Football is supposed to be an escape from real-life problems and challenges. For three hours, fans get to immerse themselves in a fantasy world of athletic excellence, $12 beers and deafening festivities.
Monday night’s NFL game between Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals reminded us there is no escape from life – and death.
Announcers and reporters struggled to find words after Bills safety Damar Hamlin got up from a tackle, adjusted his facemask and fell lifeless back to the artificial turf. Doctors and emergency technicians spent nine minutes reviving him with cardiopulmonary resuscitation before he was taken by ambulance to a local hospital.
Suddenly, football didn’t seem important. It no longer was an escape. It was a setting that attracted 66,000 fans in person and millions on national television to remind us there are no diversions or timeouts in the game of life.
Media outlets reported nothing like that had ever happened in the NFL. That’s not true. Chuck Hughes went into cardiac arrest while playing for the Detroit Lions against Chicago in 1971. To date – and let’s hope it stays that way – he’s the only player to die during an NFL game.
What I watched Monday night reminded me of when I met Dale Earnhardt in 1979. We both were in our first full-time years in NASCAR and we were friends for 23 years. I was there on Feb. 18, 2001, when his black Chevrolet hit the fourth-turn wall on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and slid across the track into the infield.
At first, it didn’t seem to be that serious, especially compared to most of the harrowing accidents common at the Daytona International Speedway. But Earnhardt’s heart pumped a few times and stopped.
Hamlin’s tackle also seemed to be routine, especially compared to other horrific hits common to professional football. His heart also stopped, but quick-acting first responders pumped new life back into him.
What both moments taught us is there’s nothing routine about life and death.
One former NFL player said football can be a matter of life or death. In reality, we all face life or death every time we get up in the morning and start our days. A pizza delivery driver died on New Year’s Eve when another driver ran a red light on Blanding Boulevard and slammed into him. An 18-year-old was shot and killed in Orange Park last week after arguing during a basketball game. A mother and her son died in an apartment fire in Orange Park the day after Christmas.
Their stories are no less – or more – significant than Hamlin being in the hospital in critical condition or Earnhardt being dead. All are tragic.
One of the realities of covering auto racing for more than 40 years is I’ve witnessed a lot of fatal crashes. Ricky Knotts was my first. It happened on Feb. 14, 1980, during one of the 125-mile qualifying races for my first Daytona 500.
Another was George Turbyfill in 1987. He died when his throttle stuck and he caromed off the fourth turn wall at Volusia Speedway Park. As they loaded his body into a life flight helicopter, I stood next to his wife and son when the boy asked, “Mommy, where is daddy going?”
Those words, along with the emptiness of trying to write about Earnhardt’s death, still haunt me.
We’ve all heard the phrase: “He died before his time.” No, we die when it’s our time. There are no guarantees printed on our birth certificates. The only thing we all are promised is the certainty of death and the opportunity to make the best of the time we’re alive. It’s up to us to make the best of it.
Damar Hamlin was doing just that. Let’s pray he has another opportunity to make the best of his new life.