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After horrific Bills incident, fans left with an unshakeable memory

The Gaspars were in their Irondequoit, New York, living room on Monday night, a space that doubles as a shrine to all things Buffalo Bills.

Seven-year-old Carson sat in the middle of the big reclining sofa, the one with the Bills blanket on it, with his prized possession just overhead: an autographed Josh Allen jersey. Mom Brooke sat beside him, trying to see the 65-inch-screen that’s surrounded by memorabilia and regularly blocked by husband Chaz, who has a habit of nervously pacing when the Bills are on TV.

They had been waiting for this ‘Monday Night Football’ matchup at the Cincinnati Bengals, a faceoff between two rising quarterbacks: Allen and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow. They didn’t want to miss a moment.

And then, the moment. The one witnessed by fans in the stadium, across Western New York and across the country. With the Bengals up, 7-3, 24-year-old Bills safety Damar Hamlin fell to the turf after a tackle late in the first quarter.

His horrifying collapse – officials later announced Hamlin had suffered a cardiac arrest and was in critical condition – triggered an hourlong vigil in the stands, in living rooms and bars until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended the game. We waited for a thumbs up from Hamlin, a burst of relieved applause from the crowd.

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Instead we watched the players knitted into a loose horseshoe around the back of an ambulance, some of them so overwhelmed they had to turn away. Ticketholders stood by, arms crossed or hands over mouths, portraits of stunned disbelief.

For those who saw it unfold live, Hamlin’s collapse and the anguished minutes that followed will be impossible to forget.

‘Is he going to be OK?’

That includes Carson Gaspar. He’s not just any kid: he’s the self-proclaimed ‘Bills Kid,’ whose Facebook page and YouTube channel brim with the Bills hype videos he creates. Every Saturday, a new video talks up the team and the stakes of the game at hand.

This game came late on a Monday night, later because of the long-running Rose Bowl, but the Gaspars let the Bills Kid watch, even on a school night.

After the tackle, typically chatty Carson held onto his questions.

‘He was waiting to see why we looked like that, I think,’ Brooke Gaspar said. ‘It wasn’t really until they showed (Coach) Sean McDermott’s face that we knew. It was not OK.’

Carson’s questions began. What’s happening? Is he OK? What’s going on?

The broadcast went to commercial repeatedly, but every time it came back, the teams were still huddled around Hamlin, and the ambulance. Carson saw Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs crying; that’s when he started crying, too.

Like so many others in those moments, the Bills Kid put his love of the game aside. ‘Mom,’ he said, ‘football doesn’t even matter. Like, is he going to be OK?’

Player injuries spurred lacrosse changes

A Super Bowl champion-caliber team. A home in Western New York. A period of 20 years and counting as a high school football coach, not to mention, two sons who play the game.

Yes, the game between the Bills and Bengals was just about must-see TV for Jasson Jobson. No, Jobson never witnessed before what he watched in his family’s living room in Webster: emergency medical technicians trying to save the life of one of the athletes.

‘Never, never, never,’ Jobsson said. ‘When I saw players crying on the field, I thought, is this guy dying on the field? When you saw the players in tears, to be honest I thought he died.’

At first he watched the events unfold alone, eventually joined by his wife and one of his sons. Text threads exploded on his phone as he pored through Tweets looking for updates on Hamlin’s condition.

Jobson has heard stories about the death of high school football players during games. As a lacrosse coach, he can tell you about that sport’s changes, including required padding, after players were struck by balls and suffered cardiac arrest.

He feels sure very few, if any, players or coaches there Monday had witnessed a life-and-death moment like this one.

‘Their emotions were going so wild,’ he said. It was scary. When I see other people crying, I tear up, and you see players on the field crying. Nobody knew what was going on. It was good that the players were shielding the cameras from everything.’

— James Johnson

Pondering a lifetime of football

Mike Sassone, 55, grew up in a football family and owns a sports bar where Buffalo Bills fans gather.

But because his business no longer stays open late enough to show Monday Night Football, Sassone watched the game – and Hamlin’s injury – from his home in Victor, New York.

‘It was terrible to watch,’ he said. ‘I think everyone feels the same. Just to see something like that, live on television … just to feel the pain you could see on the faces of the players … you feel for his family. You feel for the other players.”

It made Sassone reflect on a lifetime of football memories. His father, Daniel Sassone, announced the football games at R.L. Thomas High School in Webster, New York, and was head of the booster club there.

Sassone, along with his brothers, played high school football. He knew the risk of injury, but while suited up in helmet and pads, he felt invincible. ‘I just didn’t feel like anything could happen to me,’ he said.

