ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It was uplifting enough for the Buffalo Bills staff and players to see Damar Hamlin appear on the video screen in the team's meeting room Friday — “larger than life," as coach Sean McDermott put it — for the first time since the safety collapsed and had to be resuscitated on the field.
What sent everyone’s emotions over the top was hearing Hamlin, his mouth and throat still raw shortly after having a breathing tube removed, softly say: “Love you, boys.”
“Amazing. Touching. To see Damar, number one, through my own eyes, I know it’s something I’ve been looking forward to, kind of needing to see,” McDermott said. “And to see the players’ reaction. They stood up right away and clapped for him and yelled some things at him. It was a pretty cool exchange.”
Four days since his heart stopped after making what appeared to be a routine tackle in a game, the 24-year-old Hamlin from his hospital room in Cincinnati and the Bills enjoyed a moment of jubilation in celebrating the next step in what his doctors have termed a remarkable recovery.
“We got our boy, man. It’s all that matters,” left tackle Dion Dawkins said.
“To see the boy’s face, to see him smile and to see him go like this in the camera,” Dawkins said, flexing his muscles to mimic Hamlin, “it was everything. And then to hear him talk, it was literally everything. That’s what we needed.”
Hamlin is now breathing and walking on his own, and traded in the writing pad he had been using to communicate. Though there is no timetable for his release, Hamlin’s doctors said Thursday that both breathing on his own and showing continued signs of improvement are the final steps for him to be discharged from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
On Saturday, the Bills provided a further update that his doctors say he is making progress and remains in critical condition. Hamlin is still breathing on his own and his "neurological function is excellent."
Hamlin spent his first two days in the hospital under sedation. Upon being awakened on Wednesday evening, Hamlin was able to follow commands and grip people’s hands. The breathing tube was removed, the team said Friday, and Hamlin's “neurologic function remains intact.”
The team did not say whether Hamlin’s status remains critical or whether he’s been moved from intensive care.
In what was an expected formality, the Bills placed Hamlin on the season-ending injured reserve list and activated rookie cornerback Christian Benford from IR. Benford has been sidelined since sustaining an oblique injury on Thanksgiving Day.
“The hair on the back of my neck stood up when he said, 'I love you boys,’” said general manager Brandon Beane, who returned to Buffalo on Thursday after spending the three days at Hamlin’s bedside along with the player’s family.
The turning point in Hamlin’s recovery, for Beane, anyway, came Thursday morning when the two exchanged hugs.
“Just to be able to hug him and the grip strength that he had,” Beane said, before recalling what he told Hamlin’s father, Mario. “I told him, I’m not a crier, but man it was emotional and a lot of grown men in there crying yesterday. Something I’ll never forget.”
The reaction from around the NFL on Friday was just as heart-warming.
“Awesome. It’s probably uplifting for the entire league,” said New York Giants coach Brian Daboll, who spent the previous four seasons as the Bills offensive coordinator. “It gives you a boost because you’re praying so hard for the young man."
The NFL announced plans to show support for Hamlin during all Week 18 games, including a pregame moment of support, painting Hamlin’s No. 3 on the 30-yard line and pregame shirts with “Love for Damar 3.” The Bills will also wear “3” jersey patches.
New York Jets rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner was already planning to wear Hamlin’s No. 3 jersey during warmups before the team’s game at Miami on Sunday.
“What a warrior. He’s so strong, a fighter for sure,” Gardner said. “I was just so happy he was able to come back to the world.”
Interacting with Hamlin gave the Bills (12-3) some encouragement and allowed them to turn their attention to the season-ending home game against the New England Patriots (8-8) on Sunday.
“It’s going to be a celebration of life and an ongoing life,” Beane said, looking ahead.
“It’s not only going to be a celebration of Buffalo, but the whole country, and I’m sure people internationally that have watched this situation,” he added. “It’s going to be a cool deal, and the only thing better is if Damar was out there by then. I don’t know if that would happen, but anyway, we’re excited for Sunday.”
The sight of Hamlin collapsing, which was broadcast to a North American TV audience on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” has led to an outpouring of support from fans and players from across the league. Fans, team owners and players — including Tom Brady and Russell Wilson — have made donations to Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation, which had raised just short of $8 million by Friday afternoon.