Niyo: Lions back to work facing ‘heavy’ reality of NFL dangers

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Lions started their workday with a prayer Wednesday.

“We just felt like that was the best thing to do,” head coach Dan Campbell said. “That was the right thing to do.”

And in many ways, it felt like the only thing to do, in the wake of a tragedy that rocked the NFL earlier this week, as the league’s marquee Monday Night Football game suddenly turned into a horror flick.

A routine 13-yard pass play for the Cincinnati Bengals in that game quickly became a medical emergency for Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, a life-or-death struggle that’s still playing out days later in an intensive care unit at University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

The 24-year-old Hamlin remained in critical condition Wednesday, more than 48 hours after suffering cardiac arrest on the field following a hard tackle in which he absorbed a blow to his chest from Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin popped right back up after the play, then collapsed a moment later, and the terrifying scene that ensued — as medical professionals spent nearly 20 minutes attending to him on the field, administering CPR and using a defibrillator to shock his heart — played out before more than 20 million viewers.

Among them were Hamlin’s NFL colleagues, the more than 2,000 players across the league who returned to the practice field Wednesday with that nightmare still fresh on their minds.

In Allen Park, the Lions held a team meeting before a morning walkthrough and Campbell had Sean Pugh, the Lions’ co-director of player engagement, speak briefly to the group. Then the whole team gathered in prayer with Pugh, a former pastor who also played college football.

“When you don’t have words and there’s really nothing you know what to say, or how to say — there’s waves of emotions — that’s the best thing,” Campbell explained. “And so we did that, and that’s where we left it.”

And yet the reality is, something like what happened to Hamlin doesn’t leave you. It stays with you, and particularly for the members of this NFL fraternity, it can weigh on you. Often in ways that are hard to explain, or express.

“To see a dude on the field really fighting for his life, that’s pretty scary,” said Lions fullback Jason Cabinda, a fifth-year pro. “It wasn’t like it was a crazy head-to-head hit or anything, either. It was just a routine tackle and he got up and just collapsed. So I think that pretty much had everybody shook. Because it can happen to anybody.

“That’s the reality of the game we play. And I think it’s one of those things that puts it into perspective, just exactly what guys are going out there and risking when they play this game.”

It’s more than a game, of course. It’s a job. But unlike so many other dangerous jobs — police officers, firefighters, construction workers, you name it — this one is treated as entertainment. Players in the NFL risk serious injury every day while the rest of us watch and cheer and wager and complain.

And while no one is oblivious to that anymore, particularly after all the attention given to the links between concussions and CTE in recent years, there’s also no way around it. As President Biden told reporters Wednesday at the White House, when asked if he felt the NFL was getting too dangerous, “I don’t know how you avoid it. I don’t.”

You can’t, really. And for what it’s worth, no one that I spoke to in the Lions’ locker room was asking to Wednesday. But in listening to Austin Bryant, the Lions’ defensive end talking about taking a phone call from his mother on Tuesday — “I could hear it in her voice,” he said, “that she just wanted to hear my voice” — I’d say a little more empathy wouldn’t hurt.

“I mean, we’re human beings,” added Bryant, a friend and former college teammate of Higgins, the soft-spoken receiver who has had to deal with a different emotional burden this week, made worse by criticism from ESPN analyst Bart Scott on Tuesday.

“It’s definitely a heavy situation,” Bryant said. “There’s nothing you can tell someone at that point. It’s not Tee’s fault.”

The Lions endured a scary on-field scene of their own back in October, when cornerback Saivion Smith suffered a neck injury early in a game at New England. He experienced temporary paralysis in his limbs after an awkward hit, and after team doctors rushed to his aid, an ambulance was brought on the field to transport Smith — along with his father and uncle, who both came out of the stands — to a nearby hospital. Smith, who was cleared to fly home with the team that night, underwent neck fusion surgery a month later and vowed to return to next season.

“It’s just part of football,” he said at the time. “That could’ve happened any play, anytime to anybody. That could’ve happened to the average Joe that works at McDonald’s if he slipped and fell. I feel like it’s a part of the game and a part of life.”

But what played out on TV on Monday night was something even more extreme. And beyond the obvious concerns for Hamlin’s health and well-being, players mostly just wanted answers this week about how Monday night’s emergency was handled by the league.

It was Cabinda, the Lions’ representative with the NFL Players’ Association, whose job it was to relay some of that information after a conference call with union leaders and other player reps from around the league. By all accounts, the action plan that’s in place at all NFL stadiums was executed quickly and correctly Monday night in Cincinnati

“And it was very clear that those people who were the first responders … that they’d done a really good job,” Cabinda said.

Meanwhile, the NFL sent information to all 32 teams on Tuesday to remind them of the available mental health support system that’s in place for players. Cabinda shared a similar message with his teammates, and the Lions’ staff has done the same.

“We’ve got some great coaches here,” Bryant said. “They’ve already extended the offer, that if you need to talk, whether it’s them or Sean or our psychiatrist (Dr. Michelle Garvin), whoever you feel comfortable talking to, the door is open.”

Still, the season’s not over. Far from it, in fact, with playoff possibilities looming for more than half the teams in the NFL entering Week 18. The Lions hit the practice field Wednesday in Allen Park to prepare for a prime-time game Sunday night at Green Bay that could pit two division rivals fighting for the final wild-card berth in the NFC.

So this is no time for apprehension. No time to let up, physically or emotionally. When the Lions’ players were finished with their stretching regimen at the start of practice Wednesday, the linebackers headed immediately to the blocking sled. The players weren’t in full pads, but it was time to go back to work, less than 48 hours after the entire NFL world was stopped cold.

“I mean, it’s not easy to see that happen,” Cabinda said, when asked how that’s even possible after what took place in Cincinnati. “And then (for some players), you look at your wife and kids and say, ‘I’m gonna go do that tomorrow.’ So that’s definitely not an easy thing. But you can’t afford to think like that.

“So many of us have been playing this all our lives. … You would think seeing it happen to someone else would be enough. But you love the game. That’s the reality. Whether that’s right or it’s wrong, whether that makes us sick or crazy for loving it, that’s who we are.”

And this, then, is what they’ll do: They’ll pray, and they’ll play on.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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