ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There probably was only one person in the football world who was not thinking about Damar Hamlin while Nyheim Hines was bolting the length of the field.
That would be Hines himself.
“When I was running, I was just trying to get there,” he said of his 96-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff of Sunday’s Bills-Patriots game.
Soon enough, though, even he was able to come around to what it meant — that it wasn’t just an electrifying way to start a football game but a cathartic way to restart a season that six days earlier had been brought to a near-deadly halt.
This was the first football action for the Bills since Hamlin collapsed on the field after making a tackle Monday night in Cincinnati. He suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated.
By the time Hines caught the ball at his own 4-yard line, everyone in Buffalo already had a pretty good sense that Hamlin would be OK and that he would survive his terrifying episode. He had communicated with his teammates on Thursday and through the weekend, and just before the game began, he tweeted a photo of himself in a hospital bed with his parents by his side as he settled in to watch the action.
There already was a sunniness that belied the cloudy winter skies above Highmark Stadium, which was filled with fans waving signs and displaying more heart-shaped cutouts than a Valentine’s Day decoration depot.
The crowd gave a lengthy pregame standing ovation for the Bills’ medical team, which had saved Hamlin. Bills fans spent their traditional tailgate parties signing massive “get well’’ cards rather than crashing through folding tables.
Even with all that good news, though, the uniqueness of the situation left most wondering how the team, how the city, how they themselves would handle the circumstances of a game being played.
By the time Hines crossed the goal line, they knew.
It was OK to celebrate again.
“I was speechless,” Hines said. “I’m so thankful it was me to bring that juice, but it’s way bigger than me.”
Josh Allen called it “spiritual” and “bone-chilling.” Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said it “put our hearts at ease.”
Coach Sean McDermott said he had allowed himself at one point during the week to think: “Wouldn’t it be special if we take that opening kickoff?”
And when it happened?
“I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “The way the week has gone, for that to happen . . . What else? What else?”
By the time the game was over, Hines had returned two kickoffs for touchdowns — becoming the first player since Leon Washington in 2010 and the 11th in NFL history to do that — Allen had thrown three touchdown passes and the defense had made three interceptions in the Bills’ 35-23 victory.
“Honestly, I don’t know how some of us did it,” cornerback Tre-Davious White said, calling the past week “traumatizing.”
The Bills, who clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, will host the Dolphins next weekend. The Patriots, who needed a win to get in, were eliminated from postseason contention.
It wasn’t only that first play that put Hamlin front and center even though he remains about 400 miles away. When John Brown caught a 42-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, he gave the football to assistant trainer Denny Kellington, who had administered CPR to Hamlin on the field last Monday.
As the game was winding down, after Allen took a knee to run out the clock, the players in the offensive huddle came together. All raised their hands with three fingers held high, three being Hamlin’s jersey number.
“We were just saluting our brother,” offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said. “We knew he was watching every bit of this game and we wanted to bring the connection through his TV screen to this stadium.”
Hamlin was able to be in the postgame locker room with the Bills — virtually, of course — to wrap up the regular season and head into the playoffs. Addressing them on FaceTime, he was awarded a game ball and broke the team down with a Bills chant.
“I usually sugarcoat it and say, ‘It’s just another win,’ ” Dawkins said of the postgame vibes, “but this one was really special. Extremely special. Coming into it, we knew we had to get the job done.”
Maybe it’s because of their relative isolation in Western New York, but the Bills have always had a closer relationship with the community of Buffalo than most teams do with their cities.
Over this past year, that weave between them has grown stronger. Through racially motivated shooting sprees and deadly blizzards in the last few months, the Bills have been there to help lift the spirits of the area as an escape and a source of pride or joy. This time, when the Bills were the ones hurting, it was the community that came to their aid.
“I believe it is unique with this team and this city in terms of being One Buffalo, the synchronization, if you will,” McDermott said. “Being at home together today was like we were coming together as a family.”
White said he has one goal now, and it has nothing to do with winning a Super Bowl.
“I just want to hug the [expletive] out of him,” he said.
Sunday felt like a big group embrace for the Bills, for Buffalo and for a football nation.
Players who have returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game:
Player, Team Date
Nyheim Hines 1/8/23
Leon Washington, Seattle 9/26/10
Josh Cribbs, Cleve. 12/20/09
Ted Ginn Jr., Miami 11/1/09
Andre' Davis, Hous. 12/30/07
Devin Hester, Chi. 12/11/06
Chad Morton, Jets 9/8/02
Tyrone Hughes, NO 10/23/94
Ron Brown, LA Rams 11/24/85
Travis Williams, GB 11/12/67
Timmy Brown, Phila. 11/6/66