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As Bills process trauma in aftermath of Damar Hamlin injury, mental health takes priority

ORCHARD PARK, NY — The buffalo bills are still processing their trauma. That was obvious in the words and tears of the team’s two front-facing leaders, Sean McDermott and Josh Allenwho spoke with reporters for 37 minutes at Highmark Stadium on Thursday.

Less than 72 hours before that news conference, McDermott, Allen and the rest of the Bills players and staff watched Damar Hamlin collapse on the field and go into cardiac arrest after making a routine tackle in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals.

“The scene,” Allen said, “just replays over and over in your head.”

Thankfully, the team got the positive news it was desperately waiting for on a Thursday morning Zoom call with Mario Hamlin, Damar’s father. He told the team what the rest of the world was celebrating a few hours later. Hamlin has made remarkable progress in his condition. Doctors said his neurological function is intact. Hamlin opened his eyes and squeezed the hands of a loved one. He couldn’t yet speak, but one of the first things he did upon waking was grab a pen and paper and ask, “Did we win?”

Those developments helped Hamlin’s teammates and coaches smile for the first time all week. The scene was one of jubilation when Mario delivered the news. Tears of joy replaced the tears of anguish. Mario implored the team to press on and achieve its goals. It’s what Damar would want. That news and message can ease the pain and burden the team has felt in the last few days.

The team got another boost Friday morning, when Hamlin, who is now breathing without the ventilator, was able to FaceTime into the team meeting and tell them, “I love you, boys.” He made a heart with his hands and flexed for his teammates. As McDermott put it, that “released the pressure valve” just a little bit more.

But there are still real mental health ramifications that the team will continue to deal with beyond this weekend. The Bills are going to play a game less than a week after watching Hamlin collapse and only a few days after receiving the uplifting news of his improved condition.

Hamlin spent the better part of 72 hours in a fight for his life while his teammates waited for any bit of information they could get, so the positive news was the best thing they could possibly hear. It’s all any of them cared about. Hamlin won’t remember much, if anything, from the last few days while he was intubated in the intensive care unit at UC Medical Center. But his teammates will never forget some of the details. As Bills general manager Brandon Beane put it, “you can’t unsee what you saw.”

They’ll never forget the way he fell to the turf. They’ll never forget the chaotic scene that followed in which team trainer Denny Kellington was performing CPR on Hamlin to restore his pulse. They won’t forget the lights of the ambulance or the way the game came to a screeching halt. They had to suffer through the anxiety of waiting for the updates, of losing sleep and facing their own fears and vulnerability.

“Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes,” said Michael Addis, a professor of psychology at Clark University who focuses his research on men’s mental health. “It can range from having a fear for your own life and safety to having encountered something involving the fear for the safety and the life of someone that you’re close to. It can involve violent victimization. The prognosis depends on a whole host of factors, including how well the person is functioning before the trauma, the support that they have after the trauma and the additional stressors that they have in their lives. I don’t think you can expect a single sort of timeline for the players involved in this as a group.”

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Tea NFL schedule will require a singular timeline when it comes to when these men get back on the field. The Bills will host the Patriots at 1 o’clock on Sunday and then await their playoff schedule. The NFL world will keep spinning, but the healing won’t happen all at once for those who witnessed their teammate’s heart stop beating.

Professional sports, and football in particular, requires athletes to get to a place mentally that those who haven’t been in the arena can’t imagine. Fear isn’t an emotion you want to contend with on a football field. Losing sleep and sorting through the emotions while waiting for updates undoubtedly made it hard for players to focus on preparation for their Week 18 game.

“Being able to do a little bit of football today was very therapeutic for a lot of guys,” Bills center Mitch Morse Thursday said. “It’s still one of those situations that will keep going and progressing. Each person is going to process this in a different manner. There’s nothing wrong with that. Emotions might be delayed. Emotions might hit you at different times. We’re just there for each other. Everyone here has a really good support system.”

