Damar Hamlin injury isn't the most important part of the Bills safety's story

Damar Hamlin had every football program in the country recruiting him during his senior year at Pittsburgh's Central Catholic, his talent and upside enough to make him an undisputed four-star prospect and ESPN's No. 2 defensive player in Pennsylvania.

Late in that 2015 season, Hamlin took a hit to the side of his knee against Penn-Trafford in the WPIAL Class 4A district championship, and coaches decided to hold him out the next week in a state quarterfinal against State College as a precaution. But that was not going to keep him off the field.

Hamlin begged his coaches to let him do something to help. His defensive coordinator at the time, Dave Fleming, put it more bluntly.

"After being a pain in the butt about it, we let him carry the water bottles," Fleming recalled in a phone interview.

So there Hamlin stood, captain of the football team, elite prospect with offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Pittsburgh and many others, literally carrying water for his teammates. Because he had to be there for them. Because there was no other way.

"Unbelievable," Fleming said. "Most kids in high school, they don't want to watch their buddies go out there when they're hurt, but Damar wouldn't let it go. He wanted to be involved. He wanted to be a part of it in any way that he could."

This is just one story among many Hamlin's friends, teammates and coaches shared this week, in the hours and days since the Buffalo Bills second-year safety suffered cardiac arrest after making a tackle in the first quarter of a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night. But the story perfectly encapsulates what makes Hamlin the man they all know and love: his selflessness, his humility, his desire to help others, his love for his teammates and community, his genuine ability to lead without having to say one word.

Carrying water bottles spoke for him.

"He's the pride of his family," said Terry Totten, Hamlin's high school coach. "He's the pride of McKees Rocks. He's the pride of Central Catholic and the University of Pittsburgh, all because he does everything in such a humble, giving way."

During his time at Central Catholic, situated less than a mile from the University of Pittsburgh, Hamlin was determined to be not only the hardest worker on the team but also a role model for his younger brother, Damir, and so many others in his neighborhood in the town of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.

Located just outside Pittsburgh, McKees Rocks is a small community with a population just under 6,000 that has among the highest crime rates in the state. Hamlin has lost many childhood friends to gun violence, only bolstering his conviction to give back and represent his hometown in a positive way.

"I've got so many friends who didn't even make it to 21," Hamlin told writer Tyler Dunne in 2021. "It's crazy."

Hamlin has never forgotten where he comes from -- on his right biceps is a tattoo with the street name of his childhood home -- Gray Street.

"Ever since we were 16 years old, one of his biggest goals was to give back to his community," said John Petrishen, who played with Hamlin at Central Catholic, at Pitt and briefly with the Bills.

"They view him as a hero in McKees Rocks," Petrishen said. "He is the perfect role model for the kids of that community to look up to, and he has given back so much. He has fulfilled his promise, which speaks volumes way more than what he does on the field."

The toy drive Hamlin organized has raised over $7 million since Monday, drawing attention from around the world, but there are other ways Hamlin has led others that are just as impactful.

That same high school season, Central Catholic lost a game to fellow local powerhouse North Allegheny. When Fleming pulled into the parking lot the next day, he saw the entire team gathered on the field. Fleming panicked, thinking he was late for the 9 a.m. practice.

He looked at his watch. It was 7:30 a.m. Hamlin had compelled the entire team to show up early. Central Catholic would not lose another game, finishing 15-1.

"For all those kids to be there was something to be said about his leadership and his desire," Fleming said.

Just days after Central Catholic won the 4A state championship in football, Hamlin was on the basketball court, fulfilling another promise. Despite all those football offers, Hamlin wanted to play hoops his junior and senior years because he loved the game and because he wanted to help his school win.

"It speaks volumes for him, because a lot of kids will just sort of fade away and say, 'You know what, I don't want to get hurt. I don't want to do this,'" said Chuck Crummie, Hamlin's basketball coach and athletic director at Central Catholic. "But every time he walked into a sports arena or onto a court or a field, I think he just felt that he could help and that's what he was supposed to do."

Although Hamlin fielded offers from across the country, he narrowed his list to schools within a four-hour radius of Pittsburgh, saying it was important that his family be able to attend every game. Ultimately, he narrowed his final three to Ohio State, Penn State and Pitt.

Hamlin chose Pitt not only because he could stay close to home but because he felt a connection with coach Pat Narduzzi. Hamlin was the highest-ranked player in Pitt's 2016 class, the first full class Narduzzi signed at Pittsburgh. Seven years later, Hamlin left an impression even on those who did not win his commitment.

"He's a great kid with a great family," said Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell, who recruited Hamlin while an assistant at Ohio State. "He was such a loyal kid that he wanted to stay home and take care of his city. I wanted him really bad because I thought he was such a good 'culture' kid as well -- he was a tough-ass fighter."

