PITTSFORD, N.Y.—For an immensely talented team that crashed out of the playoffs last year, that has legit Super Bowl hopes, that carries the dreams of an impassioned region, the story of the Buffalo Bills as they open camp is all Damar Hamlin, all the time.
We’re at a milestone moment of the Hamlin comeback. This morning, for the first time since he nearly died on the field in the Buffalo-Cincinnati game 30 weeks ago, Hamlin will do what all football players do in preparing for the new season: get in full uniform and make full contact with guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“Damar’s got one hurdle left,” GM Brandon Beane told me Sunday morning at Bills camp, as Hamlin and his defensive mates practiced 10 yards away.
Hamlin, concentrating on football only, hasn’t spoken to reporters in the first week of camp, focusing on his return to the game (which in a very non-fairy-tale way is likely but no lock). He has, however, continued to give himself to the fans and to causes in the cardiac community. In the early days of training camp at St. John Fisher University, he’s been nearly as popular as matinee idol Josh Allen. I watched him for at least 35 minutes sign and pose and smile for Bills fans young and old after practice Sunday. One shy 5- or 6-year-old told him softly as Hamlin signed his jersey, “You’re my hero,” causing Hamlin to beam.
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Reality will intrude this morning on a small-college football field near Rochester.
“Yup,” said Buffalo corner Dane Jackson, who grew up with Hamlin in Pittsburgh, then played with him at Pitt before both found work with the Bills. Amazing coincidence—and of course, no one on the team or in the organization knows Hamlin the way Jackson does. I went to him to ask if he thought Beane was right about the pads and full contact being the final hurdle in the comeback.
“I mean, I’m pretty sure he feels the way,” Jackson said. “He’s been out there for some practices, so he’s been out there feeling it. But putting the pads on is pretty much the last step for him. Once he gets comfortable doing that, then he’s back and he’s ready.”
Last season, Hamlin’s second in the league, he got a chance to start 13 games because of an injury to starter Micah Hyde. But Hyde and fellow safety Jordan Poyer are back starting, and they’re one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. Beane imported ex-Ram Taylor Rapp in free agency, and it’s likely Rapp’s the third safety entering the season. That leaves Hamlin in competition, most likely, for the fourth safety spot with a couple of vets (Dean Marlowe and Jared Mayden).
I spent probably 75 percent of the two-hour practice Sunday watching Hamlin. The rules of engagement are different without pads. Defenders can wrap up ballcarriers and have minimal contact but no tackling. In 11-on-11 play, there’s some blocking by the offensive line, but it’s not close to game conditions. No question Hamlin was flying around Sunday the way he did in the secondary last season. On one play, running to catch running back James Cook near the left sideline, Hamlin instinctively shoved aside rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid to clear a path to Cook.
But the more I watched, the more I thought: Great. Hamlin’s still the athletic and instinctive player the Bills fell in love with out of Pitt. But that’s not what the coaches need to see now. Will Hamlin have some hesitation when a big tight end comes over the middle and a jarring hit is called for? Is he, deep down, traumatized by the knowledge that a big hit last year resulted in his heart stopping? Does that thought live with him?
The other part that has to be weird is the notoriety. On Jan. 2, when Hamlin lined up to play the Bengals, 99 percent of fans had never heard of him. Now he’s one of the most famous players in the league. Two days after being revived on the field in Cincinnati, the back page of the New York Post screamed AMERICA’S SON. Seriously: Who’s more famous in our country right now—Damar Hamlin or Lamar Jackson? It’s at least a question.
A group of local kids, six or eight of them, at camp Sunday stood behind a fence and watched Hamlin do simple defensive-back drills, practicing high-pointing deep interceptions and proper technique for bumping wideouts at the line.
“Hey, that’s Damar!”
“We love you Damar!”
I asked Dane Jackson: “Has he ever said to you that maybe he shouldn’t play football again?”
“Nah, nah,” Jackson said. “That hasn’t been a topic for us.”
“You think he still really wants to play?”
“Absolutely,” Jackson said.
The verve and competitiveness, on and off the field, showed that Sunday. Manny Butler, the son of defensive backs coach/defensive pass-game coordinator John Butler, was on the field with the DBs Sunday wearing a “Pray for Damar” T-shirt. The way he looked at Hamlin—mouth occasionally agape, hanging close to him whenever he was on the sidelines with a look of I’m here next to Damar!—seemed to me to mirror the fans at practice. They want Hamlin to make it and have a very long life with the team. He very well may. Today, and other days this summer when players collide with players the way they know they must, will begin to tell the Bills (and perhaps Hamlin too) how long he’ll play the game.