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When football stops: Bengals fans describe a night of confusion and fear after Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest

Ambulance. (Dreamstime/TNS)

By 10:20 p.m. Monday, the only people remaining in Paycor Stadium were various team staffers, security personnel and media members. Everyone else had somberly marched toward the exits.

Bills safety Damar Hamlin, after making a seemingly routine tackle on Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, suffered cardiac arrest near midfield. He stood up, briefly, only to collapse backwards and fall lifeless onto the turf. Medical personnel quickly signaled for the ambulance to come onto the field, and Hamlin was administered CPR and given an IV.

To the millions watching on screens around the country, the various replays of Hamlin collapsing paired with the thousand-yard stares and tears of his teammates were haunting to witness. It’s something that not many people, in any walk of life, ever have to witness.

But to the tens of thousands of fans at Paycor Stadium, their experience was much different — and often far more confusing, frightening and traumatizing than those who didn’t see it in person.

“I’m still struggling to process what I witnessed in person yesterday,” said Drew Garrison, a Bengals fan from Dayton. “As football fans, we’re kind of conditioned to see a guy get carted off with a head or neck injury. We hope for the best and we drop the football back down on the field and we cheer our team on. Seventy thousand people watched those trainers and medical staff fight for (Hamlin’s) life on the field in front of everybody.”

Garrison, who is a writer and editor for Cincy Jungle, the Bengals’ SB Nation site, was in section 154, located in the South end zone (river-side) and couldn’t see what happened to Hamlin. Originally, he and those around him thought it was a run-of-the-mill injury. Then he saw the cart and the stabilizing board and grew more concerned.

Then the wall of players surrounding Hamlin broke, and he saw CPR being administered. That’s when fear set in.

“It’s very jarring because you see CPR on TV shows or movies, and it’s not as intense there,” Garrison said. “When you see it done to a live person right in front of your eyes, it’s troubling because it’s not the light pushes that you see on TV shows. It was a team of people, right there on an NFL field, fighting to save a man’s life. It’s almost hard to put into words, the feeling that I felt, because I was completely shocked.”

Hamlin collapsed at 8:55 p.m., and just 23 minutes later, the game which once held so much promise and excitement was temporarily postponed.

Jeremy Moses, a Bengals fan from Oklahoma City, was seated in section 307. He couldn’t see the injury either, but slowly, fans were told by friends and family at home, or by their own Twitter feeds, that Hamlin was being administered CPR.

“The second that Hamlin went down, things changed,” he said in an email. “It got quiet, but at first not more so than would be expected during any standard injury timeout. Then, we learned that they were actually doing CPR. Suddenly, the energy that had been present got completely sucked out of the building.”

Two popular Bengals fans, a married couple who are on Twitter as “Bengals Captain” and “Who Bae,” (or known as Jeremy and Jess) were seated close to the field in row 2, section 158. They couldn’t see what was transpiring on the field due to their viewing angle, but like so many, saw the reactions of Bills players and knew the injury was likely catastrophic.

“I mean, you don’t see grown men drop to their knees, put their hands on their head and sob like that when it’s a concussion or an ACL or something like that,” Jess said. “So based on their reactions, we knew something really bad was happening.”

An eerie silence fell over Paycor Stadium as those in attendance grappled with what had occurred on the field. For many, it didn’t seem real.

“It went from that typical concern over an injury to fear,” Jeremy said. “I pray during football games all the time, but it’s nothing real. I’ve never actually said, like spoken words, talking to a higher power asking for help with what was going on on the field — until last night.”

Jess, who works in healthcare, recognized immediately the trauma that anyone on the field, or in the stands, might be going through.

“Any time a non-medical person has to witness CPR, it’s extremely traumatizing,” Jess said. “One of the first things we do when we have to do CPR on somebody is we make their visitors, whoever’s with them, family, friends, anybody that’s there in the room, we make them leave, because it’s extremely traumatizing to watch…They could very clearly see what was going on. I think that that’s going to be really hard for a lot of people to process, especially children, and people who have never experienced that before.”

Added into the confusion was that cell service and wifi connections dropped during the injury stoppage, almost certainly due to the hoards of people trying to get on their phones looking for answers from any place they could get it.

