PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Of the thousands of emotions — trepidation among them — running through Damar Hamlin’s head Monday while he pulled on his pads for practice for the first time at training camp, the one that ultimately won out was joy.
For everything the Buffalo Bills safety has overcome in seven months since going into cardiac arrest during a game and needing to be resuscitated on the field, Hamlin leaned on his faith in God and himself, along with the support from his family and teammates, to take another step toward resume his playing career.
“A super big hurdle as you can imagine. Like, I pretty much lost my life playing this sport,” Hamlin said at a news conference after practice.
“I made the choice to play. But I’m processing a thousand emotions. I’m not afraid to say that it crosses my mind of being a little scared here and there,” he added. “My faith is stronger than any fear. That’s what I want to preach up here. And that’s the message I want to spread on to the world that as long as your faith is stronger than your fear, you can get through anything.”
Though Hamlin was cleared to resume practicing in mid-April, he did so wearing a helmet and shorts with the rest of his teammates through their spring sessions and first four days of training camp, as mandated by NFL rules. The magnitude of the Bills’ first day in pads wasn’t lost on Hamlin, given it marked the first time he was in full uniform since collapsing on the field in Cincinnati on Jan. 2 after making what appeared to be a routine tackle of Bengals receiver Tee Higgins.
“Ah man, it feels amazing. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. I was kind of all over the place just being back for the first time,” Hamlin said. “Just trying to keep everything as normal as possible.”
The normality of football struck him about an hour into practice when Hamlin took the field for the first time during a team red-zone running drill in which tackling was still not allowed.
On his second play, Hamlin showed no hesitation when bursting toward Damien Harris and wrapping him up with both arms. A play later, running back James Cook broke a tackle before Hamlin joined a teammate in wrapping him up just before the goal line.
Hamlin’s biggest contact came on the final play of practice, when he avoided a block to work his way into the backfield and help a teammate stop tight end Quintin Morris for what would have been a loss.
“That first little moment of contact, that was just letting me know. I felt alive, man. I felt like I’m here,” Hamlin said with a wide grin. “So it felt good. It was just that moment of: ‘All right, let’s settle in and let’s just take one play at a time. Let’s just keep going.’”
Hamlin’s only lament was not having any balls thrown in his direction during team drills, though he laughed when saying that might not be a bad thing.
“When the ball’s not coming my way, that makes you think you’re doing your job right,” Hamlin said. “But, you know, I would love some more opportunities to make a big play and turn practice up a bit.”
The 25-year-old from the Pittsburgh area is entering his third NFL season. Selected by Buffalo in the sixth round of the 2021 draft out of Pitt, he opened last season as a backup before starting 13 games after Micah Hyde sustained a season-ending neck injury.
This year, Hamlin is competing with offseason free agent addition Taylor Rapp for a backup role behind Hyde and Jordan Poyer. As for Hamlin’s next hurdle, it’ll come Aug. 12, when the Bills open their preseason schedule at home against Indianapolis.
Rapp, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, might be new to Buffalo but is impressed with how Hamlin has handled himself.
“How far he’s come and what he’s able to come back from late last season and just seeing how he goes about himself and attacks the rehab at the facility is nothing short of inspiring,” Rapp said.
A day earlier, coach Sean McDermott said he was walking a fine line in treating Hamlin much like any other player, while keeping in mind what he’s gone through.
“I think awareness is important, right? You’ve got X amount of guys out here and then you have Damar in there as well and trying to make it as a normal as possible,” McDermott said. “We’re going to support him through this, and to this point he’s done a phenomenal job.”
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