By Carma Hassan, Jason Hanna, David Close and Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN
Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin is awake in a Cincinnati hospital, appears neurologically intact and is moving his hands and feet, doctors said Thursday, news that has drawn relief and joy from supporters nationwide days after the 24-year-old’s in-game cardiac arrest.
And his first question upon awakening?
“Did we win?” Hamlin scribbled on a clipboard, according to Dr. Timothy Pritts, vice chair for clinical operations at UC Health.
“Yes, Damar, you won. You’ve won the game of life,” Pritts said at a news conference in Cincinnati, paraphrasing the response of one of his medical partners.
Hamlin, who can communicate by writing but isn’t yet speaking because he still is on a ventilator, collapsed during the first quarter of the Bills game Monday at Cincinnati, a contest that was postponed, then canceled by the NFL on Thursday night. League officials will lead a meeting Friday with all NFL teams to discuss a proposal for playoff options.
As his Bills teammates prepare for Sunday’s game, Hamlin has been communicating with yes and no answers by shaking his head, nodding or writing brief notes, Pritts said.
“So, we know that it’s not only that the lights are on, we know that he’s home. And that it appears all cylinders are firing within his brain,” Pritts said.
Hamlin has been treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center since being taken from the field Monday night.
Associates of Hamlin, who had been sedated, spread news Thursday morning that he had awoken, though details of precisely when he awoke weren’t immediately available. He had been holding hands with family in the hospital, his agent Ron Butler told CNN on Thursday.
Hamlin still is critically ill, but his condition has improved substantially in the past 24 hours, and “it appears his neurological condition and function is intact,” Pritts said Thursday afternoon.
“This marks a really good turning point in his ongoing care,” he said. “There are many, many steps still ahead of him. From our standpoint, we would like to see him continue to improve, to be completely breathing on his own and to be ready to be discharged from the hospital.”
Hamlin was resuscitated and intubated on the field, according to Dr. William Knight IV, a professor with the University of Cincinnati’s department of emergency medicine.
Assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington was the person who did on-field CPR, Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Dion Dawkins tweeted Thursday. Kellington saved Hamlin’s life, Bills coach Sean McDermott said.
“As they say, practice pays off, and it did in this case,” McDermott said at a post-practice news conference devoted to Hamlin. “But again, the context of it, for an assistant to find himself at that position and needing to take the action that he did and step up and take charge like he did — and there were others on the field as well — is nothing short of amazing and (the) courage that took, you talk about a real leader, a real hero, in saving Damar’s life.”
It is still unclear what caused Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, and the NFL will investigate what could have led to it, its Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills said Wednesday.
“We heard that news this morning and there’s nothing that coulda been told to us to bring our day down,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who choked up when talking about watching Hamlin go down, said at the Thursday news conference. “We’re extremely happy for him and his family.
“We just want to, we just want to love up on him, so the next chance we get, I don’t know when it’s gonna be, if we get to see him any time soon, it’s gonna be awesome.”
Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, whom Hamlin tackled before collapsing, told reporters he spoke with Hamlin’s mother Thursday morning and she told him he’s OK, according to CNN affiliate WXIX.
Knowing of Hamlin’s medical progress “makes me feel better inside,” he said.
Biden said this: “Great news. Damar, like I told your mom and dad yesterday, Jill and I — along with all of America — are praying for you and your family.”
Details about Hamlin’s condition emerged as NFL players contemplate an emotional return to the field this weekend, with all 32 teams set for their final scheduled regular-season games this Saturday and Sunday.
The Bills and Bengals will head into the playoffs having played one fewer game than other teams in the American Football Conference.
“As we considered the football schedule, our principles have been to limit disruption across the league and minimize competitive inequities,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “I recognize that there is no perfect solution.”
At Friday’s meeting with the teams, league officials will discuss a two-part proposal for playoff options, including the possibility of holding the AFC Championship game at a neutral site. The NFL’s proposal would apply “if the participating teams played an unequal number of games and both could have been the number one seed and hosted the game had all AFC clubs played a full 17-game regular season.”
There are three scenarios that would necessitate a neutral site, the NFL said. The other part of the proposal involves the Bengals’ playoff path should they lose Sunday to Baltimore.
“The proposal we are asking the ownership to consider, however, addresses the most significant potential equitable issues created by the difficult, but necessary, decision not to play the game under these extraordinary circumstances,” Goodell said.
The Bills, scheduled to host the Patriots on Sunday, met Wednesday for a walk-through and held their first full practice of the week Thursday. Players — already reeling from last year’s racist mass shooting and the recent deadly blizzard in their hometown — had a Zoom call Wednesday with Hamlin’s father, Mario Hamlin, who said his son was making progress, a source in the Bills organization told CNN on Thursday.
