BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) -The Buffalo Bills made an emotional return to the field on Sunday with a slew of tributes in honor of safety Damar Hamlin, who sent his love and watched from a hospital bed in Cincinnati after suffering cardiac arrest during an NFL game last week.
The Bills arrived at their home stadium in Hamlin-inspired apparel and took the field waving "Pray for Damar" flags before gathering at the 50-yard-line where they collectively held up three fingers in honor of his jersey number.
Moments before the game got underway, Hamlin, who has made remarkable strides this week, wrote "GAMETIME!!!" on Twitter along with a photo showing him in a hospital bed and making a heart-shaped gesture.
The post came less than two hours after he wrote: "GameDay.. Nothing I Want More Than To Be Running Out That Tunnel With My Brothers. God Using Me In A Different Way Today. Tell Someone You Love Them Today!" let's go @BuffaloBills."
The Bills, wearing "3" jersey patches on their uniforms, made a magical start against the New England Patriots as Nyheim Hines returned the game's opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown that left many players on the sideline in disbelief.
The play marked the first time in three years and three months since Buffalo's last kickoff return for a touchdown and prompted Hamlin to quickly tweet "OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Hamlin later directed an "I love you too" post at Dawson Knox after the Bills tight end flashed the number three with his fingers followed by a heart-shaped gesture with his hands after scoring a second-quarter touchdown.
After John Brown's 42-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter put Buffalo ahead 28-17 he gave the ball to Bills assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington who administered CPR top Hamlin on the field on Monday.
'IT WAS SPIRITUAL'
The Bills went on to a 35-23 victory in their regular-season finale and the win was dedicated to Hamlin, who spoke with his team mates during a video call after the game.
"We just wanted to come out and play free, play loose, play for (Damar)," said Bills quarterback Josh Allen. "And obviously the first kickoff, you couldn't have scripted it any better.
"That one was pretty emotional ... it was spiritual, it really was. Bone-chilling. It was special."
The 24-year-old Hamlin collapsed during a game last Monday in Cincinnati moments after making a tackle and then had to have his heartbeat restored on the field while stunned players from both teams cried, prayed and hugged.
Hamlin began to wake up two days later and has had his breathing tube removed. He also surprised team mates on Friday during a video call in which he said "love you, boys," flexed his biceps and flashed a heart symbol with his hands.
In the most recent health update provided by the Bills on Saturday, the team described Hamlin's neurological function as "excellent" while still in critical care.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott said before Sunday's game that the positive news on Hamlin's recovery over the last few days allowed the Bills to ease their minds and turn their attention back to football.
"It's been a huge lift," McDermott said of Hamlin's improving situation. "Really for the guys to get their minds off of Damar a little bit, just a little bit enough to focus on their preparation for this game today."
Hamlin was recognised around the NFL on Sunday as players from all teams donned "Love for Damar 3" T-shirts while moments of support were recognised at various stadiums.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, wearing a "3" hat, was among those in attendance in Buffalo where a stream of fans lined up outside the stadium to sign a giant card for Hamlin.
"Thank you medical staff", "Love for Damar", "Do it for Hamlin", "Still praying", and "Hamlin Strong" were among the many signs being held up inside the stadium.
Even the "3" in each 30-yard-line number on the field was outlined in Bills blue, a gesture also made at stadiums around the league on the final day of the NFL's regular season.
Prior to kickoff, the Bills public address announcer asked those in attendance to cheer for Hamlin's recovery while there was also a special acknowledgement of the first responders who helped save his life.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Pritha Sarkar)