Less than a week after Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field, the Buffalo Bills were back in action against the New England Patriots.
Bills general manager Brandon Beane called for Sunday to be a “celebration of life” — and that’s exactly what it was.
The 24-year-old safety, whose condition has vastly improved throughout the week, was honored with several touching tributes before the game in Orchard Park, New York.
It all started with players arriving at the stadium. While walking in, quarterback Josh Allen wore a “3” hat and sweater. Several other players followed suit.
Hamlin thanked his quarterback for the support.
That’s My Quarterback 🏾. https://t.co/NALlJK8tCg
— 𝐃𝐚𝐦𝐚𝐫 𝐇𝐚𝐦𝐥𝐢𝐧 (@HamlinIsland) January 8, 2023
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was also rocking a blue “3” hat at the game.
— Thad Brown (@thadbrown7) January 8, 2023
In the locker room, the Bills hung Hamlin’s jersey, and on the field, the “3” for the 30-yard line was outlined in Bills blue, and players had a “3” patch on their jerseys.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 8, 2023
— Harry Scull Jr (@hsjrphoto) January 8, 2023
Fans did their part before the game, too.
Tailgaters everywhere had Hamlin jerseys and massive get-well cards, NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry reported.
One fan was even spotted in a Tee Higgins jersey, showing support for the Bengals receiver who Hamlin tackled just before the collapse, according to Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein.
Just before kickoff, there was a tribute with flags, loud cheers, a nod to the Bills’ first responders who saved Hamlin’s life, and a moment of silence.
— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2023
Then the Bills had to quickly turn their attention to the regular season finale against the Patriots, with Hamlin tweeting to his team minutes before kickoff.
Buffalo would beat New England 35-23 to seal the No.2 seed in the AFC and secure a 13-win season.
But the final score tells only a fraction of what happened.
Bills’ running back Nyheim Hines’ 96-yard kickoff return touchdown on the game’s opening play was a storybook moment with meaning that went well beyond the game.
“You want the truth, it was spiritual, it really was. Bone-chilling. It was special,” Allen said. “I can’t remember a play that touched me like that, I don’t think in my life. So, it’s probably No.1 [football memory]. It was just spiritual. And I was going around with my teammates and saying, ‘God’s real.’ You can’t draw that one up any better.”
Hamlin tweeted, “OMFG,” in response to the score.
Hines returned another kickoff for a touchdown in the second half, becoming the first Bills player to score two kick return touchdowns in a game and the 11th player in NFL history.
The running back described his emotions on the first return as “electric” and said he felt like Hamlin was out there with the team.
When Bills tight end Dawson Knox scored a touchdown in the second quarter, he celebrated by putting up three fingers, forming a heart with his hands, and saying, “Love ya, boy.”
Hamlin replied on Twitter, “I love you too,” adding an emoji of hands forming a heart.
In the postgame locker room, Hamlin was there, on FaceTime, breaking down the team after the game and after he was named the recipient of the game ball, along with the athletic training staff.
“[Hamlin] said, ‘Love y’all boys, Bills on three, Bills on me. 1-2-3 Bills,'” Allen recalled.
Next up, the Bills will host the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card round of the playoffs on Sunday as they look to extend a season that is now in honor of Damar Hamlin.