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For the Bills' Damar Hamlin, this NFL season was an opportunity to 'cherish'

Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills celebrates during a game this season against the Pittsburgh Steelers in New York.
Timothy T Ludwig
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Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills celebrates during a game this season against the Pittsburgh Steelers in New York.

Damar Hamlin had dreamed so long of playing in the NFL that when he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2021, he said he'd still be happy even if his only contribution was as a water boy.

The scouting report on the star defensive back from the University of Pittsburgh said he had great instincts and a nose for the ball, but that he was undersized and perhaps a bit slow.

As a result, Hamlin had fallen all the way to the sixth round, where the Bills picked him up as the 212th overall pick.

Hamlin didn't mind.

"I'm willing to do whatever just to be a contributor on the team, man. I don't care if it's I gotta pass out water at halftime," he said to reporters after the draft. "No matter what it is, I'm willing to do it. I don't got no pride."

Hamlin, 24, has started 13 games for the Bills this season, including Monday night's tragic matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, where a seemingly routine tackle in the first quarter apparently caused him to go into cardiac arrest. He remains in the ICU at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, according to team officials.

Before Monday, the 2022 season had been a bittersweet ride for Hamlin, filled both with the opportunity of a lifetime and uncomfortable reminders of the perils of football.

"It feels so surreal. Like I can't even describe it. But I cherish it every second that I can, every second of every day," Hamlin said in a Bills media interview last fall.

In his first season, Hamlin didn't see the field much. The Bills depth chart was too full of Pro Bowl-caliber defensive backs like Tre'Davious White and Micah Hyde.

Yet Hamlin saw that as a positive, he would say later.

"Me and my family, we all seen it as the perfect opportunity to be able to come in and learn," he said in a Bills media interview in November. "Some rookies, they have the pressure of having to get out there right away. And they might burn their wick short because they might not be ready for their moment."

Instead, his chance would come in 2022.

Bills players look on as their teammate Dane Jackson, a longtime friend of Damar Hamlin's, receives medical attention after an injury during a game in September.
Joshua Bessex / Getty Images
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Bills players look on as their teammate Dane Jackson, a longtime friend of Damar Hamlin's, receives medical attention after an injury during a game in September.

A pair of injuries sidelined teammates but opened the door for Hamlin

Before Hamlin's collapse in Monday night's game, a different Bills player was rushed off the field in an ambulance after an injury.

That was in September, when cornerback Dane Jackson took a gruesome-looking hit to the head and neck during a tackle in a game against the Tennessee Titans.

Hamlin and Jackson have known each other since they were children and have described each other as brothers. They played together for years at the University of Pittsburgh. When Hamlin was drafted by the Bills, he called it a "dream come true" to be reunited with his friend.

Hamlin watched as Jackson laid on the field receiving medical attention before being loaded on a stretcher and driven away.

Another Bills defensive back, Micah Hyde, was injured later in the same game. That meant it was time for Hamlin, who'd appeared on just two defensive snaps the week before. He put on his helmet and played most of the game's remaining minutes at safety.

In the locker room afterward, Hamlin told reporters it was "real tough" to come into the game so soon after watching a friend need medical attention. "Because it's real-life stuff going on. Life is bigger than football," he said.

Jackson was later diagnosed with a minor neck injury and was cleared to play in October. But Hyde was ruled out for the season, and Hamlin has started every Bills game since.

Despite his frightening injury, Jackson (30) made a quick return to the field to join his friend and teammate Hamlin (3).
Joshua Bessex / Getty Images
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Despite his frightening injury, Jackson (30) made a quick return to the field to join his friend and teammate Hamlin (3).

"I cherish it every second that I can"

After that, Hamlin had seemed to take every opportunity to count his blessings, even as he racked up tackles, playing time and attention from fans and the media.

Asked by a Bills reporter in November if there was any emotion between him and Jackson over the events of the season so far, Hamlin replied, "Honestly, it's every day."

"Even just walking in the building first thing in the morning, you're feeling sleepy, you ain't charged up for the day," he and Jackson would build each other up, he said, reminding the other "that we are where we wanted to be in the exact moment we wanted to have it."

To have an opportunity to play in the NFL, and to do so alongside Jackson after his frightening September injury, was a "super blessing," Hamlin said.

Earlier that month, Hamlin recounted, the Bills defensive backs had joined hands in a weekly group prayer. He and his old friend Jackson were standing at each other's sides.

"I just grabbed his hand a little bit harder, because you never know when the last day could be that you're getting to experience something like this," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has been a producer for NPR since 2011. She is one of the network's go-to breaking news producers and has been on the ground for many major news stories of the past several years. She traveled to Tehran for the funeral of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, to Colombia to cover the Zika virus, to Afghanistan for the anniversary of Sept. 11 and to Pyongyang to report on the regime of Kim Jong-Un. She's also reported from around the U.S., including Hurricane Michael in Florida and the mass shooting in San Bernardino.