If Frank Capra, director of the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” were alive today, his next film might very well be “The Damar Hamlin Story.”
Capra’s timeless tale was centered around George Bailey, a man who believed he was merely ordinary, but discovered — in the face of existential despair — that he’d actually touched countless lives for the good.
The devastating injury 24-year-old Hamlin sustained during a Jan. 2 Buffalo Bills-Cincinnati Bengals game brought out a similar sense of goodness, albeit on a national level.
Hamlin’s heart reportedly stopped when he was hit in the chest during a hard tackle with Bengals receiver Tee Higgins — a rare phenomenon typically resulting in death. But Hamlin didn’t die. Recognizing he was in cardiac arrest, team doctors resuscitated Hamlin, who was then transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. There he was reportedly again resuscitated, and then famously asked, in writing, “Who won the game?” to which one physician responded, “You won. You won the game of life.”
Even before medics carried Hamlin off the field, it seemed that everyone watching — both at home and Cincinnati’s Bengals stadium — felt a profound sense of connection with this young safety. At a time of profound division, the nation paused in a moment of collective hope that transcended even the most hardened lines of race, religion and politics.
But this was not merely a moment. Still struggling with the effects of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 1 million Americans, thousands prayed for Hamlin as he continued, miraculously, to beat the odds. Even the normally contentious Twitter was filled with pleas to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to halt the game. (He did, making this the first time in NFL history a game ended due to player injury).
Much like the residents of Capra’s fictional Bedford Falls showed up for George Bailey, Americans have shown up for Damar Hamlin. And their prayers worked: Less than three weeks after collapsing, Hamlin’s body is strong and neurological function excellent. There are even rumors he may make an appearance at this weekend’s Bengals-Bills game.
Hamlin’s progress certainly feels like a miracle — particularly when so many have so senselessly perished over the past three years. Still in his early 20s, Hamlin has now emerged as an unlikely unifier, chosen perhaps — if not preordained — for a far higher purpose that has yet to be revealed.
By all accounts, Hamlin is up for this journey — an extraordinarily “ordinary” young man who grew up in McKees Rocks, a community adjacent to Pittsburgh, Pa. Again like Bailey, Hamlin had ample opportunity to leave his hometown. Instead, Hamlin — who attended parochial school and often references his Catholic faith — remained in McKees Rocks to play college football in front of those who mattered most: his family, his coaches and his community.
“We are in a society of, ‘what can I get for me?’ But Damar is a team guy,” said Pat Narduzzi, head football coach of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, who coached Hamlin during his four years playing Division 1 football. “He is all about other people, not just himself,” Narduzzi told the Post.
Terry Totten, head coach at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, where Hamlin played all four years, remembered his humble, steady, family-oriented character. “Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State — all those wanted him to play for them,” Totten told the Post, “but he wanted to stay close to his little brother [Damir] and his community. His little brother is the joy of his life.”
Narduzzi recalled Hamlin “wanting to be there…and be a role model for Damir,” who Hamlin frequently brought to practices when the boy was a toddler. Damir, now 7, has been described by many as Damar’s “greatest fan.”
Beyond merely shining on the field, Totten says Hamlin was a natural leader. After an especially heartbreaking loss during his senior year in 2016, Hamlin called the players in for special practices. The team went on to win the state championship. “Damar…got the team fired up,” Totten recalled. “They were working, stretching, and getting ready. He was a senior then, a captain and a leader.”
A few years later, when the University of Pittsburgh organized a toy-wrapping drive and recruited players, “Damar was the first to volunteer to go to the underserved communities of Pittsburgh” to deliver toys and speak with children, recalled Celeste Welsh, director of community engagement for Pitt athletics. Hamlin participated in the toy drive for four full years; Welsh told the Post she believed it inspired him to create his own toy drive after he graduated, The Chasing M’s Foundation Community Toy Drive, which has now raised more than $8.95 million.
Johnny Petrishen, a friend and former Hamlin teammate from Central Catholic and the University of Pittsburgh, spoke of Hamlin’s loyalty. “With his rise to pro football, Damar has kept and maintained the same close-knit group of friends from high school,” Petrishen told the Post. “Sometimes people forget … but he has always been for us and been passionate to give back to his community.”
University of Pittsburgh Defensive Coach Randy Bates, who coached Hamlin for years, speaks similarly of Hamlin’s kindness and moral compass. “During his junior year, I developed throat cancer, and Damar would always ask how I was doing, and put his arms around me,” Bates recalled to The Post. “I was trying to hide it but he knew I was struggling. Recently he texted, ‘I love you!’ That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Although thousands have played professional football, between the miracle of his recovery and a life of good works, few have achieved so much — so quickly — as Damar Hamlin. As the nation awaits his return to the playing field, Hamlin remains in their hearts and minds as folks continue to pray for this remarkable young player’s long and “wonderful” life.
This story originally Appeared on NYPOST.com