By Elizabeth Wolfe and Jacob Lev, CNN
As Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin remains in critical condition after suffering a mid-game cardiac arrest, his childhood friend and high school teammate, Indianapolis Colts safety Rodney Thomas II, says there is “no doubt in my mind” that Hamlin will recover.
Thomas drove directly to the hospital where Hamlin was being treated Monday night, where he said Hamlin lay sedated after being rushed from the field during the Bills’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I know he could hear me,” Thomas said while speaking to reporters Wednesday. He said he was able to be in the room with Hamlin and hold his hand. “Even if he couldn’t hear me, it didn’t matter. I said what I had to say.”
The pair, who became close friends while teammates at their Pittsburgh high school, spoke daily and had talked earlier Monday before Hamlin’s collapse.
“It calmed me way down,” Thomas said of seeing his friend. “It made the trip home a lot easier. I could go home and know he’s gonna be straight. I got him. We all got him. Everybody’s behind him.”
Hamlin remains under intensive care at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center following his collapse during the first quarter of Monday night’s game, though he has been showing “signs of improvement” his team said in a statement Wednesday.
His heartbeat was restored on the field, the Bills have said, before he was carried from the stadium in an ambulance while stunned and visibly emotional players and fans looked on. Hamlin is on a ventilator and was “flipped over on his stomach” in the hospital to help relieve some of the strain on his lungs, his uncle Dorrian Glenn told CNN Tuesday.
Since his hospitalization, Hamlin has received a nationwide outpouring of support from fans and players across the sports world, including nearly $7 million donated to his foundation’s toy drive GoFundMe as of Thursday morning. Several athletes have donned Hamlin’s number, 3, or his jersey while teams across the league have honored him through jumbotron messages and light displays at their stadiums.
The Bills-Bengals game was postponed after Hamlin’s collapse with the Bengals leading 7-3. The NFL is discussing how to handle the incomplete game — which will not be continued this week — but has yet to announce a strategy.
Initially regarded as an important late-season matchup with significant playoff implications, the showdown averaged 21.1 million viewers on ESPN during gameplay, according to Nielsen ratings. After Hamlin’s collapse, viewers grew to a historic 23.9 million, making the telecast the most watched “Monday Night Football” in ESPN history.
NFL will investigate every possible cause
It is still unclear what caused Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, but NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said the league will investigate what could have led to the player’s collapse during the game.
Any time a player is evacuated from the field, the NFL and its medical experts perform a detailed review of what happened, Sills explained on a call with reporters Wednesday. They also examine the role protective equipment may have played, he said.
In some cases, Sills said, the medical team will not be able to determine what caused the problem.
The doctor also addressed theories that the cardiac arrest could have been caused by commotio cordis, which occurs when severe trauma to the chest disrupts the heart’s electrical charge, causing dangerous fibrillations.
“You have to have the right type of blow hitting at the right spot on the chest with the right amount of force at just the right time in that cardiac cycle. So a lot of things have to line up for that to happen,” he said, emphasizing that while it is possible, investigators will consider all options.
Sills attributed the “transformational response” of medical personnel when Hamlin collapsed to the “60-minute meeting” that is held among medical teams and NFL officials before every game. During the meeting, teams identify the location of medical equipment and nearby medical centers, and establish a chain of command in case of an emergency, including cardiac arrest, among other things.
Shock still weighing heavily on the Bills
Hamlin’s collapse is the latest in a string of recent tragedies that have struck the community of Buffalo and and its beloved football team, including a racist mass shooting and a historic blizzard that left at least 41 people dead in Erie County, New York.
A high-ranking official within the Bills organization told CNN’s Coy Wire that they broke down in tears after day and night-long meetings on Tuesday, sobbing because of the heaviness of the situation.
The series of difficult blows to Buffalo have emotionally piled up within the organization, the source said, adding that through it all, the team has tried to be a source of strength for the city, the source tells Wire.
The source pointed to the performance of Buffalo Sabres hockey forward Tage Thompson on Tuesday night as a “glimmer of hope” at a time when the team needs inspiration.
Hamlin’s jersey number, 3, was a recurring motif throughout the game, played on January 3. Thompson’s three goals during overtime brought the Sabres a win. It was Thompson’s third hat trick of the season and his third goal came fortuitously in the third minute of overtime.
The Sabres also wore “Love for 3” t-shirts honoring Hamlin before the game.
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CNN’s Ben Morse, Oliver Darcy, Jennifer Korn, Katherine Dillinger, Jen Christensen, David Close, Wayne Sterling, Jason Hanna, Adrienne Broaddus and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.