Editor’s Note: Coy Wire is a sports anchor and correspondent for CNN. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
She couldn’t understand why.
She’d just seen his body convulse on the field, then players huddling around him in prayer on bended knee.
“How in the world were we living in a world where a player was tragically paralyzed during a game, and minutes later, the whistles blew, and the game played on as if nothing had happened?”
That’s what my wife asked me in 2007, after she witnessed a tragic scene at a game in which I was playing for the Buffalo Bills. She saw my teammate Kevin Everett fall limp to the turf after a collision during a kickoff resulting in a severe spinal cord injury. She was one of the 70,000+ fans in the stadium who watched on in silence as Kevin fought for his life. An emergency procedure likely saved his life. He never played again.
But our team played on that day.
At the time, I had to tell my wife, who did not grow up with any familiarity with sports or sport culture, “Injuries are part of the game and, when they happen, we players say our prayers, then move on … and play on.”
I reiterate, she couldn’t understand why.
Now that I’m removed from the game, I feel much differently about injuries, and players’ health, than I did when I was a player. Every day, I’m reminded of the brutal nature of the sport I love, feeling the physical pains from my nine seasons in the NFL. I have a titanium plate and four screws in my neck. I had multiple concussions, including one in Buffalo where I had no recollection of what happened until I watched the game during film sessions the next day. I remember vividly how scary injuries can be.
That’s why, as the horrific scene unfolded on Monday night – when Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed to the turf, and as tears came pouring down players’ faces as they prayed around him on bended knees – I started to feel nauseous just like my wife did that day in Buffalo years ago. Mental wounds were reopened as haunting memories came flooding back in.
During my playing days at Stanford University, my teammate and fellow running back, Kerry Carter, collided with University of Washington player Curtis Williams, who ran up to make a tackle. Curtis was paralyzed from the neck down. Players cried, prayed, then played on. 18 months later, two days after his 24th birthday, Curtis died due to complications from the paralysis suffered that day. That collision still haunts my teammate to this day.
In regard to Damar’s injury, Kerry told me: “It’s going to take some time for everyone involved to come to terms with what they just experienced. It’s crazy to look back now and think that we were able to continue playing.”
As players, in the past, we were conditioned to compartmentalize physical and mental pain – our own and others’. We learned not to focus on the negative because it can hinder optimal performance. We were trained to fight on with a “next play” mentality anytime something bad happened. So, playing on, despite tragic injuries, was all we knew.
But something powerful beyond measure happened Monday night during the Bills-Bengals game.
The decision to call off a game in progress is not only unprecedented, it represents a paradigm shift that’s happening within the NFL in regard to player health and safety. No longer, perhaps, are we in the barbaric days of looking at players as disposable, replaceable pieces of meat.
In the past, that Monday night game wouldn’t have been called off. Coaches would’ve said, “alright fellas, buckle up and get back on that field and lock in. Gotta play on.” But that didn’t happen.
We can’t overstate how impactful it was for the head coaches, Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills and Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals, league commissioner Roger Goodell and others to make the decision to end that game. And we can’t yet comprehend the ripple effect that decision may have.
Those coaches were cognizant of and concerned about their players’ mental health. After seeing the teary eyes and traumatized looks on their players’ faces, they determined it wasn’t worth trying to continue that game.
It was a profound decision where the health and wellness of the players were truly prioritized over the outcome of a game or season.
And the rest of the NFL – and everyone involved with the sport of football – was watching. College coaches, high school and youth coaches and parents were watching. Someday we may look back and see that this was the moment where it all changed – where statements about the importance of player safety no longer rang hollow, and it became clear that prioritizing players’ health, both mental and physical, truly is the right thing to do.
Bills offensive lineman Dion Dawkins told CNN, “I’m truly blessed that we didn’t have to keep playing. Most people treat us athletes as superstars. Some people, like celebrities … but in that moment they treated us like people.”
There are still some people, though, who think that the players should have continued playing. You don’t have to search very long on social media to find that some people care more about their fantasy football team’s performance than the health and well-being of their fellow man. I guess that’s to be expected. That’s the way it’s always been.
But it was absolutely the right call to stop that game.
The players should not have played on. And everyone should understand why.