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Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffers a cardiac arrest during Monday's game

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Injuries are part of all sports, but football is unique for the number of serious injuries people suffer while millions watch on TV.

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Last night came an event so startling that the NFL suspended Monday Night Football. Early in the first quarter, Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills collided with another player, stood up and then collapsed. His heart had stopped.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Goldman is covering this story. Tom, good morning.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Not very often that a 24-year-old suffers cardiac arrest, so what's his team saying?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, the Buffalo Bills released a statement, and it said Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest following a hit in our game versus the Bengals. His heartbeat was restored on the field, and he was transferred to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for further testing and treatment. He's currently sedated and listed in critical condition. Now, Steve, the positive part of that, if you can call anything about this terrifying incident positive, is that the medical personnel, paramedics, got his heart going again on the field using CPR, reportedly a defibrillator. There was real fear that we had watched a young man die on the field, and he appears lucky in the sense that he had outstanding medical help within seconds of his collapse. But as the statement says, he's still in critical condition.

INSKEEP: Well, what was it like to be watching as that happened?

GOLDMAN: Spooky. Like millions of NFL fans, I had settled in to watch what was expected to be a great game between two of the league's best teams. And with about six minutes left in the first quarter, Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow completed a pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins. Higgins collided with Hamlin. Both of them went down. It seemed fairly routine - you know, not one of those hits that makes you cringe. Hamlin got to his feet pretty quickly, but then, as you guys already said, he fell over backwards, wasn't moving. The aftermath started to unfold the way we often see with a bad injury - fellow players looking concerned, some kneeling. But soon it became apparent that this was beyond. Players were openly crying. TV broadcasters who are paid to talk couldn't. They kept saying there's nothing to say and then breaking for more commercials. Once Hamlin was taken off the field in an ambulance, the question became what happens with the game? And players left the field. About an hour after Hamlin was stricken, the NFL, with the support of the players' union, called off the game. They really had to. I mean, I don't think any player was prepared to continue.

INSKEEP: Yeah, but if this was a routine hit for American football, which it did seem to be, what clues suggest what could have gone wrong?

GOLDMAN: Well, on the play, Higgins, the receiver, barreled into Hamlin's chest. Scott Hensley of NPR's Science Desk notes there's a medical condition where a hard hit to the chest right in front of the heart can scramble the heart's rhythm if it happens at the exact wrong time during the heartbeat. Now, Scott stresses, though, at this point, that's speculation. We need to hear what doctors say who treated Hamlin.

INSKEEP: You know, Tom, I was watching the big college games on New Year's Eve - really exciting.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But having to explain to my kids who don't watch as much just how violent this sport can be - does this incident say something larger about football?

GOLDMAN: You know, you're seeing people start to plug what happened with Damar Hamlin into that narrative. In fact, minutes before Hamlin went down, we were reminded of the danger when another Buffalo player suffered a head injury and left the game. And it's ironic to note the most controversial story in the NFL this season, the repeated concussions suffered by Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa - he suffered a severe head injury in Cincinnati, was transported to the same hospital where Hamlin is being treated. But as easy as it is for some to take the leap and say, see, it's football's fault, it's really not fair at this point without all the information about what happened.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll listen for more of your reporting.

NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.