ORCHARD PARK, New York — Whatever jitters Bills safety Damar Hamlin might have been feeling went away midway through the first quarter on Saturday, when he first heard the play call: Blitz.
Four snaps into his first game in a competitive setting since a near-death experience on Jan, 2, Hamlin broke toward the line and stopped Indianapolis Colts running back Evan Hull for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 40.
“Yeah, man, it felt good. It for surely felt like a little weight off my shoulders,” Hamlin said following Buffalo’s 23-19 preseason-opening win. “Amazing. It just makes me feel like I’m back in that element.”
What seemed unfathomable in those frightening first moments when Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and needed to be resuscitated on the field during a game at Cincinnati in January, is closer to approaching reality in the 25-year-old’s bid to resume his playing career.
Hamlin showed no signs of hesitancy or trepidation in finishing with three tackles – the two others coming on consecutive snaps – in playing two-plus defensive series spanning the first and second quarters.
In doing so, he reached the latest and perhaps biggest milestone in a comeback that began with him returning to practice in May followed by enduring his first thud in the Bills’ first padded session of training camp two weeks ago.
“What we just witnessed, to me, is remarkable,” coach Sean McDermott said. “It’s a true sign of a young man’s courage and obviously everyone who helped him to get to this point. I know there was a football game going out there today, but I mean a truly remarkable display of courage and strength and faith.”
Hamlin arrived at the stadium flashing his familiar heart sign and held out three fingers to signify his jersey number as he entered the tunnel. And not even a brief delay caused by a thunderstorm could douse his spirits.
Hamlin entered the game taking the field as part of Buffalo’s kickoff coverage unit following James Cook’s 8-yard TD run 3 1/2 minutes in. And he spent the second half watching along the sideline with his pads on while wearing running shoes.
At the final whistle, Hamlin sought out his mother, Nina, in the stands and presented her his game jersey even though he had initially promised it to former teammate and now Colts receiver Isiah McKenzie.
“That first jersey back, it had to go to Mom. Dude, I had to go to her. My mom was my strength, my everything, you know, through my entire life,” Hamlin said. “But I’m for surely going to get Isaiah a jersey this season.”
McKenzie is fine with having to wait.
More important to him was seeing how far Hamlin has come.
“It was awesome to see him progressing the way he’s progressing. Out there on the field now, doing his thing and playing the game he loves to play. It felt awesome to be out there with him,” McKenzie said. “One time I was on the pile, and me and him started laughing. It was pretty cool to see him smiling and enjoying himself.”
Hamlin has grown in confidence with each step he’s taken, starting with waking up from a medically induced coma in a Cincinnati hospital bed some two days after he collapsed, followed by being able to breathe on his own to eventually being cleared to resume playing in April, when he announced his comeback bid.
Asked what his next milestone might be, Hamlin kept his day-at-a-time focus by saying: “Practice tomorrow.”
And yet, the third-year player allowed himself to look ahead to traveling to his hometown of Pittsburgh next week for Buffalo’s game against the Steelers.
“I think it will probably be electric down there. I can’t wait,” he said.
After two more preseason games, the next hurdle will come on Aug. 29, when the Bills make their final cuts to establish their regular-season roster with Hamlin seeking to re-secure one of the backup spots behind returning starters Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.
“It’s kind of like proving it to myself and just accepting a challenge of just being able to go through something so tough and just to be able to come back and overcome that,” Hamlin said assessing his journey.
“And then just to prove to yourself that nothing can stop you from doing what you want to do and reaching the heights that you want to reach,” he added. “It’ll be a long road, long journey as far as the goals that I’ve got for myself in this game. But today was definitely a step in the right direction.”