Players across the NFL reported to team facilities Wednesday, a football world trapped between a Week 17 that might linger for years and a high-stakes Week 18 that marks the end of a grueling regular season.
While one of their own continues to fight for his life in a Cincinnati hospital, the sprawling brotherhood of professional players prayed. They talked. They shared. And because it’s what they’ve always done, they put on their helmets and tried to prepare for yet another game in a sport where the risks have never been more apparent.
Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin was still listed in critical condition Wednesday after suffering sudden cardiac arrest at midfield of Monday’s game against the Bengals. Two days later, the NFL world continued spinning and players reported to work, beginning preparations for a weekend slate that includes two games on Saturday and 12 more Sunday.
The NFL and its all-in mentality rarely offer room for introspection or conflicted feelings, but teams across the league took time Wednesday to reflect while also trying to look forward.
“You can do two things at once,” Bengals Coach Zac Taylor said. “You can prepare for a football game on Sunday, and you can still support Damar, support those who knew him who and are dealing with some emotional stuff during this time.”
Taylor, whose team was on the field when Hamlin collapsed Monday, knows they have a lot to process, but they practiced Wednesday because they have a game against the Baltimore Ravens looming Sunday and a division championship potentially at stake.
“People know what they’re signing up for,” Taylor said. “This was a tough situation. My understanding based on the information we have is it’s a one in a very small chance of that happening. Players that play football know that; they know what they’re getting into.”
The Bills are also expected to play their Week 18 game Sunday against the New England Patriots. Neither players nor coaches for either team spoke with reporters Wednesday.
[Damar Hamlin’s recovery is moving in ‘positive direction,’ rep says]
After players recover from Sunday contests, Wednesdays typically mark the start of a new week at team facilities. This week, players reported to work, but things were different. Locker room chatter and meeting room discussions weren’t solely focused on X’s and O’s or film review.
“It was very, very quiet in there,” Green Bay Packers Coach Matt LaFleur said of his team’s morning meeting.
“We talked about it as soon as we came in,” Washington Commanders safety Kam Curl said. “It’s like the elephant in the room.”
Many teams brought in team chaplains or club executives focused on player engagement. They talked about Hamlin, about the game’s risks, about their own team’s safety measures and about the resources available to them to address the wide range of emotions swirling around team facilities. In practice facilities across the league, including Washington, Dallas and Detroit, team meetings began with a prayer.
“All of us in the room came together and did that and then we moved on,” Lions Coach Dan Campbell said. “We just felt like that was the best thing to do, it was the right thing to do. When you don’t have words - and there’s really nothing you know what to say, how to say it, there’s waves of emotion, that’s the best thing. So we did that. That’s where we left it.”
The NFL is a complex web of personal connections, with bonds that stretch back years, across franchises and from the locker room to the coaches’ offices and back. Washington linebacker Khaleke Hudson has been close with Hamlin and Hamlin’s family since childhood. He said Wednesday he’s taking comfort in news reports that Hamlin’s family has noted signs of progress.
“It’s running through my mind all day, even at practice, just thinking about him,” Hudson said.
“It’s a violent game,” he continued, “and you go out there every day putting your best foot forward, trying to just do the best as you can for the team. It’s sad that it happened that way and it happened to him on a freak accident.”
The NFL has always been a fast-moving train. Through career-ending injuries, personal tragedies, professional controversies, even national disasters, with few exceptions, teams manage to take the field a week later.
Washington wreceiver Terry McLaurin said he couldn’t sleep Monday night. Most idplayers have seen and experienced brutal hits, broken bones and head injuries. Monday was different.he, but at the end of the day, there’s some truth to that, and we know that.”
In Miami, Dolphins Coach Mike McDaniel’s voice cracked as he discussed the challenges of taking the practice field Wednesday. It was important that his team start the day with an open conversation, McDaniel said, and he urged players to share their feelings and seek help if they needed it.
“‘Hey listen, there’s no way that you should feel,’” McDaniel said he told his team. “‘How you feel is how you feel. And it can affect people in totally different ways. Be there to support each other because you don’t know how your teammates are feeling. . . . There’s no way - right or wrong or indifferent - on how to feel.’”
Players can uniquely appreciate the path to an NFL career. They know what it means to make a team’s roster - or to suffer an injury that puts everything in peril: a dream, a livelihood, an identity.
“You’ve invested so much into that game,” McDaniel said, “when the game brings forth something like that - that’s one of the countless number of reasons people really struggle with it, with knowing how to feel. The game gives us so much.”
Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin said he couldn’t sleep Monday night. Most players have seen and experienced brutal hits, broken bones and head injuries. Monday was different.
“As athletes, we know the risks that we take putting a helmet on. But you just never think it’s going to come to that, where it’s life or death,” McLaurin said.
Even if they didn’t watch the “Monday Night Football” broadcast live, players and coaches said, they have been inundated with texts and calls about the incident, adding to the swirl of thoughts, fears and emotions.
“A lot of emotions and things are going through your mind,” Philadelphia Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni said. “My first [reaction was] as a football coach and a former football player. Then my thought process turned into, how do I mentor 80 guys through a tough situation like that? Then it turned into, ‘Well, my son plays football.’ There’s just a lot of emotions you have to go through.”
Including, he said, the emotions surrounding how to return to the field.
“You just do. You go from one to the next,” Sirianni said. “You try to make the transition there - you talk about the tough things that are happening and you have that conversation. And then you transition. It’s not easy.”