ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — After two periods of work to start Tuesday’s offseason training activity (OTA), the Buffalo Bills moved into stretching. Safety Damar Hamlin took his usual spot on the end of the defensive line, next to where pass-rusher Leonard Floyd, who signed his contract with the team Tuesday morning, warmed up.
Hamlin, with cameras pointed in his and Floyd’s direction, formed a heart with his hands and put up three fingers on each hand, symbolizing his number. It was the first time in an OTA practice open to the media that Hamlin wore his helmet and fully participated, a significant step toward playing football after suffering cardiac arrest during a game at the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2.
General manager Brandon Beane said Hamlin first put on his helmet during the final practice session last week, which made his first day of wearing a helmet last Wednesday.
“Really proud of him to take that next step,” Beane said. “[I] texted his parents [Nina and Mario Hamlin] afterwards, like, just so proud of him and thrilled for where he’s at in his journey. He’s still got more milestones to hit, but to think back, we’re just at the beginning of June and that was the beginning of January, and we were just hoping he’d live, and now he’s not only got a normal life, but we’re talking about playing, not any football, NFL football. So, thrilled for him, all the people that have been around him, and it’s an amazing story.”
Hamlin’s practice was largely a normal day of OTAs, including tight defending against running back Nyheim Hines on a ball thrown downfield that fell incomplete. With just under a half-hour left of practice, Hamlin was in tight coverage with wide receiver KeeSean Johnson on a pass from quarterback Kyle Allen and the pair fell to the ground while competing for the catch. Hamlin was slow to get up, with other defensive backs helping him. On the sideline, Hamlin threw his helmet to the ground in frustration and trainers looked at his right shoulder/arm area. Hamlin was able to fully return to the field.
The next step for Hamlin, per Beane, will be putting on pads and tackling during training camp as the team brings him into the fold at his pace. Beane said he is not expecting Hamlin to start camp on either PUP or NFI.
“We’re just upping his, building his reps up and he’s great, like, he’s mentally ready to go. He knows the defense. It’s Year 3 into it. It’s all that,” Beane said. “… I thought it was really important for him to, if he could and felt he was ready, you know, this is a two-way communication. This is not us saying, ‘You got to do this.’ He’s worked really hard on the mental side of this, physically he’s all cleared, but this is a real deal from a mental standpoint after you’ve been to where he was. But the next thing will be when we get to St. John Fisher [University, for training camp] … we’ll, through next week, minicamp, continue to ramp him up, with helmets on.”
Hamlin, 25, announced he was physically cleared to resume playing in April. He has been at every session open to the media since but did not wear his helmet or participate in individual or team drills the way he did Tuesday.
In April, Hamlin said the mental journey and roller coaster of emotions is the “hardest hurdle,” but he had support in the Bills’ facility.
“I have no idea what it’s like for him. I think he’s the only one that could answer that,” said safeties coach Joe Danna, who was hired this offseason. “Really, I’ve just tried to take the approach of trying to support whatever he wants, his goals, take it day by day and just try to coach him, get better, but it’s great to see him out there.”
On Saturday, Hamlin announced that he was launching a CPR tour, which began in Buffalo and will include stops in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, with CPR training and the distribution of AEDs to support youth sports and community groups.
Damar Hamlin dons helmet, practices in Bills’ team drills