Editor’s Note: Paul Rieckhoff is an independent activist, US Army infantry combat veteran, the host of Independent Americans, President of Righteous Media, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the author of “Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq, A Soldier’s Perspective.” He was also a guard, linebacker and tight end on the James I O’Neill High School and Amherst College football teams. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The cardiac arrest suffered by 24-year-old Damar Hamlin in the NFL’s Monday night game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills shocked and riveted America.
A few hours earlier, I watched my two young sons playing tackle playground football on an unusually warm winter day. They were off from school for the New Year’s holiday.
I was talking to another dad who like me played college football and has an 8-year-old son (one year older than my oldest). We chatted about his son’s first experience playing full tackle football in pads this fall. I can’t see letting my son hit that early. Or maybe ever. I just can’t.
But at the same time, I know football totally changed (and probably saved) my life in a way like nothing else has—except maybe the military. It’s an inner conflict you probably only know if you played or grew up around the game. Or if you’ve served in uniform.
I don’t have answers, only experience and perspective.
I have a hard time explaining it all to folks who haven’t experienced it. They’re not the same, but it often feels a bit like when I’m trying to explain why I joined the military to people who never did. It’s just very difficult to fully understand it all unless you’ve lived it.
Especially the trauma. It’s real. The trauma of seeing a teammate go down. The trauma of being hit so hard you see stars and almost pass out. The trauma of seeing a kid you’re coaching go down. The trauma of seeing your own kid go down.
It’s impossible to fully communicate why we do it – what it feels like, the highs, why we love it so much despite the risks. Why we’d probably still have played even if we knew then what we know now.
I fought my mom until I was 13 to play football. And my two boys will probably do the same with me. And I don’t know what I’m going to do, even now.
I’ve had as many parents ask me about playing football as joining the military. But each year, less of both. And for both, I recommend talking to smart, reflective people who’ve done it – and reading. Luke Zaleski explained at least some of it in GQ, in one of the best pieces I’ve seen, headlined: “What Kind of Father Lets His Son Play Football?”
The Bengals-Bills game was supposed to be a marquee match-up to end an incredible week of late regular season pro football and an amazing bowl season of college games.
Instead, it nearly turned into a tragedy, but one that united much of America in concern, in reflection and in sympathy. Hamlin remains hospitalized but has shown “signs of improvement,” and “appears to be neurologically intact,” according to the team. The Bills also said that Hamlin “is expected to remain under intensive care as his health care team continues to monitor and treat him.”
As a former college player, a coach and a dad, my heart is with Damar Hamlin’s family and teammates. And also with the first responders and medical team that stepped up to meet this moment – including Bills assistant athletic trainer, Denny Kellington, who quickly reacted and administered CPR on the field and made the biggest play of the entire NFL this season. Something the whole country witnessed too.
The Monday Night Football telecast was the most watched in ESPN history. Over 23 million people tuned in. And over 23 million people felt it. Hamlin is being recognized for his leadership. For his integrity and for being a helper. A person who runs in, when others run out. Damar Hamlin has a charity that raises money to send toys to needy kids (which has a GoFundMe that’s now raised over $7 million– and counting).
Hamlin is a generous and kind person. And his pain has galvanized a country that is so often and so deeply divided. Especially this week. In this wrenching moment for him, for his family, for football, and for America, Damar Hamlin is inspiring others to be helpers too. And that is worth celebrating as we enter a new year.