On Jan. 2, during a football game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field after taking a hit to the chest. The game immediately stopped and medical personnel rushed onto the field, desperately tending to Hamlin. Hamlin laid motionless for 19 minutes before being taken by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Both teams, the fans and the NFL watched in horror. Players were visibly upset, huddling together in prayer. The national broadcast cut away and remained off air. The game that night was ultimately canceled, and the entire sports world banded together in solidarity, anxiously awaiting word about Hamlin.
The impact of the Hamlin injury has reverberated around the country, and struck a chord with many high school and college athletes. Tufts and the surrounding community are no exception. The Daily spoke with different members of the local athletic community about their reactions that night to the injury. Here’s what they said.
Jaden Pena, defensive back for the Jumbos and Tufts Community Union Senate President, conveyed an overwhelming feeling of heartbreak when he first heard about the news.
“I was out [at] dinner with my best friends from home. And we sat down and got our meal, … and the second that the injury happened, I had a bad pit in my stomach, a really, really, really bad feeling,” Pena said. “Injuries in the sports world affect me, and I’m sure many other athletes as well. I went home and didn't sleep at all that night. I was up the entire night, refreshing my Twitter feed, refreshing the news app. … The immediate reaction that I felt was just heartbreak.”
Charlotte Anderson, Tufts sports medicine’s athletic trainer, had a similar reaction to Pena when she first heard about the news from her co-workers.
“I was not watching it live, I actually heard about it through the groupchat my coworkers and I have with each other,” Anderson wrote in an email to the Daily. “Obviously it was very scary; especially waiting for an update to see whether or not Damar was going to be okay,”
According to Anderson, her co-worker Brett Hayes, associate director of sports medicine at Tufts, quickly suspected the injury was a result of commotio cordis, a rare condition of sudden arrhythmic death caused by a blow to the low chest.
Anderson explained that Tufts athletic trainers provide multiple injury prevention programs to teams including work with strength and conditioning coaches and different configurations of warm-ups and cool-downs. She also described the tools used in the event of an emergency in-game.
“We always have emergency equipment on site which includes; AED, oxygen tank and mask, splint kit, crutch kit, suturing kit as well as our own personal athletic training kits. For sports that have equipment like football, we also have equipment kits which have spare parts and removal tools for emergencies,” Anderson wrote.
When asked if she would have done anything differently in the case of Damar Hamlin, Anderson praised the Bills medical staff, saying they couldn’t have responded any better.
“What the Bills’ Athletic Training/Sports Medicine staff did is the gold standard of treatment for a person who experiences a cardiac incident. We have the same emergency action plan in place here at Tufts,” Anderson wrote. “Early implementation of CPR, use of AED and quick transportation are critical in a cardiac event. If you ever go to a Tufts Football game you will see all of our emergency equipment including an AED and oxygen as well as an ambulance on site. We also always have a sports medicine physician on the sidelines. This is the standard practice for not only us at Tufts but across the country through the NCAA.”
In addition to the athletic trainers, head football coaches have an important role in preserving the health of their players. Roy Howard, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School head football coach, explained that his role is to teach players to play the game to the best of their ability in order to avoid mistakes that could lead to injury.
“First thing we always do is teach them how to play the game correctly. … Second thing, we just make sure we keep an eye on them to make sure they don't do anything that we don't teach them,” Howard said.
Pena elaborated from a player’s perspective what happens on the field when injuries inevitably occur.
“I've been on the field for a couple injuries, ranging from when I was in youth [football] to high school, and haven't seen anything crazy in college, which is good — knock on wood. [As for] the immediate reaction on field, … you try to leave the immediate space as [quickly] as possible and let the professionals do their job with the least amount of pressure as possible,” Pena said.
Another important factor that comes into play is the mental health of the team. Having witnessed injuries in the past, Pena described that in the moment, people often turn to faith above all else.
“I'm not a super religious person, and I'm not by any means dedicated super hard to my faith, but a lot of people turn to prayer … especially in the sports world … in times of injury or doubt, or whenever there's a scary moment like the one that happened that Monday night,” Pena said.
Although Hamlin’s injury is extremely rare, some have raised concerns about violence in the game of football as a result, with mounting calls to fundamentally change how the game is played. Howard responded in strong support of football, explaining that football brings camaraderie and purpose to many children’s lives.
“The first thing that some people have to realize, [football] is one way kids could get out of a situation that they're in, with a football scholarship or something like that,” Howard said.
“The second thing is, some kids have nothing. They have no friends. And [football’s] one way to build a friendship because on a football team, there's more than 50 kids on it. … That just helps them build camaraderie all over the place. And the third thing is, the reason why I love coaching football is because you’re helping the youth, you're helping kids that could be in a bad situation [grow] into a better situation.”
Howard went on to explain that although football is perceived as the most dangerous sport, the reality is that other sports and situations in life can be equally as dangerous.
“For people that are saying that football's a dangerous sport, … yes it is, but any sport is dangerous, right? I mean, you can be walking down the street, you can have a heart attack, you could be playing a basketball game, and the same thing could have happened,” Howard said.
Pena alluded to how football players understand the life-threatening risks that come with playing, but come back to it because of their love for the game.
“Everyone plays football because they love it. … Most people understand that every time they step on a football field, a life-threatening injury can happen. … That's something that I thought about immediately after [Hamlin’s] injury,” Pena said.
Another result of Hamlin’s injury is an increased recognition of the work athletic trainers do on a daily basis to keep their players safe.
“The biggest change I see that has happened and hopefully will continue is the understanding in what athletic trainers do and why it is so important to have them in athletics,” Anderson wrote.
“A lot of times you will hear people address us as ‘trainers’ and people who aren’t in athletics assume that all we do is tape ankles when in reality, we are allied healthcare professionals who manage the health and well being of our student athletes on a daily basis. … I think the Damar Hamlin situation shed light on the profession to people who may not have known exactly what we do or what our purpose is which at the end of the day is great for the promotion of our profession.”
Above all else, Pena affirmed that what keeps football players invested is that very element of danger, vulnerability and intense selflessness that is practiced throughout the sports community.
“It has been said for decades, … that [football] is the ultimate team sport,” Pena said. “There's not really another sport where you put your life on the line like that. All for the greater good of your team.”