His love of football continued into adulthood, when he opened The Penfield Pour House in Penfield, New York. Prior to Sassone taking over, it had been J. G. Crummers, a neighborhood bar that was home base for area Miami Dolphins fans. Despite pleas from Dolphins fans to continue the tradition, he was determined to honor the Buffalo Bills, his favorite team. He went so far as to commission a mural of the Bills stadium to be painted in a recessed area in the bar’s ceiling.

Hamlin’s injury brought back memories of watching Darryl Stingley, a wide receiver for the New England Patriots, endure a spinal cord injury when Sassone was 10 years old. He remembers being upset to learn that the 26-year-old’s career was over with one hit.

But he also reflected on the fact that similar injuries have happened in other sports, away from audiences of millions. ‘Does it change the way I feel about the game? No. It’s a violent sport.’ But he believes the NFL could do more to protect players.

Sassone wonders how the players will be able to show up for the next game with the kind of energy, emotion and fire needed to play at that level.

‘It’s got to be something they’re all going to grapple with,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how.’

— Tracy Schuhmacher

‘It makes you pretty emotional’

Thad Brown, sports director for WROC-TV (Channel 8), has been covering the Bills since 2000.

Some years ago at a high school game, he was present when the parent of a player went into cardiac arrest, which was traumatic.

And he’s seen a lot of players get injured during professional games. But what he witnessed Monday night was different.

Brown was behind the Bengals’ bench, less than 30 yards from where Damar Hamlin tackled Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins.

Then, ‘he got up and then just collapsed,’ Brown said of Hamlin. ‘That was the first indication that this was highly serious.’

The second: the immediate response of trainers and medical personnel. And, of course, the looks on the faces of the players.

‘Very obviously, they had not seen anything like this on a football field,’ he said. ‘They were incredibly distressed, they were upset, they were disturbed. You know, for the whole team to come out on the field and surround him so no one could see him, that was unprecedented. Every step of the way of this, you saw something you’d never seen before, and it made you concerned more and more.’

As it unfolded, Brown said he stayed focused on his job. ‘I have a camera, and I’m trying to report on what’s going on and just do the job. I think the news training kicks in and kind of numbs you a little bit. But it was distressing. It was awful.’

After returning to his hotel, he did have an opportunity to talk with some media colleagues about what they had experienced. ‘But now I’m right back at the hospital. I’m working and not feeling,’ he said.

At some point, the feeling will resurface.

‘One of the things I’ve thought about the most is that this is a guy I walk past every day, I talk to every day,’ he said. ‘And every once in a while, you have a personal conversation. A lot of people just see these guys as players. But we look these guys in the eyes and talk to them. It’s person to person. And the chance that you could lose one of them on the field in that way, it makes you pretty emotional.’

— Marcia Greenwood

A first responder responds

EMTs’ training never leaves them.

So, although it’s been 20 years since Jamie Schneider worked as an EMT, by the first replay of Hamlin crumbling to the turf, his decade of experience kicked in. It left Schneider assessing the scene from his Syracuse, New York, family room: Ask the right questions, and then act with the answers you have.

What could have caused a sudden collapse? Rule out a neck or spinal cord injury.

Get the helmet off. Figure out if he’s breathing. Does he have a pulse?

Start chest compressions. Hook up the AED.

Is the ambulance here? Get him secured in.

Establish an IV connection. Administer whatever drugs necessary.

Hit the road. Fast.

‘Time is of the essence,’ Schneider, 54, said.

As a spectator, all of that feels painstakingly slow.

Even though he understands the protocols, Schneider said the waiting Monday night felt like an eternity. The roughly nine minutes of CPR. The 30 minutes before Hamlin was escorted off the field by an ambulance.

But in that position, he said, the life-saving work blurs into a single moment of urgency.

‘Adrenaline kicks in. Your training kicks in and you just start doing it. You’re fighting for that person,’ he said, choking up. ‘You’re doing whatever you can do.’

He kept that knowledge close to heart Monday night as he watched from afar.

‘It was very difficult,’ he said. ‘You knew it was much more serious than you could see. But luckily, everybody was right there. It was not an unwitnessed thing. Instantaneously they’re attending to him. We know they have AEDs on the sideline. We know they have a fully staffed ambulance nearby. So, the chances of him getting the care he needed immediately were very good, obviously.’

— Kayla Canne

‘Like Russian roulette’

Spirits were high for Quantel Greene Jr. on Monday night.

