Column: Excitement turns to horror in a second

Published 11:18 am Tuesday, January 3, 2023

I do not get very excited about watching professional sports like I did when I was younger because today’s game does not resemble the one I grew up playing and watching.

But Monday night, I was excited to sit back and watch the Buffalo Bills at the Cincinnati Bengals to wrap up the holiday weekend. Unfortunately, that excitement quickly turned into horror as I watched the events that were unfolding before my very eyes.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin was involved in a hit while tackling Bengals’ receiver Tee Higgins in the opening quarter. The hit did not look all that bad, but when Hamlin stood up, made a quick adjustment of his helmet, and then collapsed and laid on the field, it did not take long to realize something horrible had just happened.

It was easy to see in the reaction of the players around him, the way medical personnel raced frantically onto the field, that something was not right. My mind quickly went back to watching three events that I will never forget.

The first was the way Kenny Schrader reacted when he reached Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s car following the crash at the end of the Daytona 500 back in 2001. He was so frantic that you knew it was not just another crash that “Iron Head” would walk away from. We would later that night find out we had lost the legendary NASCAR driver.

The other one was as a 10-year-old Detroit Lions fan learning that Chuck Hughes had collapsed and died after being hit during a game with the Chicago Bears Oct. 24, 1971. I can remember seeing the photo of Hughes lying lifeless on the field.

As a young football fan, I really did not understand what had happened. I do remember being sad about one of my team’s players had died, even though I am not sure I fully understood what death meant because I had never experienced anyone in my life passing.

The third and final event would bring me face-to-face with death and how short and precious life can really be.

During preseason baseball practice when I was a freshman, we were running laps in the gym when one of the upper classmen, Tim Jankowski, collapsed. None of us knew what was going on at the time. We were told to leave the gym while coaches and school officials waited for emergency personnel to arrive.

We would later find out that he died. That happened way back in the mid-1970s, but it all came flooding back Monday night as I continued to watch and listen to what was going on and being said about Hamlin’s situation.

I got pretty emotional watching the looks on the faces of the players as I began to recall how I felt during those events that shaped my life. I could not believe how quiet Paycor Stadium got as they looked on from their seats.

I understand that they were all expecting to see what was being hyped as the best game of the National Football League season. I also understand that they were as shocked and stunned as I was looking on.

What impressed me, even more, is that they continued to be respectful as seconds turned into minutes and then an hour. I have never heard a stadium that quiet for that long. As one of the ESPN reporters said, there was a pall over the stadium.

In today’s day and age, I am used to people being disrespectful and only caring about themselves, which could have led to a much different situation in Cincinnati. It was genuinely nice to see that there is still a shred of humanity left in this world.

I did not sleep very well last night. I put the radio on the NFL channel to listen for updates and I kept checking Twitter and Facebook for updates on Hamlin’s situation. I did feel a bit better when it was reported that his vitals had returned to normal, but I was also still concerned since he still is using a breathing tube.

I can only hope now that Hamlin is able to recover and resume a normal life. I am not sure if he will ever play another football game moving forward, and quite frankly, football should be the furthest thing from everyone’s mind. Our only concern should be that he lives and is able to return to his family.

 

Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at scott.novak@leaderpub.com