Added longtime Penn State defensive recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who grew up just outside Pittsburgh in Aliquippa: "With the Pittsburgh guys, you form a bond. But Damar is different. He's got a warm spirit to him, and a genuine light shines around him. I don't know anyone that ever wished anything bad upon Damar. He's that kind of person, he's just easy to root for and easy to cheer for. The Penn State nation is praying for him."

Once Hamlin arrived at Pitt, adversity hit fairly early. He was slowed by injuries his first few seasons, starting four games combined in 2016-17, and quickly had to learn and accept that the heightened expectations he had for himself would take time to materialize. Bam Bradley, a senior when Hamlin was a freshman in 2016, recalled having conversations with Hamlin about how to handle the ups and downs he was facing.

"It's a testament to how humble he is that he was so receptive to it," Bradley said this week. "I haven't spoken to him about how those specific conversations impacted him. I hope that they did help him to cope with what he was going through."

Hamlin would recover from the early frustration to become one of the Panthers' unquestioned leaders, a team captain who would also develop into an All-ACC pick -- and NFL prospect -- as a senior. Perhaps the early struggles helped Hamlin understand more deeply what it meant to be there for his teammates. Pitt safety Brandon Hill, who just finished his Pitt career, credits Hamlin for helping develop him into the player he is today.

When Hill found out he would be making his first career start against Florida State in 2020, he said Hamlin would drive to the freshman dorms every night to make sure Hill had all the plays right. He credits Hamlin for teaching him the right way to watch film.

Hill started opposite Hamlin against the Seminoles, but rather than feel pregame nerves, he says he felt a sense of calm with Hamlin right next to him.

"I had a comfortable feeling playing out there with Damar, like everything was going to be OK, no matter what," Hill said.

Both Hamlin and Hill logged interceptions in that game. Hill ended up with the type of first start players dream of -- eight tackles, a forced fumble and a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown to win ACC Defensive Back of the Week.

No conversation about Hamlin goes far without mention of his family, and his younger brother in particular. Damir Hamlin, 7, has been a staple at practices and in the locker room for as long as he has been alive.

Damar Hamlin has always doted on "Mir," as he is affectionately called, often sitting him in his lap during interviews and making sure he's included in everything he does.

"He was like a little brother to everybody," Petrishen said of Damir. "There's such an age gap, he really looks up to Damar. And Damar was a great role model and bigger brother for him. He was almost sort of like a father figure. He thinks the world of Damar."

Their mom, Nina, runs a day care that was a beneficiary of the first toy fundraiser Hamlin started in 2020 -- well before name, image and likeness provisions made it easier for college athletes to earn and raise money.

"This was just him deciding, this is what I want to do," Bradley said. "It's clear to see the kind of man that he is if you pay attention, but it's just things like that that show this is who he is: He's about people and about community and about family."

That nature goes beyond the toy drives. Hamlin returns to Pittsburgh for youth football camps on a regular basis, including those held at Central Catholic. The past two summers, Hamlin and several NFL players from Pittsburgh ran a camp called "PGH to the Pros." Carolina Panthers safety Kenny Robinson Jr. -- part of the camp with Hamlin, Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders, Washington Commanders linebacker Khaleke Hudson and former Los Angeles Rams safety Paris Ford -- said they had 250 campers last year.

"It sends a powerful message to the kids that it's possible, that you and your friends can do whatever [they] want," Robinson said. "We all had the same dreams as them. So we all feel like, just coming together, we could make an even bigger event and better camp for the kids."

Hamlin's own rise from Pittsburgh to the pros, and from a sixth-round pick to a starter in Buffalo, has not surprised those who know him best.

"He was a pro far before he was a professional athlete," said Cincinnati Bengals long snapper Cal Adomitis, who played with Hamlin at Central Catholic and Pitt. "The way he handled the offseason and the weight room stuff and film study and all the smaller things that don't always get the most attention, all of that led you to believe that if he got the chance, he was going to make the most of it."

What happened Monday night has shaken the entire country, but especially those who know, love and care about Hamlin. Adomitis said the two were able to give each other a brief hug when the Bills came onto the field Monday night, and promised to catch up when the game was over.

When Hamlin initially went down, Adomitis had no idea who was hurt. When another former Pitt player, Tyler Boyd, came over and told him what had happened, Adomitis was in a state of shock.

"All you could think was, this can't be true," Adomitis said in a phone interview. "I just started to pray for him. There was such a feeling of helplessness, too, just the worst feeling, not knowing what to do, basically."

The prayers have not stopped since Hamlin collapsed on the field Monday, and they will continue in the hopes that Hamlin will be able not only to lead a normal life again but to lead one that could potentially lead him back to football if he chooses.

But even if he never plays another down, there is no denying what he means to McKees Rocks and Pittsburgh and now Buffalo and to every life he has touched along the way.

"The world," Fleming said, "is a much better place with Damar Hamlin in it."