the final week of the regular season scheduled to begin Saturday, many N.F.L. teams gathered on Wednesday for the usual midweek game planning, walk-throughs and news conferences. Players sat in recliners and joked with each other, and some of the Ravens even shot water guns at one another. Music blared throughout the locker rooms, as always.

But little else was ordinary. The Bills, still reeling, did not meet with the news media. In other locker rooms, coaches and players were asked how they would get ready emotionally to return to the sport that left Hamlin in critical condition.

They talked about compartmentalizing and going about their business and taking things as they come.

“You can do two things at once,” Cincinnati Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said.

Taylor continued, “You can prepare for a football game on Sunday and you can still support Damar and support those who knew him and are dealing with some emotional stuff during this time.”

But coaches and players also said they couldn’t stop thinking about Hamlin. Giants Coach Brian Daboll, who was the Bills’ offensive coordinator the previous four seasons, wore a blue hat with Hamlin’s No. 3 on it. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh held a Zoom meeting to let the players share their thoughts.

Players from several teams said they prayed for Hamlin with their team chaplains. Dr. Lani Lawrence, the Giants’ sports psychologist, made herself available to talk to players or their family members.

“Obviously, we play a violent sport, a collision sport,” said Tyrod Taylor, the Giants’ backup quarterback. “There’s always risk that comes with that. If there’s anything that we need to talk about to get off our chest, she’s there for you.”

Giants safety Julian Love, who met Hamlin on the college recruiting circuit, said Hamlin’s injury was not easy to compartmentalize.

“A lot of people in this building have never seen something like that,” he said. “Ever in football. And so it’s a very freak thing. I’m not gonna sit here and say it’s not hard to push forward.”

Saquon Barkley, the Giants’ star running back, said he had been so preoccupied with Hamlin and his family’s well being that he hadn’t stopped to consider what it would be like to take a big hit the next time he played.

“Had not even crossed my mind until you guys actually brought it to my attention,” he said. “Really haven’t sat down myself and thought like, wow, like, I’m actually gonna take the field, too.”

None of the players interviewed said they were considering not playing this week. Taylor, the Cincinnati coach, said he would support any player who chose to take time off. Players understand that injuries are part of the game, he said.

“Players that play football know that; they know what they’re getting into,” Taylor said. “It’s a less than ideal part of the game, but it’s a known part of the game.”

Taylor, who was on the Bengals’ sideline when Hamlin collapsed, talked about the decision to suspend Monday night’s game. Though the ESPN play-by-play broadcaster Joe Buck said on television that the players would be given five minutes to warm up before resuming play, Taylor said he was never told to continue the game. The N.F.L. has also said it did not give that directive.

After both teams took a few moments to understand the situation, Taylor said, he met on the field with Bills Coach Sean McDermott. Taylor said McDermott told him, “I need to be at the hospital for Damar, and I shouldn’t be coaching this game.” That conversation, Taylor said, jump started the process of suspending the game.

“There was no push for anything to happen,” Taylor said. “It was just, let’s let these moments play out, see what the next step is as people get a chance to get their minds right.”

In a memo sent to teams on Tuesday, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the game between the Bills and the Bengals would not resume this week and no decision had been made about when or whether it would be rescheduled. The N.F.L. has also not announced any changes to the Week 18 schedule.

The Ravens are preparing to head to Cincinnati on Sunday for a key A.F.C. matchup against the Bengals, on the same field where Hamlin last played. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said he was looking forward to the game because it would bring some normalcy. But he said some players may not be comfortable returning to the field.

“I’m sure if you polled the locker room, there’d be mixed votes on that,” Burrow said in a news conference Wednesday. He added: “It’s a business and you know, we’ve got games to play on Sunday. It’s tough to go about your business right now because of what happened.”

For some Ravens players, it has been an emotional struggle to put the blinders back on and snap back to work.

“For the past two days, you could see it on everyone’s face,” Campbell said. “They were in shock about the whole thing and were processing the meaning of it all.”

Juliet Macur reported from Owings Mills, Md., Emmanuel Morgan from Cincinnati, and Jenny Vrentas from East Rutherford, N.J.