ORCHARD PARK, NY – The Buffalo Bills kicked off an emotionally charged game against New England with an extraordinary, “storybook” play for Damar Hamlin.
Bills running back Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown just 13 seconds into the game.
The Bills went from being emotionally stunned by witnessing Hamlin getting resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati on Monday night, to being joyously uplifted after the safety addressed to his teammates by videoconference on Friday.
“I love you boys,” Hamlin said in a soft voice.
Hamlin, who’s shown remarkable recovery since going into cardiac arrest twice Monday, was watching the game from his hospital bed in Cincinnati. He tweeted a photo of himself and posted a second tweet when Hines scored.
Earlier this weekend, Hamlin posted on social media Saturday for the first time since his collapse.
The Bills and their fans planned several tributes for Hamlin Sunday.
The owner of a sign shop, Ryan Magnuson, designed a 4-by-10-foot canvas card, which he erected at the foot of the Bills stadium entrance for all to see — and sign — as they arrived for Buffalo’s game.
Magnuson’s goal is to somehow get his oversized card sent to Hamlin.
Fans filled the front of the sign with well-wishes some three hours before kickoff, offering messages such as “Stay Strong” and “Love.” Some wore no. 3 jerseys, which is Hamlin’s number.
The scoreboard depicts a message of support for Damar Hamlin during the game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 08, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
“Watching it live, it was sad to see,” said Kyle Blaney, wearing a Patriots jersey. “But it’s good to see everyone coming together to support him, not just Bill’s fans.”
Players from both teams came out onto the field for warmups wearing shirts honoring Hamlin. Many Patriots players wore black sweatshirts with the words “Love for Damar” printed on the front. Several Bills players wore T-shirts with Hamlin’s likeness on the front and back.
The NFL is paying tribute to the player during all Week 18 games, which began Saturday, including a pregame moment of support and painting Hamlin’s No. 3 on the 30 yard line. The Bills will also wear “3” jersey patches.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was also scheduled to attend the Bills game.
For Buffalo GM Brandon Beane, the game is far more than a showdown against an AFC East rival to close the season. Instead, it represents a celebration of life in knowing Hamlin is on the road to recovery.
“I probably get emotional if I talk too much about it, but I’m so proud of our organization, our team, just so many people, the way we’ve dealt with so much this year,” Beane said. “Definitely not the way you draw it up. I don’t know what’s gonna happen the rest of the season on the field, I really don’t. This is a group of winners, and I will forever remember this team, this season. “
Damar Hamlin #3 of the Buffalo Bills after a game against the Tennessee Titans at Highmark Stadium on September 19, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
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Buffalo (12-3) is motivated despite having less riding on the outcome of the game than the Patriots (8-8). Buffalo has clinched its third consecutive AFC East title, but has lost the inside track to win the AFC’s top seed. The NFL’s decision to cancel Buffalo’s game against Cincinnati pushed Kansas City (13-3) ahead of the Bills in the standings.
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The one consolation is the league ruling the AFC championship game would be played at a neutral site should the Chiefs win the top seed and face Buffalo, should both teams win or lose on Sunday.
Buffalo Bills fans attend a candlelight prayer vigil for player Damar Hamlin at Highmark Stadium on January 3, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
In New England, the Patriots need only to win to clinch their 13th playoff berth in 14 seasons. New England can also clinch a spot should the Dolphins and Steelers lose, and Jacksonville beats Tennessee.
The Patriots find themselves in the wild-card race by virtue of a 23-21 win over Miami — and despite losing four of their last six.
Not lost on coach Bill Belichick is the emotional weight that will serve as a backdrop on Sunday, when it comes to Hamlin.
“Everybody individually will have to process it like we’ve been doing. Expect it to be an emotional scene and in the end we’re going there to play our best football game,” Belichick said. “I think everybody understands there’s a balance and there’s multiple things going on there.”
Show of support
Bills coach Sean McDermott said Belichick was among the many NFL coaches who reached out to him to provide support after Hamlin was hurt.
Buffalo Bills players look on after teammate Damar Hamlin #3 collapsed on the field after making a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paycor Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty I
“I certainly appreciate his thoughts and prayers,” McDemott said.
As for game preparation, the Bills essentially held one full practice on Thursday, with Wednesday and Friday’s sessions serving mostly as walkthroughs.
“It kind of makes you, respectfully, chuckle a little about what we’ve dealt with,” McDermott said. “Hey, why not make it a short week on top of that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.