INDIANAPOLIS – The scene at Hersheypark Stadium on December 19, 2015 will never be forgotten by Rodney Thomas II.
It’s the dream of every Pennsylvania high school football player: winning the state championship, making history and creating memories for a lifetime. Central Catholic High School had just done that, beating Parkland 21-18 in the Class 4A title game to get airborne. Thomas, then a junior, recalls the chaos on the pitch that spilled over into the dressing room, where his older team-mate Damar Hamlin repeatedly and triumphantly raised the State Cup over his head in celebration.
“It’s really crazy because I’ve only recently thought about it,” Thomas said. “I still have that old picture in my phone and just started randomly thinking about it. … It was packed in this stadium. And to see everything we’d been working for since camp just come to fruition was really crazy. All the seniors had their turn for the trophy and of course you want to send them off with a win. When D-Ham got the trophy it was really good to see him go to the top.
This game was over seven years ago. Long before Thomas and Hamlin were drafted by the Colts and Bills, respectively, long before they faced each other during preseason in August, long before they became the beginning of their respective franchises, and long before Hamlin’s life—one he’s currently fighting for—was the greatest story in sport.
Hamlin went into cardiac arrest Monday night after attacking Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins in the first quarter of his teams’ primetime matchup. The 24-year-old’s heartbeat was restored on the field at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati and he was immediately rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he remains in critical condition.
Thomas watched the Bills-Bengals game but resigned before Hamlin collapsed. The Colts rookie didn’t know what happened to the Bills sophomore, whom he calls his “brother,” until Thomas’ father called him. That’s when the fear started to take hold, and more fond memories, like winning a high school state championship together, flooded back.
Thomas refuses to let these be the last.
“He’s a soldier,” said Thomas, speaking to Hamlin ahead of Monday’s game. “He’s gone and needs his troops behind him.”
After waiting for updates on Hamlin, Thomas decided to get himself an update and drove nearly two hours from Indianapolis to Cincinnati on Tuesday morning to visit his childhood friend in the ICU. Hamlin was sedated and intubated unaware of his surroundings and who is by his side, but Thomas came anyway.
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The former high school teammates communicate every day via calls and texts. However, that conversation had to be in person, Thomas said. So when he got to the hospital and entered Hamlin’s room, he held Hamlin’s hand and spoke.
“I spoke to him because I know he can hear me,” Thomas said. “And even if he can’t hear me, it doesn’t matter. I said what I had to say.”
Thomas prayed for Hamlin and thanked the world for doing the same. Countless athletes have sent messages of support to Hamlin and his family via social media. A Christmas toy drive that Hamlin started through GoFundMe while playing at Pitt a few years ago has surpassed its original goal of $2,500 and has surpassed $6.6 million in the last two days. Thomas conceded that the huge increase is due in large part to Hamlin’s unusual injury. But for those who have met Hamlin in person or have learned more about him over the past few days, Thomas says it is also a reflection of Hamlin’s influence and selflessness.
Before fighting for his own life, Hamlin’s toy ride was his way of fighting for the lives of those around him.
“When you go home, everyone will know Damar. Everyone will say the same thing about Damar,” Thomas said. “Everyone will say the same things about their character, their work ethic, their hard work, their giving, their heart — anything like that, you’ll hear nothing but positive things behind their name.”
Thomas vowed to dedicate his game to Hamlin in Sunday’s Colts season finale against Houston at Lucas Oil Stadium. The 24-year-old knows Hamlin would do the same if the roles were reversed and considers it an honor to represent a friend who has already overcome so much.
Hamlin was born to young parents in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, a town long struggling with poverty and violence. He was never intended to be a four-star recruit, a Pitt standout, an NFL draft pick, or — until his injury — a key role with the Bills in the Super Bowl.
Damar Hamlin ‘could have fallen’ at McKees Rocks – instead he raised his ward
But Hamlin has beaten the odds, and Thomas believes that in time he will beat them again.
“I have no doubt about that,” said Thomas. “He’s a fighter and I know he’s a fighter. There is no other thought in my head than that it goes out on its own.”
(Top Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig/Getty Images)
https://theathletic.com/4058829/2023/01/04/colts-rodney-thomas-damar-hamlin/ Colts’ Rodney Thomas II visits, encourages high school teammate Damar Hamlin