On Sunday night, the Buffalo Bills will play in Cincinnati against the Bengals. It is a game between teams who are considered Super Bowl contenders but have three losses each.
It is also the same matchup, on the same field, where one of the most terrifying events in NFL history occurred not even a year ago: Buffalo defensive back Damar Hamlin, after tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, suffered cardiac arrest, collapsed to the turf and had to be revived on the field.
Players and coaches at Paycor Stadium were so shaken by what happened that they decided to walk off the field. The completion of the game was postponed and later canceled, an unprecedented and entirely understandable move.
There was so much talk in the days that followed, about what had happened to Hamlin on the field and what might happen for him after, about whether the league had tried to make the Bills and Bengals return to the field, about why it takes a tragedy like Hamlin's for some to pause and remember that players are actual human beings, not just fantasy scores or faceless cogs in a machine.
As Hamlin lay in a hospital bed, donations poured in from all over to support his foundation, which provides toys to children at his mother's Pittsburgh-area day-care center. The NFL went out of its way to praise itself for having medical personnel on hand at that game and every other and having trained them in life-saving care, as if a multi-billion league for a sport where the injury rate is basically 100 percent and a not-small number incur life-altering injuries deserved a cookie for making sure the absolute worst outcome didn't occur.
And as predictably as the sun rising in the east, it seems like the league writ large has just ... moved on, as if we didn't almost watch a player die on prime-time television. Some of us are still left to wonder what, if anything, has changed?
The fact that Hamlin, the miracle of his recovery and return to good health already assured, has not only returned to the Bills but played in Buffalo's Week 4 game with Miami has likely helped the NFL. It's easier to pretend that it was just one bad moment when the player at the center of it is able to play again.
It's unclear whether Hamlin will be active for Sunday night's game.
For his part, Hamlin told the New York Post this week that he doesn't know how he'll feel Sunday when he is back at Paycor Stadium, on the field where his life was irrevocably changed.
“I don’t know what to expect," Hamlin said. “All I know is I’m walking in with courage, I’m walking in with strength and I’m walking in with my brothers. I’m walking in with my mom, my dad, my family. And I’m walking into, you know, an environment of people that supported me the entire time."
For as much as the NFL and NBC would likely rather lightly trumpet his return to the scene of his heart stoppage as a past event, what happened to Hamlin, even as he was given clearance to return by doctors and has been practicing, is still never far from his teammates' minds.
The memories and fear all came raging back last month, when Bills running back Damien Harris rushed for a first down against the Giants and then fell to the ground because of a neck injury. As Harris lay motionless and flat on his back, the ambulance called for the 26-year-old, left tackle Dion Dawkins checked to make sure he was breathing.
A few months earlier, Bills players couldn't tell if Hamlin was breathing.
“Especially after last year, anytime the ambulance has to come on the field, it brings PTSD. It’s hard. It’s really hard, man," Dawkins said. "I hate to say it like this, but before every game starts in this league, you have to hug your loved ones just a little bit closer. You really never know.”
The scare with Harris was paralyzation, something else Buffalo fans are morbidly familiar with. In the 2007 season opener, Bills tight end Kevin Everett was paralyzed on kickoff return coverage. He has since regained the ability to walk.
As Harris was strapped onto a backboard, he gave a thumbs up, the sign that he wasn't paralyzed. It didn't necessarily mean that he was OK. He spent the night in the hospital, is on injured reserve and may not return this season, and since he was on a one-year contract, there's a chance he may never play again depending on the injury and given how the league sees running backs in particular as a dime a dozen.
Since what happened to Harris isn't as rare as what happened to Hamlin — though nonetheless upsetting to many and potentially devastating to the player — once he was loaded into the ambulance and it drove off, the game started up again, a fact that was not lost on defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
“In Damar’s situation, the game did stop," he said. "But other than that, the game doesn’t stop for anybody. The next play is coming."
In other words, nothing has really changed.