When a game doesn’t matter

When the couple we had invited to dinner had left, I glanced at my phone to catch a score in the Buffalo-Cincinnati game. It was a highly-anticipated Monday Night Football game. The game didn’t have much significance in the NFL playoff picture because both teams had already clinched a playoff berth. The Bengals needed a win to clinch the AFC North division.

I clicked on the ESPN app and was informed that the game had been delayed. With all of the crazy weather, stranger things have happened than weather delaying a game. In fact, a stranger thing had happened. Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin suffered a terrifying injury and had been rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. He was listed in critical condition.

Hamlin had tackled Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, got to his feet and then fell backward to the ground. A stretcher and ambulance came onto the field. First responders administered CPR. Later, it was confirmed that Hamlin’s heart had stopped. It was most likely caused by blunt force trauma after the defensive player absorbed the impact of Higgins’ helmet to his chest on the play.  

My wife, who knows something about medical events after more than 30 years in the field, said Hamlin was actually fortunate that the injury occurred where it did and his life was probably saved because of the care he was able to receive moments after he collapsed. A automated external defibrillator was used to restore his heartbeat before he was taken to the hospital.

Hamlin’s teammates were clearly in shock as they gathered around and watched him being given oxygen. So were the ESPN announcers and everyone else. Hamlin was loaded into an ambulance and transported to University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the region’s only adult level 1 trauma center. Hamlin’s mother was in attendance at the game and rode with her son to the hospital.

Players from both teams surrounded Hamlin. Later, both Bills and Bengals players joined together for prayer. Before the teams gathered, the camera was on Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, who had his hands together and eyes closed. Always in the spotlight, Allen has kept his religious views to himself, maintaining his right to privacy. But this was an unguarded moment. 

I didn’t sleep well, with the image of Hamlin falling to the ground haunting me overnight Monday. I have watched football for sixty years, but I had never seen anything like that. The Darryl Stingley injury in a 1978 that crippled him for life, had also haunted me. Stingley, who died in 2007, said Oakland’s Jack Tatum, who administered the cheap shot, never apologized.

Higgins, who put his helmet into Hamlin’s chest to avoid being tackled, tweeted a message early Tuesday that his thoughts and prayers were with the Hamlin family. “I’m praying that you pull through, bro,” Higgins’ said in the message. I watched the tackle that injured Hamlin over and over again, and I am convinced that Higgins did nothing illegal. Football is a violent game.

“I hate football,” was my wife’s first comment when I told her about the injury the previous night. This was not new information. She had expressed her dismay when our son, Daniel, injured his back playing on a Pop Warner team many years ago. She refused to allow his two younger brothers to play anything except flag football. Neither of them was interested in that.

Football is a collision sport. In collision sports, the person purposely hits or collides with other people or objects with great force. Football isn’t the only collision sport. Other examples are  boxing and ice hockey. In collision sports, you need the proper equipment and safety gear, including a helmet. Football helmets have come a long way since the first helmet in 1869.

Most people may think that helmets are intended to prevent concussions. But this is not actually the case, and is one of many football helmet misconceptions. While helmets can defend against skull fractures and serious brain injuries, they can’t stop the movement of the brain inside the skull that causes concussion. That’s why so many concussions still occur in the NFL.

But the collision that nearly cost Hamlin his life had nothing to do with a head injury. Doctors believe Hamlin may have suffered a one-in-200 million heart injury that shuts off blood to the brain and triggered cardiac arrest. Doctors believe the blow to the chest threw his heart’s pumping mechanism out of rhythm, disrupting blood flow around his body and shutting off his brain.

The impact in Monday night’s game may have happened during a very vulnerable moment in Hamlin’s heart’s electrical cycle, triggering a condition called commotio cordis. This is a sudden arrhythmia caused by chest impact near the heart. Without immediate CPR and defibrillation, the prognosis of commotio cordis is not good.  The condition is very  dangerous with rare survival.

If you believe in luck (I prefer to call it providence) Hamlin was actually very lucky after he was very unlucky. If he had sustained the blow to the chest somewhere else,  medical professionals would not have been there to  perform CPR within seconds after he suffered cardiac arrest during the game Monday night. Experts say quick CPR was key to his survival, and I don’t doubt that.

By midday Tuesday, the NFL had advised that the game had been suspended until further notice. Although no final decision was made on if and when the game would be completed, it would not be resumed this week. Since the playoff picture probably won’t change, it’s possible that this game won’t be made up. However, the fact that it won’t be this week had fantasy implications.  

As a co-commissioner in my fantasy football home league, I had the responsibility of sending out a communication about how this would impact the league. In this league, the championship game was already settled. The matchup to determine third place was impacted, with my sister-in-law projected to win if Allen completed the game. Instead he finished with 2.72 FP and she lost.

“I’m sure you are aware that Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest last night in the MNF game in Cincinnati. Hamlin’s heartbeat was restored on the field and he is in critical condition. At a time when a man’s life hangs in the balance, fantasy football becomes far less important. However, if you’re wondering about the impact in our league, here’s the rule:

“According to the rule I read, if an NFL game is postponed or cancelled, the players on those teams will be treated as injured players and no points will be given to them unless the game is played on the same day. If the game is played the next day or beyond, the players in that game will not get any fantasy points,” I wrote, taking this information directly from the Yahoo website.

“As this was the final week of fantasy football for the 2022-23 season, the final score will remain as is. So, if you had any Bengals or Bills player on your fantasy team this week, the points will remain as they are now.” I must admit being surprised when my email set off a firestorm of text messages. “I think it’s total BS, but I guess we gotta go with it,” my sister-in-law commented.

I’m sure there were more harsh comments from managers in other leagues where losing possible points from Allen, Joe Burrow, Stefon Diggs, Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Mixon, or Tee Higgins could have cost championships. Having been eliminated from the playoffs in both of my Yahoo leagues, I am not walking in their shoes. However, I’d like to think I would have felt differently. 

In Buffalo, thousands of fans gathered on Tuesday to hold a prayer vigil for Hamlin and his family outside Highmark Stadium. None of them were worried about how the postponed game might affect the Bills in their quest for a first-round bye in the playoffs. They were praying for a 24-year-old known for organizing Christmas toy drives in his hometown while he was in college.

There’s a time when events on a field of play raise issues far bigger than the outcome of the game in question. There might be issues of player safety in the event of a serious injury. There might be issues of justice in the case of malicious actions by heartless thugs like Tatum, who was never disciplined by the NFL. Or, the issue might be coming together to pray for a human life.

Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, writes about football and baseball for CreativeSports. Be sure to follow Thomas on Twitter@ThomasLSeltzer1.

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