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What’s next for NFL safety? Players speak on returning after Damar Hamlin’s collapse


NFL teams return to play Saturday for the first time since Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest following a tackle and collapsed on the field during a “Monday Night Football” game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Hamlin “continues to progress remarkably in his recovery,” the Bills said Friday morning. Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Hamlin is being treated, removed Hamlin’s breathing tube, and he talked to coaches and players on a video call during Friday’s team meeting.

Earlier this week, we ran a story in which The Athletic’s NFL beat writers spoke to players and coaches about a variety of topics related to Hamlin: How were they, and their families, coping since Monday night? What do fans not understand about the mental and physical challenges of playing a sport like football? Would it be harder to ignore safety risks after what happened to Hamlin?

We had so many strong responses, we wanted to share even more of them. Some questions that were similar have been summarized as one, and some were asked of coaches and players in news conferences. Some answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity. More answers from players on these topics can be found here.

For more updates on Hamlin, follow The Athletic’s live blog.

Is it worth the safety risk to play football? How do you grapple with that?

Falcons linebacker Mykal Walker: For a lot of us here, this was our way out. We know this was the risk you signed up for. It’s just something you don’t think about. It’s not who we are, but it’s what we do.

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, NFLPA executive committee member: I never second-guess going back out there on the field … But it does, I think, make you think about that game that you play. Because there are probably going to be long-term consequences to me playing this game as long as I’ve played, and it just goes back to show, OK, you have to as an individual weigh the risk-reward of playing the game. Does it bring enough like and substance and joy and fulfillment to your life that you’re willing to go out there and risk it playing a game? And so yeah, for me, I didn’t second-guess myself. I would justify that this is definitely worth it.

Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson: It was devastating to watch because that could be any of us. We’ve played this game since we were young. We played a lot of high school ball, college ball. Fans watch us every week and cheer us on and have their fantasy football, and us as players watch it every week as much as we can, watch film and everything else, but you never really imagine one hit could possibly take your life away.

Is the violence of football something players talk about regularly?

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow: It’s definitely going to change after this. You mention it maybe every now and then, but it’s not anything, and you never mention it in a serious sense. You have these thoughts and you know it could happen, but you’ve never seen it happen and it’s never happened to you. Now, I think everyone has taken a step back and (understands), really, the kind of game that we play and how dangerous it is and how it really could have been any one of us in that situation.

Giants cornerback Adoree’ Jackson: I don’t think we talk about it as much. It’s just something that, you know, happens in the sport. It’s like growing up as a boy, I guess you could say. They say: “Toughen up.” So it’s not like you have to talk about it often. It’s like you know what you’re doing or at risk (of). Even when I got hurt (returning a punt this season) for example, I know things happen. I can’t be mad at the situation. I love this game. I play this game. But that’s a back thought that something bad might happen. So we know about it, but it’s really not in the forefront of your mind until it actually happens.

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How do you return to playing after something like this, knowing the risks involved?

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes: You know there’s a job you have to do. But when you get on that field, I’m sure there will be a little bit of a weird feeling because it was such a scary incident that was terrifying. Hopefully, when we get to play in the game again, it can be fun and everybody can enjoy it like we have our whole lives.

Bears center Sam Mustipher: It is tough. I’m not going to lie to you, as tough as you want to be, as macho as you want to be, it’s a violent game we play. I understand every time I go between the white lines, I might not come out the same guy I was when I walked on … You just try your best to compartmentalize everything, compartmentalize those feelings and go out there and play the game you love. I love this game. It’s given me so much. It’s afforded me so many opportunities throughout my life and you’ve got to put things in perspective that way, and there are really not many words to describe that type of feeling, the emotions, the mixed feelings that I have because I do truly love this game. When you see things like that, you hate to see that happen.

Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader: Unfortunately, everybody always uses that cliche: “This is the job we signed up for.” That’s just the ugly part of it. You can’t play the game but at one speed. He was out there playing it full speed and it’s just what happens sometimes. It’s just such a freak accident. You can’t take your foot off the gas as a defender, or an offensive player, or anybody out there. If you’re playing lightly, you’re going to take a risk of getting hurt. There’s only one way to play this game. You’ve got to play 100 miles per hour.

Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett: At the end of the day, it’s a sport that’s physical and you never know what could happen. This was something that I never would imagine could happen. So obviously that was pretty scary to see. But it’s just a tough deal. There’s nothing really that you can put into words to describe what happened, what’s continuing to happen here these next couple days. I’m just pulling for Damar really, and hoping for nothing but the best for him and his family.

Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins: It’s tough. It’s uncharted territory. I’ve never been standing up here and talking about a player who’s really fighting for his life right now in a hospital bed. I never had to do that. So it’s tough to think about that and have to go out there and do what we do. It’s something we all understand, especially now, that it comes with the territory. You pray for protection over yourself as you go out there, you play the game the right way and you just, sometimes, it’s bad luck. You just go out there and play the game the right way, hope nothing like that happens. Again, all the prayers and thoughts go to (Hamlin) and his family. I can’t fathom having to deal with that situation for anyone, let alone one of my NFL brothers.

Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill: I don’t really think it’s going to slow me down at all. I’m going to keep playing the sport the way I’ve always been taught to play — and that’s fast and physical. But it helps you think a little bit more about what you’re doing and how you’re going to go in and tackle, like keeping your head up, just trying to prevent (an outcome) like that … What happened (to) him was a freakish accident, and that’s something you can’t control.

How has this changed your perspective on football and life?

Bears running back David Montgomery: It made me look at it completely different and understand that it’s important to tell your family members and everybody that you love them. And the guys here, going back to the emotional piece, being able to tell the guys here that I love them and that I appreciate them and who they are and how they come to work. But outside of being football players, just who they are as humans, understanding that I’ll show my love and my gratitude to other guys.

Broncos defensive end DeShawn Williams, who trained alongside Hamlin in Pittsburgh: I’ll tell you what, my (10-month-old) son’s not playing football. I’ll tell you that. I’m going to do whatever I’ve got to do to make as much money as I can so I can take care of him. But my son’s not playing football. If he loves it, cool, but I’m not putting him out there. I can’t do it. I’ve been feeling that way because of how Daddy feels after games. You really have to love this to do what you have to do week in and week out. I’m not putting him through that. I can’t see my baby get hit.

Chargers defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day: It just made me realize how precious this is, this game is, how precious life is, how precious being able to do this thing — being a professional athlete and just living this life we get to live — is. It’s unfortunate that it happened to Damar, but I know Damar probably has influenced so many people in a positive way and has brought so many people together.

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What’s the next step the league should consider for player safety?

Panthers tight end Tommy Tremble, who trained with Hamlin in 2021 prior to the draft: I think it’s just trying to forget the old, hard style. I love physicality. I love football more than anyone in the world. But at the same time, you’ve really gotta make sure that our safety (is paramount). Because the safer we are, the longer we can play. And I think really just focusing on how to tackle, how to do these hits, a lot of guys are gonna be pissed about: “We shouldn’t do that. We shouldn’t do that.” But at the end of the day, you want to able to walk with your kids to school or carry them around. You want to be able to do that later.

Giants safety Julian Love: Hearing the inside story on all the staff there, they were working at a high level just to save him. That’s a blessing that these highly trained people are in that position for us at a moment’s notice. And that’s what needs to happen. It needs to continue. I’ll take it a step further where more attention also needs to be (there) for youth sports, high schools, to make sure they have AEDs and the right equipment for cardiac issues on a regular basis in any sport – on buses, by fields, by gyms. I know some states have laws, but that should be now the next step to make sure youth sports are taken care of as well.

Titans linebacker Dylan Cole, on how he’s seen player safety evolve in the NFL: They’ve definitely thrown some rules in there to prevent (things like crackback blocks and huge hits), and we are grateful for that. We sometimes look at it and say, “That’s soft,” but that’s the mentality of the game. When you’re playing, you want to be physical, but there are some unnecessary things that can happen. The game continues to evolve – better helmets, better equipment – so safety will be better overall.

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What else do you want fans to know after reflecting on Hamlin’s situation?

Falcons safety Erik Harris: To the fans, We put our money in pots and have drafts just to let human beings control our emotions for six months of the year. Because of their lack of performance, we go to social media and slander them for thousands to see, including their own families, or slide in their DMs because we think private is better or it’ll hurt more. We save money and work overtime just to get in that one game all to get into a fight because of jersey differences. We have allowed a game to make us apathetic toward athletes. We are human beings first. We feel how you feel.

Colts center Ryan Kelly, who is on the NFLPA Executive Board: I think it’s a reminder to the world, you sit back there and armchair quarterback it from 30,000 feet, and tell these guys they suck, and in reality, the majority of time, it’s ACLs and concussions and those are still long-term things, but guys are getting knee replacements at 45 instead of 65. I mean, this guy almost lost his life. It’s an incredibly physical, violent game and you’re just hoping you can play it as long as you can and make enough money to help your family out. Ultimately, it’s a game we love. It’s part of it. I don’t think anybody saw that coming. That could never happen again for 20 years and 20 years from now you’ll still be shocked.

Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin: Just even understanding (contract) guarantees, like think about him, man, he’s a young man on his rookie contract. I don’t even know if he’s vested. (Hamlin, in his second season, is not vested. Players need at least four seasons of experience to become vested.) I get it. There’s a CBA and kinds of other stuff, but at the same time, if we’re looking at it as humans and as people – what’s right and what’s wrong — in today’s day in age, you can’t hold that against a player for feeling a certain way if his contract situation ain’t right or something like that because you’re risking your body every play in the name of trying to win the game. And we do it because we love the game, we love the organizations and stuff. But at the same time, we gotta understand what the risk is that we’re actually taking. It’s not like basketball or baseball (where most NBA or MLB contracts are guaranteed). It’s a different situation and (what happened to Hamlin) can happen on any play.

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(Photo: Kirk Irwin / Getty Images)





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