We NFL players often will say we are willing to die for this game. But what happens when the price that we insist that we are eager to pay comes up for collection?
There is no question that football is one of the most violent sports in the world and that players, including myself, are aware of the risk we take to play the game that we love. Even at the young age of 30, I talk to my former teammates about my surgeries, broken bones and aches from my time in the NFL, as though my battle scars are medals of honor. The pride comes from achieving my dreams of playing at the highest level and understanding that I survived something few men can fathom.
The fans, the coaches and the executives will keep track of the scoreboard, statistics, wins, losses, championships, fantasy points and countless other factors. But after stepping away from the game, players often count the good days we have from the bad, the day-to-day tasks that we can no longer do versus the ones that we can, and the prescriptions we now depend on to live whole lives. It is a scary truth, one that each player faces before, during and after their career, yet we still pursue this dream to its sometimes bitter end.
Often in pre-game speeches, or in the huddle on the opening drive, or when two minutes on the clock separate you from victory, we will say that we are willing to die for this game. But what happens when the price we insist that we are eager to pay is called for collection? Why do fans keep watching, and why do players like myself continue to love, support and play this game?
On Monday night before a national TV audience, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field during the first quarter of a game I was watching closely, being born in Buffalo and having spent some time with the team as a player in 2018. Hamlin tackled Bengals receiver Tee Higgins after a 13-yard catch, rose to his feet, then collapsed. The vision in real time was haunting, and the impact I could only imagine was even more intense on the field. Almost immediately, Hamlin’s teammates and colleagues burst into an emotional uproar as he received CPR on the field, appearing lifeless around the 50-yard line. In NFL history, only one player has died during a game, 28-year-old Chuck Hughes: may his soul rest in peace.
Football will always be a dangerous sport regardless of the advances in equipment, technology, rule changes and the like. Regardless of your beliefs, I urge you to keep Damar Hamlin and his family in your thoughts and prayers. Amid the tragedy unfolding before us, I saw the very thing that compels us to watch, play and love football; the soul of the sport. The brotherhood on display for Damar was both chilling and powerful. Men who play one of the toughest sports in the world, crying for their teammates, embracing and consoling each other. Oftentimes we are neglectful both in giving and receiving that tenderness, and yet there was power in those moments that I can only hope are with Hamlin now as he continues to fight for his life. Alongside empathy and compassion was the leadership from team captains and coaches whose only focus was the well-being of Damar and the mental and emotional state of their players. I believe that regardless of the NFL’s decision whether or not to cancel the game, everyone who had on either a Bills or Bengals uniform was not going to return to play. This decency, unfortunately, was not extended to Chuck Hughes, his peers, or his family, and in the 50-plus years since then, the collective conscience of the NFL has shown it still has a long way to go, but we progress better than repeating our mistakes.
Fans from around the world also showed the bonding power of sport with donations to Hamlin’s foundation that are north of $6.2m and still growing. This young man, who is only 24, had touched so many lives as a family member, a player, a teammate, and a role model for his community before he stepped on the field Monday night, and if you didn’t know that, then you are made aware of it now. We watch, cheer, celebrate, cry, grind and play because we want to be a part of something so powerful, connective, humane and glorious as football. Though we know the price, we respect a grown man’s decision to do with his body and pursuits as he pleases, and in the end, we are introduced to leaders, legends, icons, role models and so much more.
My thoughts are prayers are with Damar, the Hamlin family, the Buffalo Bills, the NFL and fans everywhere. We will all get through this together because that’s what we do. My deepest condolences to the Hughes family: I know that what happened on MNF to Damar is something you are left with, day in and day out, on a level unimaginable. I want to let you know that the sports world has not forgotten about you; we see you, love you, and support you all. God bless.
RK Russell played three NFL seasons for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.