Chicago Bears center Sam Mustipher was watching “Monday Night Football” while riding in the car with his wife when he saw Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapse in a scene that was “unlike anything I’ve ever seen watching football or on a football field.”
Bears running back David Montgomery also was watching, and the emotions that followed prompted him to hug his girlfriend and call his mom to tell them he loved them.
In the two days since Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and was resuscitated on the field after a routine tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals, the NFL world — including Bears players such as Mustipher and Montgomery — has grappled with a complex mix of emotions.
Chief among them are concern and fear for Hamlin’s health, with multiple Bears representatives sending well wishes and prayers Wednesday. Hamlin remains in critical condition in an intensive care unit at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center but has shown signs of improvement, the Bills announced Wednesday.
NFL players and their families also are dealing with the reminder Hamlin’s medical emergency provided about the dangers of playing football — and “the finality of life,” Mustipher said.
“As tough as you want to be, as macho as you want to be, it’s a violent game we play,” he said. “I understand every time I go between the white lines I might not come out the same guy I was when I walked on. But (Hamlin’s emergency) is different. You just try your best to compartmentalize those feelings and go out there and play the game you love.
“I love this game. It’s given me so much. It’s afforded me so many opportunities throughout my life, and you’ve got to put things in perspective that way. And there’s really not many words to describe that type of feeling, the emotions, the mixed feelings that I have because I do truly love this game.”
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said on a conference call Wednesday that investigation is needed to understand what happened to Hamlin. Sills acknowledged the possibility of commotio cordis, which occurs when a trauma to the chest disrupts a healthy heart’s rhythm.
But Sills said the main takeaway is that the emergency response team helped save Hamlin’s life on the field. He noted all teams prepare for such events with emergency action plans, the proper equipment and enhanced preparation, meaning practice and drills before every season. He referred to the “60-minute meeting,” in which all medical personnel at a stadium run through the emergency action plan an hour before every game.
“It’s certainly not an exaggeration to say the skilled and immediate response by all of these talented caregivers prevented a very tragic outcome at that moment,” Sills said. “Certainly we never want to see events like this occur, but if there were to be a medical emergency, there was absolutely the right team with the right equipment and the right training on site able to provide care.”
Sills said every NFL team also has an emergency action plan for mental health emergencies, which this has become for some after witnessing the trauma.
Coach Matt Eberflus is keeping his players’ emotions and concerns in mind as the Bears prepare to play the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Soldier Field.
The Bears team pastor said a prayer for Hamlin and his family at a team meeting Wednesday. Montgomery said Chairman George McCaskey visited to tell the players he was there for them. And the Bears leadership council met to talk about Hamlin.
Eberflus said the “human side” of football came out during that meeting.
“The reaction that a player has or anybody has about that situation is OK,” Eberflus said. “It’s all going to be different. Every person’s different. And that’s OK to be that way. We just said that we’re here, we’re supportive. I told the guys that (are in) leadership to lean on each other, to talk through it and visit today about it.”
Eberflus said the Bears also are encouraging players to speak with team clinician Carla Suber if they need help. Montgomery, who has been open about seeking help with his mental health, talked about the importance of such measures.
“(It’s about) allowing everyone to go through what they’ve got to go through, mentally, whether it’s taking some time or taking a couple plays to breathe a little bit, coming together as a full team and talking,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got our leaders stepping up and allowing everybody to know this is a safe space, this is a safe haven for everyone to talk and be completely vulnerable, so that you can express what you need to express.
“I always say mental health is a real thing, and this situation can be triggering for a lot of people’s mental health. We’re handling it accordingly.”
Bears quarterback Nathan Peterman, who will start Sunday in place of the injured Justin Fields, was a senior at Pittsburgh when Hamlin was a freshman there in 2016. When the Bears played the Bills on Christmas Eve, Peterman spoke with Hamlin after the game, telling him he was happy for him and proud of him.
Peterman and his wife saw Hamlin collapse live on TV. He said it was “extremely sobering and crazy to see.”
“I’m constantly just thinking about him, praying for him, praying for his family and going to keep hoping he pulls through,” Peterman said.
Eberflus noted players’ families also are affected by what they saw, a conversation that made Mustipher, who said he usually internalizes his feelings, become emotional.
“My family understands that at the end of the day, this is my job, this is what I have to do. But they don’t sign up for that,” Mustipher said. “(Hamlin’s) mother didn’t sign up for that. She thought she was going to watch her baby on ‘Monday Night Football.’ That’s what we dreamed about: ‘Monday Night Football,’ prime-time game.
“I can’t imagine. I want my son to play football. I do. I love this game. I love what it’s taught me, the life lessons, the responsibility, the accountability, the teamwork, and you know, I can’t imagine seeing my son out there like that. I know how my mom would feel. I know how my dad would feel. It’s unfortunate, man.”
Bears players had a walkthrough Wednesday and will resume full practice Thursday. They think the emotions of the week might linger on the field as their game preparations continue.
“I was kind of uneasy,” Montgomery said of arriving at Halas Hall on Wednesday. “You put yourself in the situation and understand that it could be you. It’s definitely been on the forefront of my mind because it hasn’t even been three or four days yet.
“He’s in there fighting for his life, so, yeah, it’s been on my mind since it happened. It’s going to be on my mind.”