FRISCO, Texas — As the Dallas Cowboys' team meeting wrapped Wednesday morning, a rush of texts hit phones across the country.
Calls, too, rang from the team facility.
Because two days after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field of an NFL game, the Cowboys’ team chaplain implored players: Tell your loved ones you love them. Don’t wait until tomorrow. You may not have that long.
“Mom, dad, call them and let them know you love them,” Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “Sister, brother, kids — everybody in your circle. Just make sure they feel loved. Y’all make sure y’all gather around and touch each other.”
The Cowboys returned to work Wednesday after a regularly scheduled players day off Tuesday. They would practice, meet with position groups and prepare for their regular-season finale against the Washington Commanders.
But before professional development continued, head coach Mike McCarthy wanted to ensure the organization supported players more holistically. He created a dialogue in their teamwide meeting for players to confront rather than just compartmentalize the raw emotions of an NFL tragedy. Pastor Jonathan Evans addressed the group.
“It’s definitely a heavy, sensitive day here,” McCarthy said. “I thought his spiritual guidance was what we needed to hear. When you get in tough times, you just have to make sure you’ve got your resources lined up and that everybody is keeping an eye on one another because let’s be honest: Nobody’s fine.
“We obviously know what’s in front of us professionally. Our spirituality playbook was open today, and we’re working through it.”
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy begins press conference with thoughts and prayers to Damar Hamlin, his family, Bills, etc.
"Heavy, sensitive day here," he said. "Let's be honest: Nobody's fine."
Team meeting discussion this morning included words from team chaplain Jonathan Evans.
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 4, 2023
Wednesday was not McCarthy nor several Cowboys leaders’ first experience guiding a team through trauma. McCarthy was offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, when 23-year-old offensive lineman Thomas Herrion collapsed in the locker room and died.
In November 2020, the Cowboys’ then-strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul collapsed at the facility in sight of players, suffering what was later deemed a heart attack. McCarthy sent players home to grieve with their loved ones for Paul, who was pronounced dead the following day.
That memory flooded back into the minds of Cowboys members as they watched Monday night’s game between the Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. Medical professionals rushed to provide CPR, resuscitating Hamlin on the field, according to the 24-year-old’s family. An ambulance then arriving at midfield to transport Hamlin to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Hamlin showed “signs of improvement,” the Bills tweeted at 1:30 p.m. Still, Hamlin remained in critical condition in the intensive care unit.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was sitting down at dinner Monday when he saw the broadcast cut to repeated commercials and he realized something was wrong. He prayed for Hamlin alongside his pre-meal prayer — and he continues to.
“Just seeing the players’ reaction, I’ve got all the hope and belief that Damar’s going to fight through and he’s going to make it — but it just brought me back to Markus Paul,” Prescott said Wednesday from his locker. “The sense of the locker room and the sense of that morning when that happened, how people reacted. It was a tough moment, obviously. … Just honestly I felt for the players, I felt for Damar, his teammates, the coaches, the Bengals, people watching the game, kids.
“The thoughts and everything that that can create, it’s traumatizing for people.”
Prescott lost his mother to colon cancer when he was 20 years old and his oldest brother, Jace, to suicide in 2020. He has since spoken publicly about his own battles with depression and anxiety, advocating against stigmas surrounding mental health challenges. Evans’ sermon to appreciate every day was “outstanding,” Prescott said. He expressed gratitude also for McCarthy’s authenticity and priorities.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo Tuesday to club officials regarding specific mental health resources available to players, coaches and staff members, according to a copy obtained by Yahoo Sports.
NFL memo from commissioner Roger Goodell to club officials mentions decision made to not immediately resume Bills-Bengals game.
Also, and more importantly: NFL teams received information about mental health and support resources. pic.twitter.com/nMRy3Get46
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 3, 2023
Several members of the organization held connections to Hamlin, from fellow Pittsburgh natives to shared pre-draft workouts. Cowboys practice squad running back Qadree Ollison played at the University of Pittsburgh for three seasons with Hamlin. He shared memories of a funny and friendly teammate whose blue-collar work ethic epitomized the city — of a caring older brother who eschewed scholarship offers from top college football programs to stay close to his baby brother.
“Damar’s one of the best big brothers I’ve ever seen,” Ollison said. “And if you see how his little brother Damir looks up to him and idolizes him, you understand.”
Ollison reached out to the Hamlin family to offer words of prayer and support. He texted his former teammate, too, though he doesn’t know when or if Damar will read it.
“I texted him, I told him I love him,” Ollison said. “And that’s what I’d tell him if I could talk to him now. I love him and can’t wait to see him back up.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein