It’s been almost a year since Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest mid-game, and he’s opening up about his remarkable journey back to football and his effort to make the most of the terrifying incident.
As fans know all too well by now, in the first quarter of the Bills’ Week 17 game on Jan. 2, in an AFC playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Hamlin tackled Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin immediately collapsed in the process of standing back up, prompting the Bills’ assistant athletic trainer, Denny Kellington, to immediately begin performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, on Hamlin.
The 25-year-old was taken off the field by ambulance and went to UC Medical Center after receiving CPR and automated external defibrillation (AED), where he remained in critical condition for an extended amount of time. Per Hamlin’s uncle, Dorrian Glenn, the defensive back had to be resuscitated twice and was put on a ventilator to help with his breathing after sustaining damage to his lungs following the game tackle. It was later revealed that Hamlin went into cardiac arrest.
“Some people be treating me like I was Michael Jackson,” Hamilin tells GQ Sports director Sam Schube in the first in-depth interview since his NFL comeback. “Some people treat me like they seen a ghost.”
Four days after his cardiac arrest episode, Hamlin woke up and was able to communicate with family and teammates. One of the first questions Hamlin asked was if the Bills won the game.
Hamlin tells GQ Hype that he rarely discusses the specifics of the incident because he feels that his words have “a way of rippling outward, until what began as his story has been warped and transformed into something he doesn’t recognize.”
“At the end of the day, it’s like, people don’t even give you the space to process what you’re going through before they want to write you off as something,” he shares. “I don’t like dealing with people and their opinions of me. So I’d rather just keep focusing on what I’m focusing on in my day instead of worrying about what y’all want to hear about. It ain’t really hard to talk about. It’s just, this is my personal life. I’m still going through it. It is not like it’s 10 years from now and I’m reflecting. It ain’t even been 10 months yet.”
A week after his collapse, Hamlin was transferred to a medical center in Buffalo, where he spent a few more days before being discharged “to continue his rehabilitation at home and with the Bills.”
In April 2023, he was “working out” with the team again, just three and a half months after the cardiac arrest. “He’s fully cleared,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said then. “He’s in a great headspace to comeback and make his return.”
Three months later, Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott announced that the safety will “be a full go” at the team’s St. John Fisher University training camp. The decision was one that Hamlin admits he wasn’t 100 percent certain about.
“I think even when I said I was coming back, I ain’t know if I still wanted to do it,” Hamlin confesses to GQ, adding that he was constantly battling the fear that he could collapse again.
“One in a million seems a lot bigger when it actually happens to you. I think I’ll probably have that with me forever, until I’m done playing,” he adds, sharing that he sees a team therapist and a personal trauma therapist to work his way through the challenges. “We all have negative feelings that come pas. Just don’t grab onto the negative ones.”
Despite that fear, Hamlin made his triumphant return to the gridiron in August 2023, seven months after going into cardiac arrest. The Buffalo Bills kicked off its preseason schedule against the visiting Indianapolis Colts, during which Hamlin made his first tackle in the first quarter. Then, midway through the first quarter, he made a critical tackle that forced the Colts to turn the ball over on downs.
In October, Hamlin took the field in a regular-season NFL game for the first time since the Jan. 2 incident. “I think it was more so about promising to myself than anything else, just showing myself that I have the courage, I have the strength, that I have the pride, everything, all those words, in me to be able to go through something traumatic and to be able to come back from it,” Hamlin said after the game, according to The Associated Press. “To be able to still do what I love at the highest level in the world is amazing.”
Speaking with GQ, Hamlin explains that his return to the field is purely fueled by a desire to stay in the game for himself. “I ain’t doing this s**t for nobody and I ain’t finna start. This is all me within myself, me living my life for what I want to do. I know what I stand for, and I know what I preach. And I know the magnitude of what happened and how many people was affected,” he declares. “But, at the end of the day, this is the choice I made for myself. I ain’t make this choice for nobody else. I understand what it means to the world, but this is a personal decision. I’m living my life.”