Reggie Brown, when he learned about Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s traumatic injury in Monday’s game between Buffalo and the Cincinnati Bengals, understood better than most exactly what was at stake. The former Detroit Lions linebacker had been there himself 25 years earlier.
Laying prone on the field. Needing CPR to breathe. Teammates looking on in anguish.
“It’s devastating to live through it,” Brown told The Washington Times. “It’s devastating to witness it. It’s devastating to kind of know somebody that’s gone through it. I wouldn’t wish my situation on anyone.”
Part of what made Hamlin’s life-threatening injury so stunning was the reaction by the NFL, a league where “next-man-up” is practically a mantra. Instead, the NFL suspended the game mid-contest, and a day later, with Hamlin still in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital, has no plans to reschedule.
As Brown can attest, that’s not how the NFL typically operates.
In December 1997, in a contest between Detroit and the New York Jets, Brown suffered a spinal cord injury on a hit that — like Hamlin — required the linebacker to receive CPR after he stopped breathing. Brown — like Hamlin — was transported by an ambulance off the field.
That game resumed after a 17-minute delay, and the Silverdome crowd still erupted in joy when running back Barry Sanders later broke 2,000 yards for a season.
Brown said he was surprised the NFL decided to suspend Monday night’s game, given his own experience and the league’s history — a history that includes the death of Chuck Hughes, a Detroit Lions receiver who died of a heart attack on the field in an October 1971 game against the Chicago Bears.
Hughes is thought to be the only NFL player to die while playing — and that game was allowed to continue.
Monday night was different. Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest. Players, coaches and league executives appeared to finally realize that a man’s life was a stake. Nothing else mattered.
Brown’s spinal injury went beyond ending his football career: It impacted every aspect of his life.
“Taking the sport away is one thing,” Brown said. “Having your body function a whole different way — it’s like going from Superman to a normal human being or less than a normal human being real fast.
“Hopefully (Hamlin) can make it through it.”
Not feeling normal
Anyone can view Brown’s injury on the NFL’s YouTube channel as the game was uploaded in most of its entirety as a way to honor Sanders’ accomplishment. But the edited version contains a note on screen as the linebacker was transported in an ambulance that reads in part that Brown “was able to walk two days later” following emergency fusion surgery and “now lives a normal life without any paralysis.”
Recounted the message over the phone, Brown laughs. Normal?
“I live a not normal life,” Brown said. “I can walk … but there’s a lot of issues that go along with just walking. I’m 48. I feel like I’m 98.”
There are reminders every day of what he went through. Every morning takes at least 30 minutes to get out of bed, he said. Then there are the headaches, the random pains. “I’m never at peace, if that makes sense,” he says. Brown says he can function, but he’s not functional. “You kind of get used to it.”
But his life changed in an instant because of injury. He provides another example: The day that he left to face the Jets was the last time he had stepped into the home he owned in suburban Michigan. By the time he was in a position to leave the hospital, the Lions packed up his house at Brown’s request and shipped his belongings to his mother’s home in Austin, Texas, so he could reside there.
How Hamlin will be affected in the long term is still not publicly known. A rep for Hamlin called the safety a “fighter” in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” though his family, the Bills and the NFL have all elaborated little on his status other than to say that the safety was sedated and in critical condition. Hamlin’s heartbeat was restored on the field, the Bills said.
Another part of what made Hamlin’s injury so chilling is how routine the hit that caused the injury seemed to be. On the play, Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins lowered his shoulder to make contact with the safety’s chest as Hamlin embraced for the tackle. Initially, Hamlin popped right up — only to quickly collapse.
In that sense, the hit that led to Brown’s spinal injury was also seemingly normal. The former linebacker dove headfirst in to tackle Jets running back Adrian Murrell — but had opposing lineman Lamont Burns fall and crash right into his helmet.
When Brown looks back at the play— and he has rewatched the play often — he can’t think about all the different ways it could have unfolded instead. Murrell, for instance, trips over a lineman’s feet on his way to the collision. If that hadn’t happened, Brown guesses he “probably wouldn’t have got hurt.” Or if the defensive linemen in front of them weren’t pushing the Jets’ offensive line, then perhaps Burns doesn’t fall the way he does.
“If I had moved an inch higher, an inch lower, I could have either played the next play,” Brown said, “or I could have been dead on the field.”
Brown, meanwhile, hasn’t watched Hamlin’s hit. The Houston resident was traveling back from Dallas at the time of Monday’s Bills game because his son was playing in the Cotton Bowl for Tulane. Though plenty of people have described the hit to him, he says, Brown has no plans to see it, either.
Grasping the risks
Former Washington safety Ryan Clark was on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on Monday evening sharing how athletes often use cliches such as they’re prepared to die or ready to go to war to describe what it takes to play football.
“Sometimes we use those things so much,” Clark said, “we forget that part of living this dream is putting your life at risk.”
Moments like Hamlin’s injury underscore how football can be a dangerous game. Players like Kevin Everett in 2007, Ryan Shazier in 2017 and the list goes on have experienced, like Brown, life-threatening and life-changing injuries.
Shazier, a star for the Steelers, had his career abruptly end on a head-on tackle. Everett, who also coincidentally played for Buffalo, nearly died on an opening kickoff collision. In 1991, former Lions guard Mike Utley was left paralyzed and remains a paraplegic. New England Patriots wideout Darryl Floyd Stingley’s career ended in 1978 at the age of 26 when he was left paralyzed after an on-the-field hit.
Players often embrace the tradeoffs. They know the financial rewards that come with being in the NFL. Many are also living out a childhood dream.
That dream, though, can be taken away. And the punishing reality sets in. When situations like Hamlin’s hit or other serious blows happen, Brown says he often gets texts and phone calls from people to see how he’s doing or whether he’s interested in talking about his own experience.
While Brown sees the efforts as “heartwarming” in a sense, he adds that they’re another “tragic reminder” of what happened to him.
“I pray that he makes it through the situation, but he’s going to get constant reminders of yesterday,” Brown said of Hamlin. “January 2, 2023. Mine is December 21, 1997. That’s a definite date I will never forget.
“I don’t remember much about the day, but I know the date.”