ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — As Nyheim Hines of the Buffalo Bills cradled a kickoff on Sunday and scooted across the cold field and then down the sideline, a 96-yard touchdown on the first play of this emotion-drenched game, you could feel Highmark Stadium rumble and sway — fans letting loose of this past week’s fear and hope in a stunning moment of community catharsis.
Whew. Talk about a storybook beginning.
The N.F.L. is an unalterable narrative machine. More than any other sports league in America, and probably the world, it possesses a seemingly unparalleled ability to cast off bad news, survive and even thrive. Even as the league swims in controversy, there is another human drama to draw fans in each week, causing the latest obstacle to fade away.
And in the Bills’ game against the New England Patriots on Sunday, the story got only more heartwarming. Damar Hamlin, the lucky-to-be-alive player to whom this game had been dedicated, watched from his Cincinnati hospital bed, providing real-time commentary.
Via social media, we got to see him react to his teammates’ emotional play.
Commenting on Hines’s kick return, Hamlin, who wears No. 3, posted, “God Behind All this No Coincidence.”
When fans sent him a post showing their love for him, he sent back: Love you more.
This game was powered by the deepest of emotions. It was about life and living, but also about the pain of loss. It was about Hamlin, but also about tried-and-true Buffalo, a city that over the past year has endured the pain of a racist mass shooting that killed 10 residents and a winter storm that claimed nearly 40.
Had it been less than a week since Hamlin, 24, a second-year defensive back, collided with a Cincinnati Bengals player and gone into cardiac arrest during the first quarter of a Monday night game broadcast to millions of viewers?
More on Damar Hamlin’s Collapse
In that moment and over the course of the next hours, nobody knew, of course, whether Hamlin would live. All we knew was that he did not get up, that medical personnel pounded and shocked his chest in frantic attempts to revive his heart. We watched as he was carted off the field to the hospital in an ambulance.
It could easily have been a terrible, tragic event — an N.F.L. player dying in front of millions of viewers.
But Hamlin, by some miracle, survived. And then, through the week, there were answers to countless prayers: Hamlin came to. Slowly, steadily, his condition improved.
By Friday, Hamlin was appearing before his teammates by video chat from his hospital, flexing his biceps, showing a heart sign, saying, “I love you boys.”
Hamlin’s father, Mario, told the grieving and shocked Bills to win for his son.
As the week went on, the news had gone from tragic to something bordering sublimely wonderful. And then, as Hines bolted down the sideline on Sunday, a truth once again emerged: Narrative is the engine that runs professional football. It makes the N.F.L. the most dominant, compelling league — and the one most durably able to slough off any type of crisis.
Before kickoff, in the tailgate parking lots outside the Bills’ low-slung stadium, the scene was drenched with tributes to Hamlin. Parents, grandparents and young children wore newly bought No. 3 jerseys or carried heart-shaped signs with phrases like “Hamlin Strong” written on them. A man clutched a nearly 12-foot wooden cross near a flashing sign that read, “Love for Damar.”
I spoke to scores of fans who said they had barely slept that night after watching as Hamlin was carted off to a hospital. Many said they assumed the worst would happen. To say they’d been shaken undersells their experience.
But those same fans told me how their spirits soared as the week wore on and the news of Hamlin’s recovery kept dripping in.
“Since that first night, the emotions have been heading in one direction — and that’s up,” said Bill Snow, who stood next to his daughter in a home-sewn blue-and-red shirt that professed love for No. 3.
“This game,” he added, “will be our chance to come together and celebrate.”
None said Hamlin’s collapse made them rethink the N.F.L. and the health risks it poses for players. Not even close.
That’s precisely what the N.F.L. wants to hear: nobody expressing doubt, nobody thinking twice. Hamlin’s healing and the communal expression of sympathy have helped the league turn this tale for its purposes.
His close call with death, the lifesaving aid performed by medics and his rise from hardscrabble beginnings to community beacon are now threads woven to triumphant effect.
The league knows well how to use these stories to its benefit.
On Saturday, Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, sent an open letter to fans.
He wrote that players and coaches from each of the 32 teams would wear “Love for Damar” T-shirts during pregame warm-ups over the weekend. (Don’t be surprised to see those shirts available for sale at an N.F.L.-licensed retailer near you.)
Goodell added, “Seeing the entire N.F.L. family — teams, players, coaches and fans like you — band together was yet another reminder that football is family: human, loving and resilient.”
Note that, like all players in this league, which trades on crippling violence, the terms of Hamlin’s contract are not guaranteed. It took Hamlin nearly dying for the N.F.L. to step in and strike an ad hoc deal ensuring he gets every penny of his $3.6 million contract.
The human, loving, resilient N.F.L. is the same league that keeps failing to do right by retired players struggling with dementia and other woes that emerge after years of hard collisions.
It is the league of Deshaun Watson, Jon Gruden and Daniel Snyder and their more tawdry story lines.
Who remembered any of it on Sunday?
Not after the Bills won by a dozen points, in a game wrapped in the stirring story of Damar Hamlin’s healing and Buffalo’s compassionate, cathartic love.