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Perspective: What we’ve learned from the Damar Hamlin saga

When our nation experiences a crisis, Americans have an impulse to pray

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Fans hold a sign in support of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during a game against the New England Patriots, Jan. 8, 2023.

Fans hold a sign in support of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Orchard Park.

Jeffrey T. Barnes, Associated Press

I can’t remember a time that I didn’t love football. Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, football was in the air that I breathed. My childhood photos from the ’70s and ’80s were either me with a rod and reel in my hands, or a football.

I played high school football at Judson High School in Converse, Texas; “Friday Night Lights” were my reality. I thought every high school football player played in front of 8,000 screaming fans. Football was my life. I constantly carried a ball around the house.

Even now, I have a football in my living room, several footballs in my home office, and two in my bedroom. Why, you ask? Because having a football in my hands is a security blanket. At my funeral, I want a rod and reel and a football in the casket with me.

Despite my love affair with football, I always knew getting hurt was a possibility. During my senior year of high school, I experienced a helmet-to-helmet hit so hard that I was knocked out with a concussion. I remember walking off the field and saying, “Coach, I can’t.” The next thing I knew, it was almost halftime, my shoulder pads were off, and I was watching the game from the sidelines.

My next serious concussion occurred during my NFL career. A big fullback named Sam Gash, while blocking me, hit me under my chin with his helmet. Lights out! I was done for the day.

I broke my wrist playing football. It didn’t stop me from playing; I played with a cast. I broke my leg, and tore my knee and ankle ligaments. Yet, I still love football, and I’d do it all over again knowing the risk. For football players, it’s a badge of courage to play through pain, to risk serious injury to help your team win. All of this brings me to Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin.

On Jan. 2, more than 23 million people watched in disbelief and horror as Hamlin collapsed after making a routine tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins during a “Monday Night Football” game. Countless more watched the video over the next few days.

Hamlin would receive nine minutes of CPR to save his life after going into cardiac arrest. His mother was at the game. I can’t even fathom what she experienced watching her baby fight for his life. It was traumatic enough for even people who didn’t know him. After days in intensive care, in which seemingly the whole nation was praying for his recovery, he was transferred to a hospital in Buffalo on Monday, and on Wednesday, the Bills announced that he was discharged and would be going home to continue his recovery.

It is a miracle in every sense of the word, and we have learned so much from the events of the past 10 days.

First, we should all thank God for the medical staff of the Buffalo Bills. They were true heroes. In that moment, they acted upon years of training and were amazing. My faith informs me that God works through people to save people. 

Second, when our nation experiences a crisis, Americans have an impulse to pray. It is often said that people in America are becoming less religious. I suspect people in America are less committed to traditional denominations are but very much committed to faith in Christ. As a pastor of a large, flourishing, multiethnic, nondenominational church, I know people are hungering for a personal encounter with Jesus. We are seeing people from different ethnicities and backgrounds follow Jesus and have their lives changed for the better in innumerable ways.

Third, faith and football are deeply intertwined in America. As a former NFL player, I was not surprised to see players and coaches of the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals players pray after Hamlin collapsed.

Faith, especially the Christian faith, is vibrant in the NFL. Some of the godliest people I’ve ever encountered are my former NFL teammates. Every week across the league, there are Bible studies and chapel services before the games. I often preach at them. Recently, I preached at Clemson’s chapel service before the Orange Bowl. More than 100 players and coaches were in attendance. That’s more than the attendance at the average American church service each week.

We should rejoice over Hamlin’s recovery while continuing to pray for his healing. I also pray that we continue to lean on our faith and love each other deeply.

The Rev. Dr. Derwin L. Gray is co-founder and lead pastor of Transformation Church in South Carolina and the author of “How to Heal Our Racial Divide: What the Bible Says, and the First Christians Knew, about Racial Reconciliation” and “The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches about Finding True Happiness.”