“What went wrong?”: A look into the night of Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest


People across the country have kept Damar Hamlin in their thoughts and prayers after he suffered a cardiac arrest during the Bills vs Bengals game. Photo courtesy of the Japan Times

Morgan Schmidt

It’s Jan. 2, 9:25pm. Silence fills the air, not even the tires across the turf making a sound. Players back away from the scene, still in disbelief. Fans’ faces are plastered with questions—what went wrong?

Just four hours before, fans walked along the banks of the Ohio River, anticipation and excitement filing the air. Drinks and food are being demolished in parking lots, cameras, talking, cheering and crowds of people. A seemingly normal game. In reality, this is the most important game of the year for many AFC teams.

Two of the best teams in the American Football Conference (AFC), the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, meet for the first time in almost four years. The teams have new leaders for their offense, which continue to be debated as to who’s superior: Joe Burrow of the Bengals or Josh Allen of the Bills. I thought the worst thing that could happen is that they would end up third in the conference. I guess I was wrong.  

An hour passes. I’m sitting with my dad on concrete 15 feet away from the gates, waiting to scan our tickets. A little boy wearing a Bills Jersey is sitting on the same hard, cold concrete with his mom. We had been there for about 45 minutes, our legs tired and adrenaline growing by the next seconds. Only 30 more minutes until the gates open.

When we finally got to our seats, there were 75 minutes until game time. Everything was routine. The kickers were the only ones out on the field, besides a few players who were warming up individually. Fans lined the front row in hopes for an autograph, with some even getting to throw back and forth with Joe Mixon, a Bengals running back, and Stefon Diggs, Bills wide receiver. I watched every seat fill as the time ran down before kickoff. 

As fans drank more and more, anxiety grew in their stomachs. People began to practically jump out of their seats. LaRosa Pizzas were selling out left and right, and hungry fans continued to patiently wait for new ones to become available. 

People are everywhere—so many people. Never in my life had I seen this many people at a football game, and I’ve been to a lot of football games. There’s 15 minutes until kickoff. 

Everyone waved their phones’ flashlights, syncing with the music during the team introductions. I’ve seen nothing like it. The sheer atmosphere raged with excitement.

Cincinnati had the ball first. They went from the 25-yard line to the end zone in just 5 plays. Burrow threw a short pass to Tyler Boyd (WR, 83) for the 6 points. Evan McPherson’s (K, 2) extra point then made it 7-0. 

Nothing could describe the moment for everyone in the stadium. The energy and screaming from fans made it to where you couldn’t even hear your own thoughts. My ears picked nothing up from  my dad who was right next to me. 

With 12 minutes and 34 seconds remaining on the clock, the Bills gained possession and struggled to gain an end zone pass on the Bengals’ defense Josh Allen (QB, 17), who became visibly frustrated and cursed when taking timeouts and stopping points. Cincinnati held Buffalo to a field goal, making the score 7-3. 

“I’ll trade touchdowns for field goals all day,” my dad said. He isn’t wrong, there’s a 4 point difference between the two. 

The next kickoff led the Bengals to the 26-yard line; the first play was a running one. The next was a 13-yard gain for Tee Higgins (WR, 85) who was tackled on about the Bills 35 yard line. Everyone stood up and huddled for the next play, until an injury timeout was called.

A guy across the aisle from us stated “The Bills are dropping like flies.” A couple of seconds later, my sister texted the same comment to my dad. The stands are waiting for the play to reset and get the player up from the ground and to the sideline. Seconds later, a gurney rushes to the field. Broken bones and troubles getting up are not a rare occurrence in football. But then, the Buffalo team surrounded the injured player: Damar Hamlin.

A woman walks past us “This is the perfect bathroom break.” Wow. That was kind of insensitive.

My thoughts are that he must’ve broke a leg, and it was very graphic so they are being respectful. My dad thought something else was up though when I told him my thoughts. “I think it’s something more serious. Oh my! He just threw up,” he said, as my eyes darted straight to the field.

Players pace and walk away from the circle, some getting on their knees to pray. As these events unfold, the Twitter pages refresh, and the haptic sound from Apple keyboards sound out as people text loved one’s asking what was going on ESPN. 

I think I refreshed Twitter 200 times that night. In the stadium, everyone was left in the dark, except for that there was an injury. The energy sucked from every seat in the stadium, the decibels of sound lowering significantly. Everyone just wanted answers to what was going on. 

Ten minutes passed, and we finally received an update. Damar Hamlin was receiving CPR and AED on the field. Then, everyone around us became not strangers anymore. Time moves slowly from this point forward. Everything seemed like it was in slow motion, but I weirdly remember every detail as clear as day. 

Hamlin receiving CPR for 8 minutes? Is he dead? What is going to happen? Questions every minute, every second. 

Ambulance enters the field, making the event even more serious. Still another 30 minutes pass before the ambulance finally leaves the turf. For a couple of minutes, it looked like the game would resume. Everyone gets warmed up on the Bengals bench. Then, Zac Taylor, the head coach of the Bengals, walks over to the Bills sideline and pulls the referees with him. 

After their conversation, the players retreat to their respective locker rooms. We wait for an announcement for more information. People leave, thinking it wasn’t worth the wait. I’m glued to Twitter trying to find out what is going on behind the scenes. A tweet said the ambulance stopped under the stadium and waited for Hamlin’s mom, puzzling people because you think they would rush him there to get the best help. 

This left two things in people’s mind: he’s already dead, or he’s stable and has the time to wait and stop. The more time passed, the least likely the game would continue. Many of the Bills players had taken off their uniforms. Still, we waited. Shortly after, the NFL announced the game would be suspended until a further time. 

On our way out of the stadium it was eerily quiet, too quiet. I had never been to a sporting event that was this silent afterwards. It was almost scary. As we walked across the bridge to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, the stadium looked like a movie, moisture and fog trapped within the stands. 

Every step I took made everything seem like an imagination. I mean, I was full of excitement two hours ago, and now I feel like I wasn’t even there. 

Getting back to my hotel I lay in bed, looking out the window across the river seeing the stadium lit up in blue in honor of Damar. I began to wonder: what went wrong?