The unthinkable happened in the NFL world on Monday night when Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after making a tackle. Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and needed to be resuscitated on the field by the Bills medical team. Once Hamlin got to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, a Level 1 trauma center, he was determined to be in critical condition.
Hamlin's family, his teammates, the coaching staff, and the Bills medical staff received amazing news on Thursday morning when doctors told them Hamlin made remarkable improvement over the last 24 hours and appears to be neurologically intact.
When Hamlin awoke, he asked his doctors via writing, "Who won the game?"
What Hamlin didn't know yet was that thanks to his head coach and teammates' leadership, the game never resumed because the importance of the game fizzled when one of their player's lives was at stake.
"The way he handled it, he was the perfect man in that situation to handle that," quarterback Josh Allen said of his head coach. "That type of situation. I can't say enough about what he did, what he said to us in the locker room."
After watching what took place and seeing his players reactions as Hamlin received CPR and then was loaded into an ambulance, McDermott knew warming up and continuing to play wasn't the right thing to do.
"I said to Shawn Smith, 'Hey, we're going to need some time here,'" McDermott said about a conversation he had with the head official.
McDermott signaled to the Bills to head to the locker room so they could collect themselves and figure out next steps, which he ultimately left up to his players.
"I think I went in and addressed the team and just felt like overall, it was going to be really hard to put them back out there," McDermott shared. "But I wanted to give them the option to go back out there if they wanted to. And led by Josh (Allen) and a couple of the other captains, they decided not to go back out there."
"When I got over there, the first thing he said was, 'I need to be at the hospital with Damar. I shouldn't be coaching this game,'" Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said of McDermott when the two eventually came together. "So that provides to me all the clarity because there was no –unprecedented is the word that gets thrown around a lot about this situation, because that's what it is — but in that moment, he really showed that all his focus was on Damar and being there for him and being there for his family, being at the hospital."
McDermott says Taylor and the Bengals players showed so much love and compassion in that moment. But Taylor thinks McDermott is the one who really shined in that moment.
"I really felt Sean McDermott led in that moment for his players," Taylor said. "He was there for his players. He processed it the right way, which was incredibly difficult, and really helped us get to the solution we needed to get to."
When getting to the solution, one would think McDermott would take his coaching hat off to show a softer side. Instead, McDermott kept it on.
"The job description of a coach is not just coaching X's and O's, it's much more than that," McDermott shared. "And so, to me the health and well-being of your staff and your players is the number one job of a coach in this situation, and that includes mental health."
McDermott showed that compassion when figuring out what would be the best plan of action on Monday night. He's also showed the importance of mental health in the last few days by having extra counselors available when players need it. And players have felt that by having the freedom to focus on their concern for Damar's health and mentally processing a life changing event.
"His vulnerability has been huge for us," Bills center Mitch Morse said of McDermott. "This sport at times can be such a 'macho, tough-man thing,' and I think when you look at this team room, no one had any macho left to give. We were all just trying to process this together, and I think he was such a good figure to kind of see how he was coping with it, his vulnerability, his emotions at times, which he had already spoken about. He kind of gave us the opportunity to just let our guard down.
"And I think, that's the biggest thing this whole time is being able to let your guard down so you can heal without having any wall to hold you back."
Letting your guard down isn't something new with this current coaching staff. It's something that's happened since Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott came to Buffalo. McDermott has done that by having players share their life story in front of their teammates to get to know each other better. In turn, it's created a locker room that truly cares for each other, and that's been apparent over the last few days.
"We've had some very open and honest and deep talks, some unbelievable— it sounds weird but — embraces as men just hugging somebody and actually leaning into them," Allen said. "There's been a lot of that going around. And you need every bit of it. You really do."
When it comes to moving forward with a game on Sunday, McDermott and his team feel okay to do so thanks to a conversation they had with Damar's father, Mario.
"Damar's father spoke to the team and really his message was, the team needs to get back to focusing on the goals that they had set for themselves," McDermott said paraphrasing the meeting. "Damar would have wanted it that way. And so that includes our game against New England this week. And I think that has helped."
McDermott, the coaching staff and his players also noted the positive updates about Damar's health have helped tremendously with their spirits and ability to even think about playing a game.
"It's amazing to me to know the impact that this has had on so many people," McDermott said of the outpouring support when seeing Damar's GoFundMe is nearing eight million dollars. "And for now, Damar to be awake and his mom to be able to share that with him is incredible."
With their teammate safety Damar Hamlin on their mind, the Bills held their first practice of the week on Thursday as the team prepares for the Week 18 contest against the Patriots.
The six-year head coach of the Bills said he's leaning on what grounds him when dealing with the challenge of overcoming this life altering experience.
"I'm a Christian man to begin with, and I'm not afraid to say that," McDermott shared. "I know that when you're trying to do good things or great things, that sometimes you come across opposition. I'll leave that part of it there. And how do I know that we'll be able to overcome is we have to just like we've done many times before.
"And this city, and the people of Western New York that have dealt with what they've dealt with. That's what you do."
From multiple injuries to games being moved to a deadly snowstorm, the 2022 Bills have dealt with a lot. And as the team begins to move forward with a Week 18 contest and the playoffs, McDermott wants to make sure the focus remains on Damar and with that means almost 80 players processing the last three days on different timelines.
"I think coach McDermott has been talking about it a lot," Morse said. "The assistant coaches have also played such a paramount role. Like I had said before, each position group might be feeling this differently. Everyone is feeling it, there's no doubt about it, but it might have touched home a little bit more with some position groups than others.
"I think when you start game-planning for the Patriots, you open up, just echoing what Sean's message was at times, which was, 'Hey, if you need a moment, it's cool. This is uncharted territory for all of us.' We're here for each other. This season has been a roller-coaster of a season, not only as a community, but as a team."
"I'm human just like anybody else," McDermott said. "And there's been moments as we just had that it overwhelms you, and it's come up more than a couple of times for me at different points in time. But, like anybody else, I need to be able to have enough self-awareness to know when I need to break and when I need to seek out a counselor as well.
"So, I think it's important to know that's not a sign of weakness. If anything, that's a sign of strength."
The team will look to one of their leaders in Sean McDermott as they navigate the rest of the season and the health of their beloved brother, Damar, as his recovery continues. And through that process, the head coach of the Bills will make sure his players know it's okay to take a break, show emotion and seek out help because for McDermott, it's always been bigger than football.