Football has a long and odd relationship with real-world grief. It’s a sport whose greatest and most culturally pervasive rallying cry – “Win one for the Gipper!” – used the death of a player and turned it into a motivational speech. One in which the most memorable game of Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s career was the four-touchdown performance the day after his father died.
The idea had always been to compartmentalize and focus on football. Ignore your pain, leave your humanity at home, and concentrate on the task at hand. As recently as a generation of players ago that was the cold-hearted approach.
For the last few years, though, the NFL has been building an infrastructure to care for the mental health of its players and coaches with each team developing staffs and plans to be rolled out whenever they might become necessary.
This week they became necessary.
The terrifying incident in Monday night’s game when Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest after making what seemed like a rather routine tackle and had to be resuscitated by CPR and the use of a defibrillator was a medical emergency for one of the NFL’s players. It was an emotional emergency for the other 1,700 or so, not to mention all of the coaches, trainers and executives round the league.
So as the teams returned to their buildings on Wednesday for what is traditionally the start of their work week they were greeted not only with schematic plans for facing their Week 18 opponents but playbooks for coping with the fallout from the horror they witnessed on Monday, whether it was in person or on television.
"It is key we acknowledge how great a strain this places on everyone involved,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said on Wednesday. “This is not just for Buffalo and Cincinnati but for all our teams."
It’s why when the Giants showed up their first meeting of the day was a presentation by the medical personnel to discuss the situation, a prayer by the team chaplain for Hamlin and his family, but also a conversation led by Dr. Lani Lawrence, the Giants’ director of wellness and clinical services.
“I think you’re always concerned about your guys,” coach Brian Daboll said. “And then when something like this happens, you’re even more concerned about them. But that’s why I have confidence in the people in our building. That’s what we’re all here for. We’re here for the players. Support staff, coaches, trainers, medical – everybody’s here to help the player in any way we can.”
This is the first big test of the system that has evolved in recent years. It was in place to help the players through the pandemic but there were only a handful who took full advantage of the resources. This incident, though, was shocking enough for the NFL to do something it hasn’t done since 9/11: Contemplate hitting the pause button on a season.
If they do that – whether it be for the entire slate of weekend games of just the Bills’ scheduled contest against the Patriots on Sunday, nevermind what they do with the remainder of the postponed Monday night game -- it won’t be because Hamlin can’t physically play. It’ll be because the rest of the players are teams aren’t emotionally prepared to play.
That, as they might say in the world of therapy and self-care, is a huge breakthrough.
NFL vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said all of the conversations he has had with Bills head coach Sean McDermott since Monday have been about his and his players’ mental health. “We’re making sure the team has what it needs to function,” he said. “It is tough, and Coach is still battling.”
As for any decision regarding the upcoming Bills game, Vincent said: “It’s really important to keep the pulse of the coach and the players. We’re going to allow them to guide us.”
That’s about as far away from Knute Rockne as it gets.
Back to the Giants, a team that probably has more personal connections to Hamlin than any other outside Buffalo given the large migration of staff and players from the Bills in the past 12 months, they plodded through meetings and a practice with heavy hearts.
Daboll said he reached out to those he knows from his former workplace.
“Not that I can do much,” he said. “Just really a call of support… Not having been through a situation like this, you try to do the best you can to be there as a friend, as a mentor, as a former coach. Just be there for them.”
The players, meanwhile, dealt with things as a group and individually, most of it in a way that would have been foreign to the locker room code of just a few years ago with open hugs and tears but also private sessions with professionals.
“A lot of guys take advantage of (mental health resources) nowadays,” safety Julian Love said. “It’s important. You can’t just put things to the side anymore and try to push forward and think you are not tough if you talk to people. People are aware of that, they’re hip to it. It’s not a taboo topic anymore.
“Sometimes all you need is somebody to talk to.”
That present football is able to acknowledge such despite its long history otherwise is good for everyone involved.
They may play an often inhumane sport, but they are human nonetheless.