It was the matchup he and his grandparents had been waiting for all season. Greene Jr., 18, is the family’s lone Cincinnati Bengals fan. His grandparents are diehard Bills supporters.

They set a date for the game, the trash-talking commencing as soon as Greene Jr. walked into his grandparents’ Rochester, New York, home, Taco Bell in hand. But too soon, the moment arrived.

The living room fell silent.

‘The game wasn’t even on our mind anymore,’ Greene Jr. said.

An unlikely circumstance for a young man whose life revolves around football. Greene Jr. plays for University Preparatory Charter School’s varsity team and hopes to go pro himself one day.

The tackle that landed Hamlin in the hospital? Greene Jr. has executed that hundreds of times. They share the same position: safety. But while Greene Jr. tackles 180-pound high schoolers, in the NFL Hamlin has ‘refrigerators running at him.’

That’s what spun through his head, the silence in the living room breaking only during commercials, where he and his grandparents muttered in disbelief. How could a basic hit like that have so much power?

A flashback to last year, when Greene Jr. watched a teammate break his leg during a play – and then had to figure out how to clear his mind of haunting worries to finish out the game.

How do you recover? Can you?

‘Playing football – don’t get me wrong, I love this sport,’ he said. ‘But it’s like Russian roulette. You don’t know what could happen the next play. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I won’t play football anymore, but (this) will definitely, definitely be on my mind the next time I put pads on.’

— Kayla Canne

A flashback to 2007, and sending prayers

The Rev. Michael LaMarca is pastor of three Western New York parishes: St. Michael’s in Warsaw, St. Isidore’s in Perry and Silver Springs and Mary Immaculate in East Bethany and Pavilion.

He watched Monday’s game alone at home, but it took him right back to a 2007 game when Bills tight end Kevin Everett was paralyzed during a kickoff.

‘It happened right in front of me at that game, with those same kind of feelings starting to come back,’ LaMarca said. ‘When you see someone like that, a professional athlete, become injured so quickly and so seriously.’

The surreal nature of the incident reminded him of one earlier this season, when Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a concussion that made him unsteady on his feet. But this one was different, LaMarca said.

‘When you saw the reaction of the other Bengal players and officials, you could tell that it was much more serious.’

LaMarca is also the priest who prays with the visiting teams at Highmark Stadium. Watching events unfold, he said, ‘was like one of those moments where you wish you were available to them.’

The Bills chaplain, the Rev. Len Vanden Bos, traveled with the team and did precisely what LaMarca would have expected.

‘I would have done exactly what Coach McDermott did and what the chaplain seemed to do, is, in that moment, call everyone together in prayer. In that moment, that’s what everyone wants to do. So it’s a unifying factor in a moment of crisis, the tragedy to come together in prayer. And that’s where your instincts kind of kick in in this situation.’

Monday’s game is another reminder, LaMarca said, that football is a violent game.

‘You can do everything right and still be injured,’ he said. ‘Hopefully, the teams across the league, I would be encouraging them to bring in sports psychologists and chaplains to really talk with the teams and the players, to really help them mentally and emotionally recover from everything that has happened.’

Reached on Tuesday, the pastor said he was constantly refreshing his social media feed for news about Hamlin.

‘I’m just continuing to pray for the best kind of outcome, like everyone else,’ he said. ‘I’m hoping that word gets out soon that he is able to make a full recovery or at least be released from the hospital in Cincinnati and able to come back to Buffalo and have a recovery there. I think that’s the biggest thing, is in the next 24 hours, if he’s able to get a good report to make it out, I think that’ll do a lot for the morale of the players, for the Bills and across the league and for all the fans as well.’

— Peter D. Kramer

The Bills Kid and the Man Upstairs

In the moments after the moment, Carson Gaspar and his family found small solace in watching rivals becoming brothers facing the unknown together.

‘We make videos every week and we waited all day for the game to happen,’ Brooke Gaspar said. ‘But then when it came down to it, for him to just see that it’s bigger than that, to see (Bengals quarterback) Joe Burrow and Josh Allen just there for each other, I think was cool for him in a way to see that, even though it was under horrible circumstances.’

Carson didn’t want to go to sleep, but after Goodell called the game, the Bills Kid was sent up to bed. Not long afterward, though, he called his family to his bedroom.

He asked them all to hold hands: Mom, Dad, 5-year-old sister Kyla. He then offered the prayer of a 7-year-old fan who had watched the impossible unfold with no real answers in sight.

God and Jesus, watch over Damar and his family, Carson prayed, and bring him back to us so that the Bills defense can be strong again.

— Peter D. Kramer

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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