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Who is Damar Hamlin? The Buffalo Bills safety keeps Pittsburgh and his family close

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, pictured after a game in January 2022, is in critical condition after suffering a cardiac arrest Monday night.
Adrian Kraus
/
AP
Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, pictured after a game in January 2022, is in critical condition after suffering a cardiac arrest Monday night.

Updated January 3, 2023 at 12:44 PM ET

Players, coaches and football fans are anxiously awaiting updates about Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills player who suffered a cardiac arrest during Monday night's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Hamlin's heartbeat was restored on the field and he was transferred to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was sedated and in critical condition as of early Tuesday morning.

In a statement released midday Tuesday, Hamlin's family thanked first responders, medical professionals, both football teams and fans around their country for their support, prayers and donations.

"Please keep Damar in your prayers," they said. "We will release updates as soon as we have them."

The 24-year-old's collapse — which happened in the first quarter, after he collided with a Bengals player — brought a rare early halt to the game and left onlookers both on and off the field distraught.

Players, teams and athletes from football and other sports have flooded social media with tributes and prayers. Among them is his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, where he spent five years playing for his hometown before joining the NFL in 2021.

"Damar Hamlin is the best of us," the Pitt football account tweeted.

Charting his path from Pittsburgh

Hamlin grew up playing both football and basketball in McKees Rocks, a borough in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area in Western Pennsylvania.

Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills NFL football team, pictured in June 2022.
/ AP
/
AP
Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills NFL football team, pictured in June 2022.

He made a name for himself in high school, leading his team to a 15-1 record, a WPIAL Class AAAA championship and PIAA state title in his senior year. Recruitment sites Rivals and 247Sports named Hamlin the top-rated defensive player in Pennsylvania and several Division 1 football schools pursued him.

But staying close to home was an easy decision, as Hamlin told the Point Park Globe in 2021.

"I was just so Pittsburgh. Everything was Pittsburgh for me," he said. "I wanted to give my city bragging rights, bring my city something and just give the city another reason to smile."

Hamlin's junior season was his first full season of college football because of injuries, but he would go on to start in 36 of his final 38 games, the Athletic reports. In his final season, he was named a captain by his teammates and earned a spot on both the All-ACC second team and the Reese's Senior Bowl all-star game.

He declared for the NFL draft in 2021 and was selected by the Bills in the sixth round.

Emerging as a team leader

Hamlin played sparingly as a rookie in his first pro season, but took over as a starting safety in September after his teammate Micah Hyde suffered a neck injury.

He has played in all 15 games so far, tallying 91 tackles (tied for second-most on the Bills), six tackles for loss, two pass breakups and 1.5 sacks this season.

Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazer recently praised Hamlin's development over the course of this season, ESPN reports, "including noting in the past couple of weeks that he has stepped up more as a vocal leader and improved as a tackler, with a lot thrown on his plate quickly after he had to step in for Hyde."

Hyde wasn't the only Bills player injured in that particular game. Dane Jackson — Hamlin's childhood friend and college teammate at Pitt — was taken off the field in an ambulance after suffering a neck injury. He returned to the field after missing one game.

Hamlin spoke about Jackson's injury — and the opportunity to play football, especially alongside a close friend — in an appearance on One Bills Live earlier this season, in a video clip that has since resurfaced on social media.

"I can't even describe it, but I cherish it every second that I can," Hamlin said. "Every second of every day. We just had our prayer, our DB prayer we do every Wednesday. He was next to me and I just grabbed his hand a little bit harder just because you know you never know when your last day could be that you get to experience something like this. I'm cherishing every moment that I can."

Keeping his community close

Hamlin is close to his family, by his own account and those of journalists who have covered him in the past.

In a clip of an interview shared by FOX Sports reporter Henry McKenna, Hamlin says he's "big on my family unit."

"My mom, my dad, my little brother, like that's pretty much my whole world, outside of any other thing going on; my life revolves around them," he said. "I don't really do too much without my mom and dad's opinion. Whether I take it or whether I don't ... sometimes I just want to hear it."

Years earlier, Hamlin told the Globe that he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh for college in part to be a role model for his brother, who was 2 years old at the time, and cited his parents as his personal role models.

In an interview with The Buffalo News just before the Bills played the Pittsburgh Steelers in October, Hamlin said he was expecting good turnout from family and friends — with the exception of his dad, who coaches his little brother's team and stayed behind for playoffs.

Buffalo News reporter Katherine Fitzgerald tweeted excerpts of the story on Tuesday.

Pittsburgh sports journalist Amanda Godsey tweeted Monday night that her mind went straight to Hamlin's family after seeing him collapse, recalling that he seemed close to his parents and had his brother on his lap during a media session several years ago.

Several sports-related social media accounts shared a clip of the athlete embracing family members on the sidelines earlier this season.

After his injury, fans showed their support for Hamlin by contributing millions of dollars to an online fundraiser that Hamlin started back in 2020 — before he went pro — aimed at buying toys for kids affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in his hometown. As of midday Tuesday it had raised more than $3.8 million, far surpassing its original goal of $2,500.

Hamlin wrote on the page that this fundraiser would be the first program of the Chasing M's Foundation, which he created to give back to his community (Hamlin is also the founder and CEO of Chasing M's, a clothing brand he developed while in college).

"As I embark on my journey to the NFL, I will never forget where I come from and I am committed to using my platform to positively impact the community that raised me," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.