Having Hamlin’s father talk to the team helped them turn their focus back to football, McDermott said. And “the news today, as Josh alluded to, was a huge help to getting us back to focused on the game this weekend,” he told reporters at Thursday’s news conference.
Since his hospitalization, Hamlin has gotten a nationwide outpouring of support from fans and players across pro sports, including more than $7 million donated to his foundation’s toy drive GoFundMe as of Thursday morning. Several athletes have donned Hamlin’s No. 3 or his jersey while teams have honored him through Jumbotron messages and light displays at their stadiums.
Bills jerseys with Hamlin’s name and No. 3 are the biggest sellers across all sports, said a spokesperson for Fanatics, a company that sells licensed team merchandise. The company, the NFL and the players’ union will donate all proceeds from jersey sales to Hamlin’s charity, Fanatics’ co-chair Michael Rubin tweeted Tuesday.
Players discussing whether they’re ready to play
Hamlin collapsed shortly after a collision in which Higgins, the Bengals receiver, tried to power past Hamlin, who’d approached for a tackle, with about six minutes remaining in the first quarter of Monday’s game. Hamlin still twisted Higgins to the ground and stood up — but within seconds fell and lay motionless.
His heartbeat was restored on the field, the Bills have said, before he was ferried from the stadium in an ambulance while stunned and visibly emotional players and fans looked on.
Hamlin not only was sedated but was on a ventilator and also was “flipped over on his stomach” in the hospital to help relieve some of the strain on his lungs, which were damaged, his uncle Dorrian Glenn told CNN on Tuesday. Details about what ailed Hamlin’s lungs weren’t available.
Before news spread Thursday that Hamlin was alert, some in the league had been openly assessing their readiness to play this weekend.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow told reporters Wednesday he “probably wants to play” Sunday’s Bengals-Ravens game, but there may be others who don’t.
“I’m sure if you polled the locker room, there’d be mixed votes on that,” Burrow said. “Personally, I think playing is going to be tough … I think getting back to as normal as you can as fast as you can is personally how I kind of deal with these kinds of things. But … everyone has a different way of dealing with it.”
Among those who rushed to the Cincinnati hospital after Hamlin collapsed was Indianapolis Colts safety Rodney Thomas II, one of Hamlin’s childhood friends. Thomas visited while Hamlin was sedated and intubated this week, he said.
There is “no doubt in my mind” Hamlin will recover, Thomas told reporters Wednesday.
“I know he could hear me,” Thomas said, adding he held Hamlin’s hand. “Even if he couldn’t hear me, it didn’t matter. I said what I had to say.”
“Just basically (I said) that I love him, and I’ve got his back, and I’ll see him in a little bit,” Thomas added Thursday to “CNN This Morning” before news circulated that Hamlin was awake.
Hamlin and Thomas, who became close friends as high school teammates in Pittsburgh, spoke daily and had talked Monday before Hamlin’s collapse. Seeing his friend soon after the in-game incident “calmed me way down,” Thomas said Wednesday. “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.”
Thomas, whose Colts host the Texans on Sunday, said each team needs to “trust that everybody would just make the best decision moving forward, whether that’s playing, whether that’s not playing.”
“Player-wise … just the world in general, we’re all just one heartbeat right now … all waiting for Damar just to get healthy,” Thomas told CNN Thursday.
NFL medical chief talks commotio cordis theories
Sills, the NFL’s top doctor, on Wednesday addressed theories that Hamlin’s 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,” he said in Wednesday’s call with reporters. “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.
Any time a player is taken off the field by medical staff, the NFL and its medical experts perform a detailed review of what happened, Sills said. They also examine the role protective equipment may have played, he said.
In some cases, the medical team will not be able to determine what caused the problem, Sills said.
Sills attributed the “transformational response” of medical personnel when Hamlin collapsed to a “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 has weighed heavily on the Bills
Hamlin’s collapse is the latest in a string of recent tragedies to have struck the community of Buffalo 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 performance of Buffalo Sabres hockey forward Tage Thompson on Tuesday night was a “glimmer of hope” at a time when the team needs inspiration, the source said.
Hamlin’s jersey No. 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Hamlin’s agent Ron Butler’s first name.
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CNN’s Steve Almasy, Jill Martin, Jacob Lev, Ben Morse, David Williams, Oliver Darcy, Jennifer Korn, Katherine Dillinger, Jen Christensen, Wayne Sterling, Coy Wire, Adrienne Broaddus, Ray Sanchez, Joe Sutton and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.