The Bills' Damar Hamlin waves after being introduced as the...

The Bills' Damar Hamlin waves after being introduced as the winner of the Alan Page Community Award during a news conference on Wednesday ahead of Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix. Credit: AP/Mike Stewart

PHOENIX — The story of this NFL season is not about the two teams remaining in contention for the championship. It’s not about the performances by players who are on the cusp of becoming legends, about those who have already achieved that status stepping away from the game, about individual comebacks from injuries or team ones from overwhelming deficits.

It’s not even really about football itself.

It’s about a 24-year-old kid who nearly died on the field in front of a national television audience, a seemingly tragic event that somehow has managed to provide more positives than seemed possible.

So yes, of course Damar Hamlin is here at the Super Bowl. At a venue that celebrates football, at a weeklong buildup that annually exposes the deficiencies and touts the glories of the game, this wouldn’t be much of a party without him.

Barely over a month after he collapsed on the field in Cincinnati from a cardiac episode — has it really only been that long since the image of him quivering and collapsing on Jan. 2 became permanently etched, through a single viewing, without the aid of multiple ghastly replays, in our collective memory banks? — Hamlin walked out from behind a curtain and across a stage to accept the Alan Page Community Service Award from the NFLPA on Wednesday.

It was his first truly unfiltered public appearance since he was lifted into that ambulance. Not a social media post, not a wave to fans from behind the glass of a suite in Buffalo, but him looking astonishingly well.

Hamlin is doing so well that NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer, appearing on SiruisXM’s Doctor Radio channel, made a bold prediction on Wednesday.

“I don’t want to get into HIPAA issues,” he said, “but I guarantee you that Damar Hamlin will play professional football again.”

Hamlin wasn’t being hailed Wednesday for surviving his ailment, although that is awesome. The medical teams that immediately recognized his peril and sprang into action along with the doctors and nurses at the various hospitals where he spent his remarkably brief recovery period had a large part in that and deserve the preponderance of kudos in that matter. Instead, this was an honor based on what he came to mean to us as a symbol of collective hope and optimism, as a beacon for good, all of which has been rewarded.

“It’s a blessing to be a blessing,” Hamlin said in his acceptance speech. “I plan to never take this position for granted and always have an urgent approach in making a difference in the community where I come from, and also in communities across the world.”

He’s been able to do that.

So often in life the things we want or pray for are denied us. The odds are too large to surmount, the outcome a disappointment. There are players, coaches and fans across the country who are on their knees all this week asking that either Philadelphia or Kansas City come out victorious this Sunday, perhaps even more who will be in search of specific outcomes, point differentials, even coin flip results. Only about half of them will be satisfied by the outcome.

But Hamlin’s return to health was something we all wanted. It is something that tapped into our collective desire for goodness. He wasn’t a Bills player when he was having CPR administered on the field that day, he wasn’t the enemy of anyone. He was a young man in serious distress.

He made it through. And because it’s the outcome we all wanted, it’s all of us who get to share the joy of the result.

The GoFundMe page he set up during the pandemic with the goal of raising $25,000 to buy toys for underprivileged children might still be striving for that modest achievement had Hamlin walked away from his tackle of Tee Higgins. Instead, it has ballooned to over $9 million and counting. People around the league and round the world wanted so desperately to help in any way they could, and this was their avenue.

This, in other words, was their award, too.

Hamlin said he grew up watching his father in particular become a pillar of community service in the Pittsburgh area. He said giving back has been a “big part of who I am” since childhood.

“I was always waiting on my time when it came,” he said.

It arrived, in terrifying fashion, on Jan. 2. No one had any idea what Hamlin would come to personify, that his No. 3 jersey would forever evoke a rush of complicated emotions inside of us.

“I just thank God for being here,” Hamlin said.

There is a saying around the league that each and every year 31 of the 32 teams (and their fans) are always disappointed when the season ends. Only one of them is truly happy with the outcome.

Hamlin’s presence at this year’s Super Bowl buildup, the entire trajectory of his story that so captivated us actually, served as a reminder that the game doesn’t matter as much as the people involved in it.

He walked onto that stage and 32 of 32 teams considered this a great season.

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