News and information trickled out slowly as a result, as in a lot of cases it had to be shared by word-of-mouth.

“There wasn’t really anybody in the crowd I heard talking about the game, talking about how the game would end, what it meant for the game,” Garrison said. “Nobody really seemed to care. Everybody was trying to get updates on Hamlin’s condition…At the drop of a hat, we all went from fans of our respective teams to just 70,000 human beings worried about another human being.”

The game was officially postponed at 10:01 p.m., made by an announcement over the PA system. Many fans had already left by that point, as they saw both teams pack up equipment along the various sidelines and got the hint.

The walk toward the exits were somber and quiet. Garrison said he noted a few Bengals fans that put their arms around Bills fans. A handful of fans went directly to University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Hamlin was undergoing treatment.

From when Hamlin collapsed at 8:55 p.m., to the time all Bengals fans were out of the stadium not two hours later, the entire night felt like a blur. Jess commented that she felt guilty for the fun that her, her husband and their friends were having considering how the night turned out.

The build-up for the game against the Bills was one of the most anticipated regular season games in recent memory. The tailgaters arrived early. The drinking and cookouts started in the early parts of the day. And by 9 p.m., it all came crashing down.

Jeremy said he burst into tears when the Bengals beat the Raiders in last year’s Wild Card round at Paycor Stadium, because the emotions of it all hit him at once. Monday, he felt the same thing but in a far, far worse way.

“All these little experiences like this, is just a perfect night to clinch the division,” Jeremy said. “And we didn’t even get through a quarter of football before that happened. Obviously, all of the thoughts and prayers are for Hamlin, the family and Tee. It just blindsided us. I don’t even know. I’m struggling for words.”

It was ironic, in a horrific sort of fashion, that the game was as hyped up as it was. While it all seems so secondary now, the atmosphere leading into the game was one of the most unique moments in recent Cincinnati sports history. It was also a nationally broadcasted game on ESPN, one that football fans from all walks made sure to pay attention to.

Meaning, every viewer got an up-close look at the awful scenes in Cincinnati.

“Once the severity of the situation with Hamlin struck, it was the most dramatic shift of emotions I’ve ever seen,” Garrison said. “It went from my ears ringing because the stadium was so loud, to being able to hear a pin drop because everyone was in such stunned silence. It was such a dramatic change to where I think everybody around me was just so shocked, they didn’t know what to think or how to feel.”

Bengals and Bills fans, and general football fans around the country, did their best to cope. Notably, they donated to Hamlin’s fundraiser for the Chasing M’s Foundation Community Toy Drive. As of Tuesday night, the GoFundMe had raised more than $5.5 million despite a stated goal of $2,500. Nearly 200,000 people have donated to the cause.

As for football, life and everything in-between, it’s unclear where the Bills, Bengals and league as a whole go from here.

Hamlin is still in critical condition at the hospital as of Tuesday night, and his short and long-term health remains uncertain. The league has stated that Bengals-Bills will not be resumed this week and has made no decision regarding a resumption of the game at a later date. The league will also not alter the Week 18 schedule.

All that, though, seems trivial at the moment. Frankly, whatever happens or doesn’t on the field at this point isn’t what’s important now, nor is there any indication when it will be again.

For the players, coaches and personnel staff on both sides, seeing Hamlin without a pulse on the turf at Paycor Stadium was beyond traumatizing. That goes for some fans in attendance, too.

“After seeing that, my first concern was that I wanted to get back home to my daughter, who’s a year-and-a-half old, who was born three months early, dangerously early, and almost didn’t make it herself,” Garrison said. “When things like that happen, it just goes strictly to humanity.

All I wanted to do was get home to my daughter, the person I love the most in the world, and just give her a hug.”

The rush of emotions over those two hours was a terrible reminder for everyone in attendance of just how quickly things can change.

At 8:30 p.m., “Welcome To The Jungle” can be blaring over the loudspeaker in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans.

Two hours later, the only sounds can be the idle chatter of staffers in the stadium, watching fans dressed in Bengals and Bills gear headed for their cars without much certainty of the haunting scenes they just witnessed.

“These are the reasons that you tell people that you love them for no reason,” Garrison said. “This is the reason you make the extra phone call and talk to that person. Because life is that fragile.”


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