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Damar Hamlin's season with the Buffalo Bills

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For Damar Hamlin, the 24-year-old player for the Buffalo Bills who collapsed during "Monday Night Football," this season had been an opportunity to cherish, he said. A handful of injuries to teammates, including one that sent a close friend to the hospital in the middle of a game, had both opened a door for him to play and had him counting his blessings, as NPR's Becky Sullivan reports.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: When Damar Hamlin was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2021, he was so thrilled that he said he'd be willing to do anything to be part of the team.

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DAMAR HAMLIN: I don't care if they said - if I got to pass out water at half-time, you know? I just want to be on a winning team, and I just want to contribute.

SULLIVAN: Hamlin wasn't a big star coming right out of college. So last season, his rookie year, he was mostly playing special teams or just riding the bench, stuck watching a bunch of all pro-level teammates play instead. But in a testament to his outlook on life, he saw that as a good thing.

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HAMLIN: Me and my family, we all seeing it as the perfect opportunity, you know, like, to be able to come in and learn. And, you know, some rookies, they have the pressure of having to get out there right away. And they might burn their wicks short because they might not be ready for their moment.

SULLIVAN: It turned out his chance would come earlier this season. Nobody was expecting him to be a starter for the Bills. But in the team's second game, back in September against the Tennessee Titans, Hamlin was watching from the sidelines as his friend Dane Jackson took a big, scary hit.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: And there's an injured player down from Buffalo.

SULLIVAN: Jackson was making a tackle when another player dove in and knocked his head straight back.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: ...Came in at the end, you see his head just get driven backwards.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Wow. Tough shot there.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: That's scary.

SULLIVAN: It looked so bad that even on the TV broadcast, you could hear it when the crowd saw the replay on the Jumbotron.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Groaning).

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: You hear the groan from the crowd.

SULLIVAN: For Hamlin, it was a terrifying moment. He and Jackson are really close friends. They grew up together in Pittsburgh. They played against each other in little league and high school. They both went to Pitt, played there together for years. Then the Bills drafted Jackson and the next year, Hamlin too. Both guys have called it a dream come true to play together as pros. So to watch his friend go down like that, to be taken off the field in an ambulance, it felt awful, Hamlin said after the game.

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HAMLIN: It felt terrible. It felt like one of my brothers was down, you know?

SULLIVAN: Hamlin had had to play after that. In the locker room, a reporter asked him what it felt like to come on the field. He said it was real tough.

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HAMLIN: Real tough - you know? - because it's, like, real life stuff going on, you know? Life is bigger than football.

SULLIVAN: Dane Jackson was able to make a quick recovery. He was back on the field in just two weeks. But his injury, then some to other teammates, opened the door for Hamlin. Since that September game, Hamlin has started 13 games for the Bills, including, of course, last Monday night. Even as he racked up playing time in tackles and interviews with Bills' media teams who fawned over how much he was making of his opportunity, he took every chance to say how blessed he felt.

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HAMLIN: It feels so surreal. Like, I can't even describe it, but I cherish it every second that I can, you know, every second of every day.

SULLIVAN: Playing with Jackson was a constant reminder of the path they'd both taken, he said, as kids, high schoolers, college, working nonstop to have this shot in the NFL.

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HAMLIN: Even just walking in the building first thing in the morning, like, you feeling sleepy. You know, you ain't charged up for the day. But it's like - you know, I see Dane, or we just picking the other one up, just putting it in perspective that, like, we where we always wanted to be in the exact moment that we wanted to have it.

SULLIVAN: Seeing his friend have such a scary injury this season had been a reminder to not take things for granted. In an interview after Jackson had recovered, Hamlin told a story about how the Bills' defensive backs were having a weekly group prayer. He and Jackson stood next to each other as they all joined hands.

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HAMLIN: And I just grabbed his hand a little bit harder just 'cause, you know, you never know when, like, the last day could be that you getting to experience something like this, you know? So I'm just - I'm cherishing it every moment I can.

SULLIVAN: Hamlin is still in the ICU at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, though he is improving, the Bills said today in a statement. Last night, his friend Dane Jackson posted an old photo of the two on Instagram, Hamlin's arm thrown over Dane's shoulders, both guys smiling big. He wrote, quote, "keep the prayers going, please. Real prayers. Real soldier. I love you."

Becky Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.