The game Monday night between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills looked like the game of the year. Two of the AFC’s best teams squaring off with playoff implications at stake. Two of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks meeting in front of a national audience.
That all changed in the first quarter, and in an instant none of that mattered. When Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin collapsed after a routine-looking tackle, the focus changed. All that mattered in that moment was his health and wellbeing.
And in that moment, ESPN’s focus shifted from covering a game, to covering a matter of Hamlin’s life.
The network first switched from their on-site coverage to Suzy Kolber, Adam Schefter, and Booger McFarland in studio back in New York City. McFarland, who spent nine years in the NFL, said this about the situation: “[i]t’s something like we’ve never seen before. I’ve never been a part of it, never heard about it. You hate to keep repeating the same thing but all you can do is pray for this young man right now.”
ESPN also leaned on sideline reporter Lisa Salters, who informed the viewing audience that Hamlin had indeed received CPR while on the field.
In the 10:00 p.m. hour, the network shifted to anchor Scott Van Pelt. Van Pelt spoke with ESPN reporters Ben Baby, Coley Harvey, and Alaina Getzenberg, who were in Cincinnati covering the game. He also talked with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, who were on the call for ESPN.
Perhaps the most poignant part of their coverage came when former NFL player Ryan Clark joined Van Pelt on set. During the 2007 season, Clark suffered a medical emergency of his own after a game in Denver against the Broncos. He endured a splenic infarction because of his hereditary sickle cell anemia, due to the altitude in Denver.
After having his spleen and gallbladder removed, he missed the rest of the 2007 season before rejoining the Steelers in 2008.
HIs background put Clark in a unique position to discuss what we had all just seen, and it was rather powerful:
Perhaps the most powerful, and emotional, part of Clark’s coverage was during this exchange:
“So many times in this game, and in our job as well, we use the cliches ‘I’m ready to die for this,’ ‘I’m willing to give my life for this,’ ‘It’s time to go to war.’ And I think sometimes we use those things so much we forget that part of living this dream is putting your life at risk, and tonight, we got to see a side of football that is extremely ugly, a side of football that no one ever wants to see or ever wants to admit exists.”
Later in the night, Clark returned to the ESPN airwaves, and again emphasized the humanity of the players we watch each week.
ESPN, and the greater sporting world, were thrust into uncharted territory on Monday night. Fans tuned in hoping to see perhaps the game of the year, but within an instant, the focus turned to Hamlin, a young man suddenly in the fight of his life. As is natural in moments like this, we search for answers, and we try to find ways we can help. Fans donated millions of dollars to a GoFundMe set up by Hamlin when he entered the league, established to provide toys for needy children.
But we also wanted updates on Hamlin’s condition, and we sought clarity on the situation. Van Pelt and Clark guided us through that, peeling back the curtain on life as an NFL player, and what these players go through and endure to play a sport they love. In a difficult and near-impossible situation, Van Pelt and Clark delivered.