By JOHN WAWROW
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — The Buffalo Bills and their fans planned several tributes to safety Damar Hamlin for the team’s game Sunday — No. 3 jerseys, homemade T-shirts and even a 10-foot wide get-well card.
There was no scripting what happened once the Bills actually returned to action.
On their first play since a terrifying scene Monday, when Hamlin went into cardiac arrest during a game in Cincinnati, Bills return man Nyheim Hines ran the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the New England Patriots.
The emotional, uplifting score was an early highlight to a cathartic day in Buffalo. A weeklong outpouring of support continued as the Bills returned to the field for the first time since Hamlin had to be resuscitated after making a tackle during the first quarter at Cincinnati. Hamlin has since made what doctors call a remarkable recovery.
Though still listed in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center as of Saturday, Hamlin’s neurological function has been deemed excellent, and he is breathing fully on his own while also able to speak.
“OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Hamlin tweeted after Hines’ touchdown. He also shared a photo of himself making a heart with his hands from his hospital bed shortly before kickoff with the text “GAMETIME!!! @BuffaloBills.”
Fans came to Buffalo’s game ready to celebrate Hamlin’s recovery. That included sign shop owner Ryan Magnuson, who designed a 4-by-10-foot canvas card, which he erected at the foot of the Bills stadium entrance for all to see — and sign.
“It’s been very positive. I’ve seen Bills fans, I’ve seen Patriots fans and people wearing other NFL jerseys coming up. I think this is bigger than a team thing at this point,” Magnuson said. “This is for Damar.”
Magnuson’s goal is to somehow get his oversized card sent to Hamlin.
Fans filled the front of the sign with well-wishes some three hours before kickoff, offering messages such as “Stay Strong” and “Love.” Some wore No. 3 jerseys, which is Hamlin’s number.
“Watching it live, it was sad to see,” said Kyle Blaney, wearing a Patriots jersey. “But it’s good to see everyone coming together to support him, not just Bills fans.”
An extended pregame ceremony began with the Bills medical and athletic training staff being introduced on the field to a roaring ovation. The Bills entered the stadium with numerous players carrying flags, which read “Pray for Damar 3.” Fans held cardboard cutouts of the No. 3 and red hearts.
Former Bills running back LeSean McCoy led the pregame charge by asking fans to hold up three fingers while chanting “Let’s Go Buffalo!”
Hines added another return TD in the third quarter, this one a 101-yard burst for a 21-17 lead. There had only been four kickoffs returned for touchdowns across the NFL all season before Hines’ pair. It’s the 11th time one player has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game, and the first since Seattle’s Leon Washington did it against San Diego in 2010.
NFL fans everywhere have joined in supporting Hamlin this week, including many who contributed over $8 million to Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation. Sunday brought a chance to pay tribute together during the last week of the NFL season.
The electronic signs ringing the parking lots of Highmark Stadium all carried the message “Love For Damar 3.” Some fans decorated their homes in Bills blue and red colors with various tributes to Hamlin.
Players from both teams came out onto the field for warmups wearing shirts honoring Hamlin. Many Patriots players wore black sweatshirts with the words “Love for Damar” printed on the front. Several Bills players wore T-shirts with Hamlin’s likeness on the front and back.
The NFL is paying tribute to the player during all Week 18 games, which began Saturday, including a pregame moment of support and painting Hamlin’s No. 3 on the 30-yard line. The Bills will also wear “3” jersey patches.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was scheduled to attend the Bills game. Also on hand was New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. She wore Hamlin’s number on a Bills jacket and tweeted a picture from the stadium in which she and several fans held up three fingers. The message said #LoveForDamar.
Hamlin was being celebrated by fans in Cincinnati, where the Bengals hosted Baltimore.
“It’s been so great that Damar is OK,” said David Coning, outside the Bengals’ Paycor Stadium. “We’ve seen pictures of him. He’s got a smile. He’s texted. So I think that’s a big relief for everyone. So hopefully we can kind of get back to normal.”
In the vast parking lots circling the the Bills stadium, numerous fans wore self-made shirts and jerseys honoring Hamlin.
Sue Sonner wore a former Bills quarterback EJ Manuel’s No. 3 jersey, in which her husband covered over the player’s name with Hamlin.
“It’s going to be very emotional. I’m taking some tissues with me for sure,” said Sonner, who is from Corning, New York, and attended the game in Cincinnati.
“We could see the scurry and the trauma and the panic and all of that. So very somber, very somber environment,” she said. “Now that he’s progressing and we think he’s going to be okay, now we’re excited to play football again. And hopefully he’s on the road to recovery.”
Ken Johnson, who is nicknamed “Pinto Ron” and among the Bills’ most famous tailgaters, didn’t have anything special planned for Sunday, while saying he expected many of those in attendance to be spontaneous in honoring Hamlin.
“You never know if a bunch of people are going to climb on top of the van and start giving an emotional speech or something,” said Johnson, who has not missed a Bills game at home or on the road since the start of the 1994 season, with the exception of games fans weren’t allowed to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It just cements the legacy of Bills Mafia,” Johnson said of fans’ show of support.
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Cincinnati, and AP freelance writers Lori Chase and Jonah Bronstein in Orchard Park contributed.
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