Bills' Damar Hamlin wanted to help his community, now NFL fans are doing it in his honor

Shortly after finishing his football career at the University of Pittsburgh, Damar Hamlin made plans to give back to the community where he grew up. He organized a holiday toy drive to benefit his mom’s daycare center in McKees Rock, Pennsylvania, and set up a GoFundMe page to solicit donations.

“As I embark on my journey to the NFL, I will never forget where I come from,” Hamlin wrote months before the Buffalo Bills selected him in the sixth round of the 2021 draft. “I am committed to using my platform to positively impact the community that raised me.”

Just over two years later, Hamlin’s GoFundMe page became a way for NFL fans to express support for him after he collapsed during the first quarter of a Monday Night Football game between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. The GoFundMe’s initial goal was to raise $2,500. At 9:30 ET on Monday night, fans had donated about $30,000. Only four hours later, that tally had reached a staggering $3 million. By early evening on Tuesday the total had grown to over $5 million, with donations continuing to roll in.

The donations were a heartwarming tribute at the end of an otherwise sobering night. In the first quarter of Monday’s game, Hamlin sustained a blow to the chest while tackling Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins. He briefly rose to his feet before falling again to the turf and laying there limp.

Emergency personnel administered CPR on the field, ESPN reported, before taking Hamlin via stretcher to an ambulance. A statement released early Tuesday morning by the Bills said Hamlin "suffered a cardiac arrest" and is "currently sedated and listed in critical condition" at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Damar Hamlin faced upbringing of challenges in his hometown

Before his chilling collapse on Monday night, Hamlin had been one of the NFL’s feel-good stories. He survived a turbulent childhood to blossom into a decorated football recruit. Then he overcame injuries and outperformed his draft position. Along the way, he used his platform to positively impact children in need.

Hamlin’s hometown of McKees Rock is a hardscrabble borough where drug and gang issues have combined to produce one of the nation’s highest crime rates. In 2021, Hamlin told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle that he lost three childhood friends to gun violence.

Hamlin also revealed to the Democrat & Chronicle that his father resorted to selling drugs in an effort to provide for his wife and young son. Mario Hamlin reportedly spent 3 1/2 years in prison, forcing Damar and his mother, Nina, to fend for themselves in his absence.

“The good thing is I had good goals and good morals already established in me during that period of time,” Hamlin told the Democrat & Chronicle. “He never was out of my life, but he physically wasn’t there, and that was different — it’s a different ballgame being through the phone than in person.”

Why staying home mattered for Hamlin

While juggling school and helping his mother run her daycare business, Damar carved out time to excel in football. He blossomed into one of Pennsylvania’s top prospects while at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School and was named Class AAAA Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.

Dozens of top college football programs who recruit Western Pennsylvania prioritized Hamlin, from Ohio State, to Penn State, to Michigan State, to Notre Dame, to Clemson. In the end, Hamlin committed to hometown Pittsburgh because he wanted to stay close to his family and he believed in head coach Pat Narduzzi.

Hamlin announced his decision during a Pittsburgh TV station’s 6 p.m. newscast. Narduzzi and his staff reacted as though the Panthers had just toppled Ohio State or Penn State in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

Narduzzi envisioned Hamlin as making an immediate impact at cornerback for Pittsburgh, but when the freshman arrived on campus, something wasn’t quite right. He was still experiencing lingering pain from a core muscle injury that he had played through during his senior season at Central Catholic.

While the injury ultimately required three surgeries and sidelined Hamlin for parts of his first two college seasons, he eventually became what he was projected to be. Hamlin switched from corner to safety and emerged as one of his team’s most productive defensive players, appearing in 46 games and recording 275 tackles, six interceptions, a fumble recovery and 21 pass breakups.

What the Bills saw in Hamlin

Hamlin drew praise for his work ethic, aggressiveness and versatility leading up to the 2021 draft, but concerns about his injury history and modest speed caused him to slide. The Bills snatched him in the sixth round in part because of his potential as a special teams weapon.

As a rookie, Hamlin logged only 50 snaps on defense behind starting safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Undaunted, he focused on studying how the two veterans comported themselves on and off the field.

“Any question I asked, it was always 110% honesty and realness from them,” Hamlin told the Buffalo News last July.

“They’re married,” Hamlin said. “I’m single. I want to ultimately get to where they are in life off the field. I want a family. I would make an emphasis to not just talk to them about football but also about life.”

The absence of Hyde and Poyer during voluntary offseason workouts allowed Hamlin to get more first-team reps last spring. He must have shown enough progress to instill confidence because the Bills didn’t add anyone to their safety room via the draft or free agency.

Hamlin unexpectedly moved into a starting role this season when Hyde suffered a neck injury during Week 2 and was placed on injured reserve. While still learning on the job, Hamlin entered Monday tied for the second-most tackles on the Bills. He also has recorded 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

The respect that Hamlin’s teammates have for him was obvious on Monday night as the entire Bills sideline surrounded him while he received care. Some players struggled to fight back tears. Others turned away from watching Hamlin in distress.

Among those who wished Hamlin well on social media was his quarterback.

And the Cincinnati receiver he tackled.

Countless others expressed support with their wallets via Hamlin’s long-forgotten GoFundMe. As Hamlin lays in a Cincinnati hospital bed, he’s still making a positive impact for the community that raised him.