Considering Hamlins, Bills return with first-play TD

ORCHARD PARK, NY (AP) — The Buffalo Bills and their fans planned several tributes to Damar Hamlin’s safety for the team’s game on Sunday — No. 3 jerseys, homemade T-shirts and even a 10-foot-wide get well card.

There was no script as to what happened when the Bills actually got active again.

In their first game since a horrific scene Monday when Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a game in Cincinnati, Bills returnee Nyheim Hines ran the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the New England Patriots.

The emotional, uplifting score was an early highlight of a cathartic day in Buffalo. A week-long wave of support continued as the Bills returned to the field for the first time since Hamlin had to be resuscitated after a first-quarter tackle in Cincinnati. Hamlin has since made what doctors call a remarkable recovery.

Although Hamlin’s neurological function is still listed in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center as of Saturday, he was listed as excellent and he is breathing fully on his own while being able to speak.

“OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!” Hamlin tweeted after Hines’ touchdown. He also shared a photo of himself making a heart with his hands from his hospital bed just before kick-off with the caption “GAMETIME!!! @BuffaloBills.”

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Fans came to Buffalo’s game ready to celebrate Hamlin’s recovery. These included sign shop owner Ryan Magnuson, who designed a 4′ x 10′ canvas map which he placed at the foot of the Bills Stadium entrance for all to see – and sign.

“It was very positive. I’ve seen Bills fans, I’ve seen Patriots fans and people wearing other NFL jerseys. I think it’s more than a team thing at this point,” Magnuson said. “This is for Damar.”

Magnuson’s goal is to somehow send his oversized map to Hamlin.

Fans filled the front of the sign with well wishes around three hours before kick-off, offering messages like “stay strong” and “love”. Some wore No. 3 jerseys, which is Hamlin’s number.

“When I saw it live, it was sad to see,” said Kyle Blaney, who wore a Patriots jersey. “But it’s good to see everyone coming together to support him, not just Bills fans.”

A lengthy pre-game ceremony began with Bills’ medical and athletic training staff being introduced onto the pitch to thunderous applause. The Bills entered the stadium with numerous players carrying flags that read “Pray for Damar 3.” Fans held cardboard cutouts of the #3 and red hearts.

Former Bills running back LeSean McCoy led the charge before the game by asking fans to hold up three fingers while chanting “Let’s Go Buffalo!”

NFL fans around the world joined in support of Hamlin this week, including many who donated over $8 million to Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation. Sunday provided an opportunity to pay tribute together in the final week of the NFL season.

The electronic signs surrounding the Highmark Stadium car park all carried the message “Love For Damar 3”. Some fans decorated their homes in Bill’s blue and red colors with various tributes to Hamlin.

Players from both teams came out on the field to warm up, wearing shirts honoring Hamlin. Many Patriots players wore black sweatshirts with “Love for Damar” written on the front. Several Bills players wore T-shirts with Hamlin’s likeness on the front and back.

The NFL will pay tribute to the player during all Week 18 games beginning Saturday, including a pregame moment of support and painting Hamlin’s No. 3 at the 30-yard line. The Bills will also sport “3” jersey patches.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was also scheduled to attend the Bills game.

Hamlin was celebrated by fans in Cincinnati, where the Bengals were hosting Baltimore.

“It’s great that Damar is doing well,” said David Coning outside the Bengals’ Paycor Stadium. “We’ve seen pictures of him. he has a smile He has a text message. I think that’s a great relief for everyone. Hopefully we can get back to normal.”

In the huge parking lots surrounding Bills Stadium, many fans wore shirts and jerseys that Hamlin made himself in honor of him.

Sue Sonner wore the No. 3 jersey worn by former Bills quarterback EJ Manuel in which her husband covered the player’s name with Hamlin.

“It’s going to be very emotional. I’ll definitely take some tissues with me,” said Sonner, who is from Corning, New York, and attended the game in Cincinnati.

“We could see the rush and the trauma and the panic and all that. Such a very grim, very grim environment,” she said. “Now that he is making progress and we think he will be fine, we look forward to playing football again. And hopefully he’s on the mend.”

Ken Johnson, nicknamed “Pinto Ron” and one of the Bills’ most famous bullies, had nothing special planned for Sunday but said he expected many in attendance to spontaneously honor Hamlin.

“You never know if a bunch of people are going to get on the van and start giving an emotional speech or something,” said Johnson, who hasn’t missed a Bills game, home or away, since the start of the 1994 season, with exceptions of games that fans were not allowed to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“It just cements the legacy of Bill’s mafia,” Johnson said of the fan support.

AP sports writer Mitch Stacy in Cincinnati and AP freelance writers Lori Chase and Jonah Bronstein in Orchard Park contributed. Considering Hamlins, Bills return with first-play TD

Dais Johnston

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