Addis pointed out that nearly four decades of research indicate that men seek mental health support services far less than women do. Beane noted that he’s been in the NFL since 1998 and mental health wasn’t talked about for at least the first decade of that. Even when it became part of the conversation, the instinct in the NFL world was to keep those conversations at an arm’s length.

But based on what the Bills said Thursday, players have been open in talking about what happened and trying to sort through their emotions. The team has a full-time mental health professional on staff, but outside counselors were brought in as well to provide additional resources. The first day of team meetings this week wasn’t about football. When the team did re-introduce football, it tried to do so in small increments.

“The best thing you can do for them is let them be a human and not try to internalize everything,” Beane said. “That makes them better people and ultimately will make them a better player if they can deal with things properly. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Allen said he opened his home to his teammates for anyone who wanted to come over and pray or just be together. McDermott and Allen were both raw and honest about their struggles in coping with what they experienced Monday and in the days that followed.

“I’m human just like anybody else,” McDermott said. “There’s been moments as we just had that it overwhelms you and it’s come up more than a couple times for me at different points in time. But like anybody else, I need to be able to have enough self-awareness to know when I need a break and to know when I need to seek out a counselor as well. I think it’s important to know that’s not a sign of weakness. If anything, that’s a sign of strength. People need to know that.”

That’s the type of message that has set the tone for the Bills to be able to cope with what happened. As Hamlin’s condition improves, so do his teammates’ spirits. But the pain of what happened won’t go away overnight. For Allen to talk about the need to hug his teammates, for McDermott to openly cry and talk about seeking counselling, that opens the door for the rest of the players to feel comfortable doing the same. It may even open the door for more people who watched the press conferences to feel like they can do the same.

“(McDermott’s) vulnerability has been huge for us,” Morse said. “This sport at times can be such a ‘macho, tough-man thing,’ and I think when you look at this team room, no one had any macho left to give. We were all just trying to process this together, and I think he was such a good figure to kind of see how he was coping with it, his vulnerability, his emotions at times, which he had already spoken about. He kind of gave us the opportunity to just let our guard down. And I think, that’s the biggest thing this whole time is being able to let your guard down so you can heal without having any wall to hold you back.”

Allen, without hesitation, said, “I do,” when asked whether he thinks the team will be ready to play a game on Sunday. It’s clear he and others in the room want to play, especially on the heels of the message from Mario. But Allen also said, “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say some people will be changed forever, you know, after being on the field and witnessing that and feeling those emotions.”

That’s the reality these players face. Even if they think they’re ready to play, even if they manage to bury their fears and summon the courage to play, what will it feel like to take or give that first hit? What emotions might hit them when they are back on the field in front of that crowd?

“Part of what was different about this is these are individuals who have learned how to be aggressive, even violent, as part of their professional identity,” Addis said. “Nine times out of 10, while that might lead to injury, it’s not potentially fatal. Over time they develop, I think, a sense of invincibility and the necessity of putting your body at risk. But doing that can insulate you to the possibility of mortality.”

The first person from the Bills to speak publicly about what happened to Hamlin was offensive tackle Dion Dawkins, who went on CNN and ESPN on Tuesday. He said the episode should serve as an eye-opener for anyone quick to go on Twitter and criticize an athlete over a dropped pass or missed layup.

“We’re all human and we try to be our best all we possibly can,” Dawkins said. “At the end of the day, we are humans. We have families and we care and we cry. We’re vulnerable. We have emotions and we feel the same pain the regular person feels.”

But this week, these Bills players are being asked to process that pain differently than the average person. They’re doing so on the NFL’s schedule, with another violent game awaiting Sunday. Millions will watch as these men play through the pain, anxiety and fear from this traumatic incident on top of the pressure that accompanies a normal NFL Sunday. That’s not normal, and the football-viewing public should recognize that.

The healing process for these players, coaches and staff members doesn’t stop just because football starts again.

“The challenge of this is that to a tee these are professionals, and their identities and livelihoods depend upon athletic performance at a very high level in an incredibly physically aggressive and violent game,” Addis said. “So I have little doubt that these players, if they’re asked to play, will show up and play. The consequences of having to do that are something that we won’t know for some time.”

(Picture: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

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