‘They aren’t supermen.’ After Damar Hamlin hit, players and coaches in Miami concerned

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Anybody who played high school football remembers the incident that made them question the game.

Football, after all, is a gladiator sport, one where physical dominance reigns supreme. So when Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed and suffered cardiac arrest during Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, David Pulliam’s mind reverted to his final high school game, one of the darkest days of his athletic career.

“I felt like I was going to be paralyzed for the rest of my life,” recalled Pulliam, a former safety, describing a three-way collision that left him motionless on the field for 30 minutes. After being taken to the hospital, doctors discovered Pulliam had pinched a nerve in his neck and back. Though Pulliam would go on to play collegiate ball at North Carolina A&T, that play haunted him so much so that Hamlin’s play left him devastated.

“You don’t come to a football game thinking that I might potentially lose my life,” added the Philadelphia native who has since moved to Miami. “So when you see someone down that’s literally playing a game that he loves, it’s just sad. That’s why I had to turn it off because I started thinking about his parents.”

Hamlin had his breathing tube removed and is able to speak with family and physicians, the Bills said Friday morning. His “neurological function remains intact,” but he will continue to stay at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center as the exact cause of the cardiac arrest has yet to be determined. And while doctors deemed Hamlin’s improvement “remarkable,” the sight of his paralyzed body — coupled with the incident happening on a seemingly routine tackle — remains etched in many people’s minds at a time when the sport’s safety is already in question.

“When you see a guy collapse on the field and need CPR and stuff like that, it’s very nerve-wracking, especially in the magnitude that it happened in that way,” Miami Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert said Wednesday. “It’s definitely eye-opening. That play is going to live with me for the rest of my life.”

Football participation has been declining among high schoolers for years. Health concerns are the main reason and incidents like Hamlin’s certainly don’t help matters, said Paolo Alejandro Catilo, the CEO and co-founder of Cerebro Neurotech, a Miami-based company aimed at developing a software to better detect sports-related concussions.

“Seeing that happen on Monday Night Football was brutal,” said Catilo, who played middle linebacker at a high school in Virginia.

While it’s unclear what sort of long-term ramifications Hamlin’s injury will have on the sport itself, Catilo hopes that the belief that NFL players are invincible vanishes.

Hamlin’s hit “won’t change the game fundamentally but the perception of players will change,” he added. “They aren’t supermen.”

At the high school level, North Miami High coach Gerald Cox sees at least one immediate change that will be made.

“The EKG testing is going to become mandatory for kids,” Cox predicted. Current Florida High School Athletic Association rules state that cardiovascular assessments like EKGs are “advised” rather than mandated. The NCAA doesn’t require them, either. “I think you can catch a lot of these heart conditions earlier.”

Despite Cox stating that he had never seen anything like Hamlin’s situation in his more than 30 years around the sport, a sentiment echoed by players and analysts alike, he added that his sons will still be allowed to play football.

“There are steps in place that make sure that things are safe for them to make a tackle, safe to do this, safe to do that,” Cox said.

Although Hamlin appears to be trending in the right direction health-wise, the reality that this could have easily gone in the opposite direction is not lost on Pulliam. He specifically referenced how players must have at least three seasons under their belt before being eligible for the NFLPA benefits, including a pension. Should Hamlin choose to retire due to the injury, the 2021 sixth-round pick would not be eligible as it stands now, a fact that Pulliam can’t fathom considering the violence in football.

“To be good at football you have to be violent, and there’s only so much cutting back that you can do when it comes to protecting players,” Pulliam said. I think the biggest change that we can have that can be immediate are the safety nets.”