Hamlin incident sparks conversations in football community

Weston Simmons makes a hard hit against a Colerain ball carrier in the Comets’ victory in the first round of the OHSAA playoffs.

Andrew Little | The Chronicle

Shockwaves were sent throughout the entire football community when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed after a collision and received cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in front of over 65,000 fans and millions of television viewers.

Debates over player safety due to concussions have dominated headlines over the past two decades, however Hamlin’s injury resonated with the country in a completely new way. He suffered cardiac arrest on the field after making a tackle on Cincinnati Bengals’ wide receiver Tee Higgins. He initially stood up after the hit before collapsing and immediately received emergency support. 

Senior Weston Simmons plays Hamlin’s position of safety for the Mason football team and saw the incident live at Paycor Stadium. His dad has coached for the Bengals for 20 years, so Simmons has been around football his entire life. He was in attendance for major injuries such as Ryan Shazier’s career-ending spinal injury in 2017 and Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion earlier this season. Both of those injuries resulted in the players leaving in an ambulance. Simmons said the Hamlin situation was  unlike anything he had ever seen on a football field.

“It really started to get intense when they brought out the ambulance and then the teams huddled around them for such a long period of time,” Simmons said. “That’s when I knew it was really big. I’ve seen injuries on that field like Tua Tagovailoa getting hurt and I’ve also seen Ryan Shazier paralyzed on the field. It was just nothing like that.”

The incident was headline news for the next few days, drawing the attention of the American public, not just football fans. This resurfaced debates player safety. The issue of concussions has dominated the discourse over football and health for the past few decades. Many safety measures including safer helmets, new tackling methods and stricter protocols have been implemented at every level of the sport. As a contact sport, broken bones and ligament issues are always a risk. Cardiac emergencies, however, are rarely thought of as football injuries. 

Ohio law requires all school coaches and athletic training staff to be trained and certified in cardiac arrest and similar emergencies every year. Mason’s home football stadium, Dwire Field, has an AED present. Head varsity football coach Brian Castner said that he is confident in the staff’s preparation for emergency situations and acknowledged that new protocols could be implemented to ensure player safety after the Hamlin incident.

“I’m sure that will be talked about as we move forward,” Castner said. “We’ll work through that. And our district will take the appropriate measures to make sure that all of our athletes are taken care of.”

Hamlin’s situation was unlike anything that had ever occurred on an NFL field, especially in a heavily publicized event like Monday Night Football. Castner said he has some concerns that the prominence of the incident will lead to speculation instead of people educating themselves on the situation.

“I do worry a little bit, just because people aren’t informed enough about the injury and won’t dig enough on exactly what happened,” Castner said. “They won’t dig enough to find out the chance of it happening again. It is a freak injury, but I think there’s probably even a crazier adjective to describe this injury because it’s happened one time on the football field.”

Some parents around the country have already started to come out publicly and state that they are unsure about allowing their child to return to football, and some have gone as far as to say their kid will never play again after Hamlin’s situation.Castner said that he will always respect a parent’s decision regarding their child’s safety, just as he and others within the sport have with concussions, but also believes it is important people are familiar with the risks involved not only for a cardiac issue but also everyday activities in comparison.

“The parents have that right,” Castner said. “I’m never going to talk down to it or belittle it. The thing that everybody needs to recognize is the chance of that happening again is still way lower than you getting in your car and driving and an accident happening. So if you’re going to not play football, then is it a right or fair comparison to say, ‘Well, you better not drive then?’ Because the percentage of you getting in an accident is way higher.”

Hamlin made significant progress in the ensuing days after his incident maintaining cognitive function and was able to speak within a week. The first question he asked doctors after waking up was, “Did we win?” Their response was, “Yes, you won the game of life.” Even in a life-threatening situation, his competitive edge remained. Now, he is back at home. Hamlin has a long road to recovery, and his prospects of playing football again are unknown. The recent positive developments have shed a far more optimistic light on the situation, but the frightening event still resonates. Simmons said that there are inherent risks that football players accept every time they step on the field, but he never anticipated seeing a near-death experience as Hamlin had.

“I wouldn’t have even thought of that to happen,” Simmons said. “You never really think of a near-death experience, especially with all the different rules and regulations about hitting and targeting and stuff like that, and the NFL lessening all these different injuries. That’s just something you never really think about until now which is a big wake-up call.”

Simmons is also a varsity lacrosse player. Recently, USA Lacrosse nationally mandated new chest-protecting equipment for all uniforms after a few rare occurrences of sudden deaths resulting from blunt impacts from the ball to the chest stopping the heartbeat, a condition known as commotio cordis. The cause of Hamlin’s cardiac arrest was never officially revealed, but adding similar chest-protecting equipment to current shoulder pads and equipment could be an option for football to help reduce the risk of cardiac emergencies as a result of the situation. Simmons said that the change allows him to play without worrying about that type of injury in lacrosse and believes it would have a similar impact on football players and parents.

“Once you’re out on the field that’s in the back of your mind, but once you have a more protective chest protector I think it calms me down more,”  Simmons said. “Parents, it won’t put the worries away completely but I think it’ll definitely lessen them for sure.”

Hamlin’s recovery has shifted the dialogue surrounding the incident. The entire country united in support of him. People of all different backgrounds and faiths kept him in their thoughts and prayers. The city of Cincinnati, where Hamlin was cared for at the University of Cincinnati Hospital, made numerous public gestures of support. These included Bengals head coach Zac Taylor’s wife, Sarah, collecting cards encouraging Hamlin from students at dozens of local elementary schools including Mason Intermediate. Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation which gives back to children in his hometown in Pennsylvania raised over $8 million in donations. Castner said that he was touched by how the football community rallied together and hopes that the situation’s legacy is the positivity and unity that followed it.

“It’s what makes football in the United States of America so special,” Castner said. “Everybody uses different words to describe football because there are all these different views of the way they want to look at the game, but it is the greatest team and family game.”

Photo by Lily Haller