Sports and Society: Believing in Damar Hamlin

Graphic by Kayla Drazan
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“Faith. Family. Football.” Sincerely, Skylar Thompson’s Twitter bio. 

These three words — potentially the least controversial bio a professional football player could concoct — are positively loaded. Thompson’s football life has never been more exciting. As the emergency stand-in quarterback for the Miami Dolphins and facing impossibly long odds against the Buffalo Bills, he nearly pulled off a miracle on Sunday, only narrowly falling short in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. 

But Thompson’s family life has never been easy. He lost his mother to breast cancer when he was only six years old, and his father, Brad — who traveled 15 hours to Buffalo to watch his son leave everything he had on the field — sacrificed everything for him and his career. 

And then there is Thompson’s faith. However important it was during his Christian upbringing, it most recently manifested — as it did for the whole NFL community — in prayers for Damar Hamlin, a safety and wonderful young man on the Bills who collapsed from cardiac arrest during Monday Night Football in Week 17. 

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Between then and Thompson’s Sunday showdown with the Bills, the outpouring of prayer from the football universe has been unmistakable. Bills quarterback Josh Allen’s first public statement after Hamlin’s collapse read only, “Please pray for our brother.” A tsunami of signs and t-shirts reading simply, “Prayers for Damar,” swept over the league’s Week 18 slate. The outcry of support was immense, and the unity that came from a terrifying moment in NFL history was something truly special. 

Hamlin’s subsequent recovery was just that. He eventually returned to Buffalo and then returned home. Back on the field, Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff of the Bills’ Week 18 game, their first play since Hamlin’s collapse. Josh Allen — watching in disbelief with his hands above his head — came to only one conclusion: It was an act of God.

To be sure, Hamlin’s recovery was not a God-ordained miracle. It was a clinic in emergency medical response. The stadium and team medical staff managed to revive him on the field despite having little to no information about what had transpired. Whatever credit any sort of God deserves, they deserve it tenfold.

But science exists alongside religion, not as a substitute for it. While the incredible crisis execution from medical staff may be evident now, in the emotions of the moment, nobody — particularly the players on the field — could be expected to have a rational and scientifically informed reaction. They were scared for their friend, and even if only for a brief moment, many of them inserted faith into that void of uncertainty. 

Though the mechanism of Hamlin’s injury was not inherent to football — the exact condition itself is incredibly rare — recent revelations about the long term risks of concussions and the generally violent nature of football have shown players that their game is a matter of life and death. And as billions of people do every day, NFL players placed their belief in a higher power at the center of their fear. 

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