It was the night the whole city could not sleep.
An outsized percentage of its population figured it might stay up late to learn the outcome of what several commentators labelled the biggest game of the season, only to remain in vigil in front of a television for an entirely different reason.
I was watching the game from semi-afar, sound off, looking up occasionally to see how this mighty clash was progressing. When I saw the game was on hold for an injured player, I had the natural reaction, which was: “Whose player was it?” As it happened, everyone’s.
In a way, the tale was told by the state of Joe Burrow’s hair. Before it happened–before Damar Hamlin suddenly toppled over backwards after a routine play–Burrow’s helmet was carefully fastened. His focus was this drive. The helmet was discarded as soon as it was made clear that that this was going to involve medical personnel and perhaps a warm-up period.
Then came the footage of the back of Burrow’s perfectly manicured head as he pressed his face against that of his counterpart’s. Josh Allen stared, unblinking, into something he will see in his mind’s eye for the rest of his life. Whatever was going on beyond the gaze of the cameras was very wrong. Grown men do not sob into towels and bury their faces into one another’s chest protection for the likes of a cracked tibia.
When Burrow was seen again, he was sitting alone on the bench, wearing Allen’s expression. He slowly shook his head at absolutely no one, two ad-friendly boyish curls long out of the helmet and swaying across his forehead. Nobody– not during the last desperate seconds of the Super Bowl, not during the Cleveland loss, not when he tore his own ACL– had ever seen Joe Burrow look like this before.
Cincinnatians of a certain age probably thought in this moment of Tim Krumrie, a member of the ’89 Super Bowl team whose leg twisted at a grisly angle in the middle of the biggest possible game. The Bengals were stricken, but played on; Krumrie, after all, left the field with his eyes open, refusing painkillers and insisting that medical personnel take him to the team’s locker room instead of the hospital.
Monday night’s replay was shown exactly once, and, although not graphic, never again. Whoever makes these decisions would let those with a DVR or a YouTubeTV subscription freeze frame whatever they wanted to freeze frame.
As players formed a living privacy fence for Hamlin and the paramedics cutting off his gear so as to shock his chest, the ring at the center of the field took on a living quality. It expanded; it contracted. But it never dispersed its mixture of black and white jerseys.
The longer the ring lived, the more analysts began to point out that there was no protocol or rulebook for such an event. Of course there was, said Reds fans: You don’t play. You don’t play even if the person who dropped dead on the field was an umpire and not a player. You note the tragic contrast between the springy hope of Opening Day and death behind home plate, and you send everybody home. Of course you do. Of course you do.
Football is brutal, but it still doesn’t match the man-to-man velocity of a small, hard sphere that can reach 100 MPH in .425 seconds. The damage of football accumulates; the damage of baseball occurs at the speed of over 139 feet per second.
And in the wide gap between news of Hamlin and the silent exit of a crowd that mere minutes ago was as loud as 66,535 people can be, the nasty side of human nature tried to creep in from outside the stadium.
Some blamed Bengals WR Tee Higgins, who was going about his business in an attempt to gain yardage when Hamlin helped pull him to the ground. Others unleashed a Twitter mob upon commentator Skip Bayless, who, in the process of expressing concern about the situation, also had the unfortunate audacity to note that the NFL had no precedent for seed-determining playoff games that were halted because both teams were emotionally traumatized.
Who was responsible? Someone had to undertake lifetime ignominy for what was suffered on live television. Might as well be Skip. The event that kept living room lights on well past bedtimes on the night before the nation returned to school after Christmas had a villain. Of course it did. Of course it did.
It was too terrifying to consider that sometimes young, healthy athletes just… fall over in the middle of the field. By chance. By coincidence. By a lurking, underlying medical condition.
The pushback to such an instinct resulted in a city once glowing orange ending the night bathed in the blue of its opponent, six million dollars pouring into Hamlin’s charity, and Bengals fans, unable to return to their homes after seeing such a thing unfold, making their way to the hospital straight from the stadium.
It was too terrifying to admit that nothing more could be done.
Tim Krumrie’s most serious injury, by the way, wasn’t the leg that shattered in four places that Super Bowl Sunday. It was the lifetime of brain damage he accumulated, hit after hit after hit. The timer on a football game cannot prevent wounds simply by running out.
And, in baseball, batters who bail out from a pitch only put themselves in greater danger of taking a ball to the head. Flinging an arm towards the source in a vain attempt to stop it will only increase the chances of injury.
It is better to stay near the plate, close to home, hunker down, and lower the bat for a moment. The game will continue eventually.