The first thought that popped into my head as I watched Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin lying motionless on the field Monday Night was a conversation with the late Darryl Stingley two decades ago.
Stingley, the former New England Patriots receiver who became a quadriplegic after an infamous hit in 1978 when Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum smashed into him and severed two of his vertebrae, was talking to me about how fans so nonchalantly consume the violence of football.
“Sometimes fans have this mentality like they’re watching John Madden’s computer football,” Stingley said then. “Fans want to see heads explode, but what you need to remember is that those are real heads in those uniforms – human heads.”
And human bones and knees and shoulders and brains.
Hamlin was in critical condition Tuesday after suffering a cardiac arrest following a tackle that led to the indefinite postponement of Buffalo’s Monday night showdown against the Cincinnati Bengals.
In a sad, surreal scene, Hamlin’s uniform was cut off as he was administered CPR by medical personnel. Bills and Bengals players, many of them in tears, formed a human wall to shield Hamlin from public view.
Usually when an injured football player lays unconscious on the turf, it is only momentarily. Eventually, the injured player wakes up and gives concerned teammates a thumbs-up sign as he is carted off the field.
Tragically, there was no thumbs-up sign as an ambulance transported Hamlin to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Like many NFL players, Hamlin was mostly unknown to the millions of us who were watching Monday Night Football. Yes, we know the stars – the quarterbacks and the wide receivers – but NFL rosters are largely filled with players like Hamlin who is a sixth-round draft pick out of Pitt who is making close to the league minimum to run down his dream.
Football is not only the most violent of our major sports; it is the most anonymous. Many of the players themselves are little more than nameless, faceless action figures hidden underneath helmets and behind facemasks.
Even in real life, they are fantasy football players because we mostly disregard reality when considering the pain and injuries these modern-day gladiators endure to entertain us. The NFL gives us great drama and theater and we all get engrossed in watching and betting on the games. Except we forget the sacrifice it takes for the athletes who actually play the games.
Every week, those of us who play fantasy football will scan the injury report to see which of “our guys” is available this Sunday. Except we forget that behind every twisted knee, sprained ankle or wrenched back is a limping, gimping football player nursing a swollen, contorted, mangled body part.
Did you see the sickening sight of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Nick Foles convulsing on the field after he was sacked last week?
And who will ever forget Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa getting knocked out against the Bengals in September and his fingers grotesquely and involuntarily contorting into a fencing response – a medical condition that is all too common when a player suffers a serious concussion. Tua sat out last week with yet another concussion and has suffered at least two – if not three – head injuries this year alone.
But the show must go on because we love it so much.
The NFL has tried to make the game safer, but it’s impossible to legislate all the violence and brutality out of the sport.
If I’ve written it once, I’ve written it a million times, you will never hear me complain about NFL players who hold out for more money and bigger contracts. For our viewing pleasure, football players literally put their necks on the line every week – not to mention their knees, shoulders, skulls and brains.
Unlike NBA and Major League Baseball players who sign mega-million-dollar contracts that are fully guaranteed whether they ever play or not, most NFL contracts are not guaranteed.
Damar Hamlin, for instance, signed a 4-year, $3.6 million contract with Buffalo last season, but only $160,000 of that is guaranteed.
Hamlin was injured when he made a relatively routine tackle, but is any tackle in the NFL actually routine? Is it routine for sculpted 220-pound men to intentionally run into each other while traveling at full speed?
“Football is not a contact sport,” Vince Lombardi once said. “Football is a collision sport.”
And every season, the players get bigger, stronger and faster, which means the collisions get harder, more vicious, more violent.
The NFL rulemakers have tried to make the game safer, but fans grumble every time they do. We complain incessantly that refs are calling too many “roughing-the-passer” or “targeting” infractions even though these penalties were implemented to protect the players themselves.
“One hit can change your life forever,” Stingley told me all those years ago.
Sadly, the names and faces have changed over the decades, but the brutal reality of football will always remain the same.
Email me at [email protected]. Hit me up on Twitter @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and HD 101.1-2