The Buffalo Bills returned to the field Sunday for the first time since safety Damar Hamlin suffered an on-field cardiac arrest, and in a play that seemed plucked from a movie, returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in front of a packed house filled with tens of thousands of fans who erupted in celebration.
On the first play of the game against the New England Patriots, running back Nyheim Hines took the kickoff 96 yards to the house to give Buffalo an early 7-0 lead.
Shortly before the game got underway, Hamlin, who made his first public comment on Saturday, tweeted a photo of himself and family preparing to watch the matchup from his hospital bed. He followed that up shortly after the opening touchdown with another tweet:
The 24-year-old safety collapsed on the field after his heart stopped during Monday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Hamlin was administered CPR on the field by medical personnel before being loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the intensive care unit of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was sedated for several days. The Bills on Friday said he was showing significant improvement, and his breathing tube has been removed.
The team said Saturday that he is still in critical condition but he continues to breath on his own, and his “neurological function is excellent.”
Throughout Buffalo, the famed “Bills Mafia” has come out in force to support the team and Hamlin.
A mere store-bought get-well card wasn’t enough for Bills fan Ryan Magnuson to show his support for Hamlin.
The owner of a sign shop, Magnuson took the next step by designing a 4-by-10-foot canvas card, which he erected at the foot of the Bills stadium entrance for all to see — and sign — as they arrived for Buffalo’s game against New England Patriots on Sunday.
“It’s been very positive. I’ve seen Bills fans, I’ve seen Patriots fans and people wearing other NFL jerseys coming up. I think this is bigger than a team thing at this point,” Magnuson said. “This is for Damar.”
Fans filled the front of the sign with well-wishes some three hours before kickoff, offering messages such as “Stay Strong” and “Love.” Some wore No. 3 jerseys, which is Hamlin’s number.
“Watching it live, it was sad to see,” said Kyle Blaney, wearing a Patriots jersey. “But it’s good to see everyone coming together to support him, not just Bills fans.”
NFL fans everywhere have joined in supporting Hamlin this week, including many who contributed over $8 million to Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation. Sunday brought a chance to pay tribute together during the last week of the NFL season.
The electronic signs ringing the parking lots of Highmark Stadium all carried the message “Love For Damar 3.” Some fans decorated their homes in Bills blue and red colors with various tributes to Hamlin.
Players from both teams came out onto the field for warmups wearing shirts honoring Hamlin. Many Patriots players wore black sweatshirts with the words “Love for Damar” printed on the front. Several Bills players wore T-shirts with Hamlin’s likeness on the front and back.
The NFL is paying tribute to the player during all Week 18 games, which began Saturday, including a pregame moment of support and painting Hamlin’s No. 3 on the 30-yard line. The Bills will also wear “3” jersey patches.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was also scheduled to attend the Bills game.
Hamlin was being celebrated by fans in Cincinnati, where the Bengals hosted Baltimore.
“It’s been so great that Damar is OK,” said David Coning, outside the Bengals’ Paycor Stadium. “We’ve seen pictures of him. He’s got a smile. He’s texted. So I think that’s a big relief for everyone. So hopefully we can kind of get back to normal.”
In the vast parking lots circling the the Bills stadium, numerous fans wore self-made shirts and jerseys honoring Hamlin.
Sue Sonner wore a former Bills quarterback EJ Manuel’s No. 3 jersey, in which her husband covered over the player’s name with Hamlin.
“It’s going to be very emotional. I’m taking some tissues with me for sure,” said Sonner, who is from Corning, New York, and attended the game in Cincinnati.
“We could see the scurry and the trauma and the panic and all of that. So very somber, very somber environment,” she said. “Now that he’s progressing and we think he’s going to be okay, now we’re excited to play football again. And hopefully he’s on the road to recovery.”
Ken Johnson, who is nicknamed “Pinto Ron” and among the Bills’ most famous tailgaters, didn’t have anything special planned for Sunday, while saying he expected many of those in attendance to be spontaneous in honoring Hamlin.
“You never know if a bunch of people are going to climb on top of the van and start giving an emotional speech or something,” said Johnson, who has not missed a Bills game at home or on the road since the start of the 1994 season, with the exception of games fans weren’t allowed to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It just cements the legacy of Bills Mafia,” Johnson said of fans’ show of support.
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