It was a perfect turn of events following a turbulent week.
The NFL’s final Sunday of the regular season is usually filled with teams jockeying for playoff spots and coaches resting key players before important postseason matchups. This year’s finale was unprecedented due to it being the Bills’ first game since Damar Hamlin’s horrifying on-field cardiac arrest that took place a week ago.
The morning slate started with Bills running back Nyheim Hines returning a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the opening moments of Sunday’s Week 18 matchup against the New England Patriots. The return electrified Highmark Stadium filled with fans supporting Hamlin.
“This is storybook,” CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz exclaimed before Hines ran into the end zone just 14 seconds into the game.
Hines continued to add to the storybook tale after he scored a second kickoff return TD in the third quarter. With his team trailing 17-14, Hines returned a kickoff 101 yards to give the Bills the lead. It was the turning point of the game as the Patriots trailed the rest of the way.
It led the Bills to a 35-23 victory and most importantly, it gave Hamlin a perfect tribute as the safety watched alongside with his family in the hospital.
“A lot of unknowns just not sure how the players are gonna handle it,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said when asked about the emotions of Sunday’s game. “I feel like I had a pretty good control of how I was gonna handle it but you never know. It’s a new situation for us, we’re all thinking of Damar and his family. Then we come out in the first play there, it’s kind of surreal watching Nyheim score.”
Hamlin live-tweeted during the Bills-Patriots game and reacted to numerous tributes on display throughout the league from his University of Cincinnati Medical Center hospital bed on Sunday — where he continues to make progress but remains in critical condition.
It was the first full day of NFL action since Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during a Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The game was postponed with 5:58 remaining in the first quarter after Hamlin tackled Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, then collapsed on the field. Hamlin received CPR on the field for nearly nine minutes before being taken to the nearby hospital.
Hamlin’s neurological function was described as “excellent” by doctors on Saturday and the safety Facetimed his teammates just four days after his heart stopped. A day after that, Hamlin took to social media to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers.
“Putting love into the world comes back 3xs as much… thankful for everyone who has reached out and prayed,” he said. “This will make me stronger on the road to recovery, keep praying for me!”
Hines’ first kickoff return took place moments after Hamlin’s teammates ran onto the field holding “3″ flags that waved in the air during a pre-game tribute. Countless fans attending the game were seen with signs supporting Hamlin. Members of the Bills’ medical staff who helped saved Hamlin’s life were honored before the game — prompting huge cheers from Bills Mafia in attendance.
Denny Kellington, the assistant athletic trainer who administered CPR to Hamlin, has been lauded as a hero and was on-hand with the medical staff for the honor. Bills receiver John Brown gifted his touchdown ball to Kellington on the sideline after making the 42-yard diving catch in the third quarter.
Moments before Hines’ kickoff return, the second-year safety posted a photo of himself alongside his family in the hospital.
“GAMETIME!!!” he wrote.
Hamlin then tweeted “OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!” after the opening kickoff return.
It had been three years and three months since the last Bills’ kickoff return for a touchdown — making Hamlin’s jersey number that much more significant.
“I cant remember a play that touched me like that, I don’t think in my life,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen told reporters as he began to shed tears.
“It was just spiritual,” he continued when asked about Hines’ second kickoff return.
The tributes and positive messages were spread throughout the league on Sunday.
Giants cornerback Nick McCloud wore a shirt to honor his friend and former teammate before a matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles. Members of the Giants coaching staff — and other staffs across the league — were also seen on the sideline wearing “Love For Damar” shirts.
Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson and Chargers safety Derwin James Jr., who both wear No. 3, met midfield to take a knee in honor of Hamlin. Both teams locked arms on the field as the two players met.
Stadiums across the league outlined the No. 3 in the Bills’ red color on the 30-yard line to honor Hamlin.
The Bills safety also decided to honor others, posting a link to a website to purchase t-shirts with “Did we win?” written on them — words he wrote with a pen on a piece of paper after waking up from a medically induced coma.
The shirts are available in three options and cost $33 USD each. Hamlin wrote on Twitter that all proceeds will be donated.
“We all won,” he posted on Twitter. “I want to give back an ounce of the love y’all showed me. Proceeds of this shirt will go to first-responders and the UC Trauma Center.”