Hamlin on first practice in pads: 'Feels amazing'


PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Damar Hamlin was on one knee, warming up in his usual spot all the way to the left on the defensive line. Head athletic trainer Nate Breske came over to him, talked for a little bit and waved in the direction of Hamlin’s family.

The moment was one of many little ones that, without context, would be considered normal at the first padded practice of Buffalo Bills training camp. Hamlin stretching out his arms and putting his head to the sky during warmups. The first pass Hamlin defensed, he made contact with the receiver. Throwing the ball with his 8-year-old brother, Damir, after practice.

For the first time since suffering cardiac arrest on Monday Night Football in Cincinnati on Jan. 2, Hamlin participated in a padded practice, and the little moments transformed into remarkable ones.

“It feels amazing,” Hamlin said of being in pads again in his first news conference since April. “It’s a roller coaster of emotions. I was kind of all over the place, just kind of being back for the first time. But God don’t make no mistakes. I’m on God’s timing. As much as the NFL is on schedule and camp starts this day, this is all God’s timing.”

Hamlin, who has been a full participant in Bills practices since OTAs in early June, had his parents, Mario and Nina, and his agent, Ira Turner, in attendance and watching from the sidelines as he cleared a “super big hurdle” in his journey.

“I pretty much lost my life playing this sport. So, to come back and do it all over again, it’s all over the place,” Hamlin said. “I’m rooted in my faith. I’m rooted in the love that I receive from my family, my teammates and the love all around the world. That keeps me going. And I’ve got goals that I still want to achieve within this game.”

Hamlin, 25, shared in April that doctors concluded that he suffered a specific type of cardiac arrest, commotio cordis, “an extremely rare consequence of blunt force trauma to the heart that happens at exactly the wrong time in the heart rhythm, causing the heart to stop beating effectively,” per the American Heart Association. Collapsing occurs within a few seconds. He was cleared by multiple heart specialists to return to the field.

To start the day, Hamlin, in his third season after being selected by the Bills in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL draft, ran onto the practice field with his helmet strapped to his head. It remained on throughout warmups and as practice got underway. Hesitation was something that Hamlin did not experience in his first padded practice, as he said that you can’t “hit that field with no hesitation. You’re putting yourself in more danger by doing that.”

He did acknowledge, however, that he’s processing thousands of emotions, and that “I’m not afraid to say that it crosses my mind of being a little scared here and there. But like I say, my strength is rooted in my faith. And my faith is stronger than any fear.”

While taking part in the first padded practice was a big hurdle, the impact of what he experienced will go far beyond just one day.

“For me, it never was about the first moment of contact,” Hamlin said. “It never was about the first one. Because what happened to me, it was such random, and it was any moment. But that feeling, you know, it’ll never go away. First day, last day, when I retire — it’ll never go away.

“But like I said, man, my faith is stronger than… it’s stronger than that fear that’s in there. When I hit that field, I’m not thinking twice. I’m gonna go make a tackle, just like I would any other day, whether whatever happened to me. But those feelings will be in there forever, and I’m not afraid to say that.”

The Bills are taking the approach of moving at Hamlin’s speed and doing things in whatever way is comfortable and healthy for him. He has a daily devotional book that he reads, which he shapes his day around. He also leans on the support of his family, Bills sports psychologist Dr. Desaree Festa, friends and teammates.

“It’s easy to come in and say, ‘OK, he’s back on the football field,’ but to see him everyday living, breathing, laughing, and having a good time is really where you have your eye opening, like, God is good. It’s not so much on the football end, I’m more so appreciating the person,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said.

Diggs isn’t alone as a well-wisher for Hamlin; fans watching training camp practice consistently give him one of the biggest cheers as he heads out to the field. The reality for Hamlin is that due to the very public way he collapsed from a hit on Monday Night Football, so many people got invested in his journey.

“My dad has been preaching like, just trying to make everything as normal as possible, but, as far as my situation, it’s a unique situation. And I have to, I will live with that forever. I’ll sit with that forever,” Hamlin said. “… I wish I could do this process under a rock … just to myself and pop out whenever I felt like I was super, super duper, you know, ready to be a Pro Bowler. But I think it’s power in being out here every day and doing my process in front of the world, and I always wanted to stand for something bigger than myself. It was my goal my whole life.”

He spent parts of his summer giving back with a CPR Tour in Buffalo, his hometown of Pittsburgh and in Cincinnati, bringing CPR training to each city and distributing AEDs to youth sports teams. The plan is to grow the tour to even more cities.

While there are many steps still to come, it was Breske who reminded him of the positives that will come with the challenges he is facing.

“[Breske] said he was a little bit jealous, because like, when in life do we get to encounter challenges like this and overcome things like this. Not too many people get this level of overcoming something and being able to stand for so many good things,'” Hamlin said. “So, to be able to be a chosen one and to be able to be the one to overcome something so big, it’s a blessed space and it’s a bunch of opportunity in there as well if you choose to look at it that way.”

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