The Buffalo Bills ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown 14 seconds into their matchup against the New England Patriots Sunday afternoon in the regular season finale.
It was the team’s first game since the Bills’ safety, Damar Hamlin, collapsed and suffered cardiac arrest in the midst of a Monday night game against the Bengals in Cincinnati — and the team said its stunning success from the very start of the game was in Hamlin’s honor.
As the game began, Hamlin’s Twitter account posted a photo of him watching from his hospital bed, wearing a “Love for Damar” jersey with his hands forming the shape of a heart. Shortly after, Hamlin appeared to react to running back Nyheim Hines’ jaw-dropping play mere seconds into the game, tweeting, “OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The NFL and the Bills interpreted the play as a tribute to Hamlin: Following the touchdown, the NFL tweeted, “that was for 3,” and the Bills tweeted, “meant to be,” noting that it had been three years and three months since their last kickoff return for a touchdown.
Other tributes to Hamlin ahead of and at the start of Sunday’s game were plentiful.
In a Sunday morning tweet, the Bills appeared to dedicate the game to Hamlin, 24: “Today is for 3,” the tweet said, alongside a picture of Hamlin’s #3 jersey.
That number was omnipresent from the start of Sunday’s game: The Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen carried a #3 flag out onto the field in Hamlin’s honor prior to kickoff, as cameras panned over the stands at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York — the Bills’ home turf — where fans waved signs with sayings such as “Do it for Hamlin” and “Hamlin One Team One Family.”
The Bills also planned to wear “3” hats on the sidelines in honor of Hamlin’s number, and a special “3” patch on their jerseys, according to the NFL. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told fans in a statement Saturday that “players and coaches from all 32 teams will wear “Love for Damar 3” T-shirts during pregame warmups in a league-wide show of support for Damar.”
The “3” in each 30-yard line number on the field was also outlined the Bills’ colors of red or blue, the NFL said.
The Patriots also tweeted a photo of a #3 jersey inside its locker room emblazoned with the phrase, “Love for Damar.”
Before the game got underway, the Bills’ medical and training staff were honored on the field for rushing to Hamlin’s assistance following his mid-game collapse.
Hamlin collapsed after having made a hit in the first quarter of the game against the Bengals. Trainers surrounded Hamlin and he received CPR for several minutes as the Bills knelt to pray on the field. According to a statement from the Bills, “his heartbeat was restored on the field and he was transferred to the UC Medical Center for further testing and treatment,” referring to the University of Cincinnati’s Level 1 trauma center.
That game was suspended and then postponed. The NFL said it will not be made up.
Sunday’s game comes a day after Hamlin made his first public comments since he collapsed, thanking fans for their support and asking them to keep the prayers coming.
“Thankful for everyone who has reached out and prayed,” Hamlin tweeted Saturday. “This will make me stronger on the road to recovery, keep praying for me!”
In a tweet Saturday, the Bill said that according to Hamlin’s physicians, he “is making continued progress in his recovery yet remains in critical condition.”
“He continues to breathe on his own and his neurological function is excellent,” the tweet continued.
Hamlin will not be playing Sunday or for the foreseeable future, with the Bills putting him on their injured reserve list, they said Friday. The NFL said Hamlin will receive his full $825,000 for 2022 despite landing on the injured reserve list.
Experts who are not involved in Hamlin’s treatment suggested that a rare phenomenon called “commotio cordis” could be to blame, noting that a healthy heart hit with blunt force at a specific time can launch into an abnormal and potentially deadly rhythm.
Bills and NFL fans have rallied around Hamlin since his injury, raising millions of dollars for a charitable donation and toy drive he founded and arriving outside the hospital to express their support, according to NBC affiliate WLWT of Cincinnati.
Phil Helsel, David K. Li and Erika Edwards contributed.