When the Buffalo Bills returned to practice Thursday, players held up 3's and made hearts with their hands as they thought about their friend and teammate in a Cincinnati hospital. 

When Damar Hamlin finally spoke to them the next day via FaceTime, after having his breathing tube removed overnight, he needed just three words to reciprocate: “Love you boys.”

Players stood. They cheered. They called back in joy to Hamlin on the large screen in the team's meeting room.

“We got our boy, man,” left tackle Dion Dawkins later told reporters. “It's all that matters. We got our boy. The excitement was beautiful. It was amazing. It has given us so much energy, so much bright, high spirits, whatever you want to call it. It is giving it to us. To see that boy's face, to see him smile, see him (flex) in the camera, it was everything. And then to hear him talk to us, it was literally everything.

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“And that's what we needed. Literally, that's all we needed.”

It was a call they needed since the moment the 24-year-old safety went into cardiac arrest on the field Monday night in Cincinnati and needed to be resuscitated on the field. 

He was able to gradually wake up over Wednesday night from being sedated, to hold the hands of family and medical staff and to communicate in writing.  

In an update Friday morning from the physicians at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the Bills said Hamlin “continues to progress remarkably in his recovery. His neurologic function remains intact, and he has been able to talk to his family and care team.”

That family included his teammates, as coach Sean McDermott surprised Bills players and coaches.

“We put Damar on the big screen,” McDermott said. “So, he was larger than life in there for us.”

Once Week 18 is completed, Kansas City will have played a full 17-game season, but the Bills and Bengals will have only played 16 games apiece.

Hamlin has indeed seemed larger than life this week to the outside world getting to know him. But for the Bills, the days since Monday have been so grueling because Hamlin is not a larger-than-life figure to them. He’s Damar. DHam. Three.

In any other week, he would have been sitting right there in the meeting room with them. The call was brief, but provided a boost as the Bills look toward Sunday's home game against the New England Patriots. The team will wear No. 3 patches as part of tributes to Hamlin around the NFL.

“I can't remember the order of things, and it was not a long interaction as you imagine with his situation,” McDermott said, “but he made hand signals, hand gestures.”

McDermott laughed as he re-enacted how Hamlin had held up his arms, flexed to the side in strength, right away to start the call.

“He flexed on ‘em, I guess,” McDermott said with a laugh.

From there, Hamlin made a few other gestures, all true to his usual self.

“He’s just got some staple things that they know him for, and that he does,” McDermott said. “He made the heart symbol probably more than anything.”

A flex, a heart, and a thumbs up. And a few words that Hamlin says often, but that resonated more this time.

“Somewhere in the midst of that – and it was a little bit hard to hear, as you’d imagine – he said, ‘I love you, boys,’ ” McDermott said. “Of course, it got the guys.”

It got McDermott, too. As he tried to describe it hours later, the coach was still moved by the moment.

“Probably won't be able to do it justice, honestly, with the words. Amazing. Touching,” McDermott said. “To see Damar, through my own eyes, I know it's something I've been looking forward to, kind of needing to see, I guess.”

He needed to see for himself that Hamlin would be OK. Nothing would mean more than that, but a close second was the reaction in the room from everyone else.

"Hair on the back of my neck stood up when he said 'I love you boys,' " General Manager Brandon Beane said. "The room went nuts. It was awesome."

Matt Worswick, assistant to the head coach in Buffalo, and Tabani Richards, a Bills' assistant athletic trainer still in Cincinnati with Hamlin, coordinated the call. But McDermott hesitated to give the rest of the players and coaches a heads up.

"How do I know that we'll be able to overcome? We have to," McDermott said. "Just like we've done many times before. This city, and the people of Western New York, have dealt with what they've dealt with. That's what you do."

Hope can be powerful, and it was certainly needed this week. But the flip side of hope is that it can be cruel, and the coach didn’t want to give hope without certainty that the call could happen right then.

“I wanted to make sure that that was actually going to be able to happen with Damar's medical schedule there,” McDermott said. “When I said that we had a treat in store, you could see the look on their eyes in anticipation to what was probably coming.”

“We felt it,” Dawkins said. “It was more so McDermott – McDermott gave it away. I’m just going to say it’s true.”

Part of why the Bills have been able to thoroughly support each other this week is because they’re so attuned to each other’s cues. Dawkins is deeply familiar with the mannerism of his head coach, so much so that he knew the treat in store could only be one thing.

“We know our coach, he's a very straightforward guy. And the amount of expression that he walked into the team room with, you already knew,” Dawkins said. “If you’re smiling like this, if you have a nice little walk, Sean McDermott, there’s only one thing that you’re going to be that happy for. So just give it to us now.”

The players were following each medical update, too. Dr. Timothy Pritts and Dr. William Knight IV of UCMC gave a thorough update on Hamlin to reporters on Thursday. 

“There are many, many steps still ahead of him,” Pritts said Thursday.

At that point the next step was for Hamlin to be completely breathing on his own, Pritts said.

“That will be the next big milestone for him,” Pritts said.

Over Thursday night, Hamlin reached that step. But Friday, when Hamlin raised his arms and flexed, his teammates were reminded of the Hamlin they knew.

“Strength. Strength. Just simply strength,” Dawkins said, of what he saw. “I think that he sees that the world has his back and then I think he sees that his teammates and his brothers and his family and his immediate people have his back.

“And when people have your back positively and unconditionally, it just gives you strength. And I think that’s why when we first saw him, he went just like this,” Dawkins said, as he flexed as well. “It’s a beautiful feeling, and I definitely think that he’s feeling stronger than he was.”

Strength runs in the family for the Hamlins. Beane saw that up close, as he stayed in Cincinnati with Hamlin and his family. There, he got to know Damar’s parents, Mario and Nina, on a much deeper level.

“I was in awe just watching their strength through such difficult up and down moments,” Beane said. “I don't believe I would have handled it with the same strength if that was my son.”

Strength comes in different forms, the Bills have noted this week, as players and staff stay vulnerable with each other. They've gone from the overwhelming fear of the worst for Hamlin, to the overflowing joy of his remarkable progress. 

It was a treat Friday, finally, to cry for good news.

“We're on a positive ride right now, where we got to see our guy, and we got to see '3' smile and that's literally all we wanted,” Dawkins said. “Like he's here with us and that's all that we can ask for, is that he's taking steps forward. …

“All of the (medical staff) that have been working on him and taking care of him and all of the love and the prayers, it's been working. So, it doesn't mean stop now. It means go even harder.”

A sign at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, pays tribute to Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin, who suffered cardiac arrest during the Bills-Bengals game in Cincinnati Monday night.

Joseph Cooke

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