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McKees Rocks and Pittsburgh rally for 'role model' Damar Hamlin

Damar Hamlin plays for the Buffalo Bills in this 2021 photo.
Brian Cook
Golden Sky Media
Damar Hamlin plays for the Buffalo Bills in this 2021 photo.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is alert and communicating just days after collapsing on the field during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Doctors on Friday said Hamlin's breathing tube was removed overnight and that he is now talking with his family and team.

Hamlin has received an outpouring of support from people across the country, especially here in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where friends and teammates call him a role model.

A McKees Rocks native, Hamlin walked on to the Central Catholic High School football team in Oakland his freshman year with two clear goals - make it to the NFL and give back to the community he grew up in. From his first days on the team, recently retired head football coach Terry Totten said Hamlin was a steady presence.

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“Whether it was high times and success on the field or, you know, being injured and fighting through an injury, he maintained a certain level of confidence in himself and it showed through to others,” Totten said. “He very much was a leader on my football team in that locker room, on campus, on the field.”

Dave Fleming, defensive coordinator at Central Catholic for 22 seasons, worked closely with Hamlin during his time there. Fleming said Hamlin is a true student of the game — running drills, studying plays and taking the time to rewatch games and understand the opposing team.

And Fleming said Hamlin encouraged his teammates to put in extra work as well. In 2015, during Hamlin's senior year, Central Catholic lost a game to longtime rivals North Allegheny High School. Practice was slated for 9 the next morning, but, according to Fleming, Hamlin got the team there at 7:30 and started running plays.

“Damar was the reason that that happened. And I got to tell you, we had 90 kids on the team that year, and every single kid was there,” Fleming said. “And that's the kind of leadership role and the kind of respect and admiration that his teammates had for him.”

Fleming said Hamlin had offers to play at dozens of Division 1 schools. He turned down Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State to go to the University of Pittsburgh, which is just down the street from Central Catholic, so he could stay close to family and friends.

And he didn't wait until he made it big to start giving back. Hamlin often returns to Central Catholic to help with youth football camps and counsel younger players who dream of playing football professionally. Hamlin also started a foundation in toy drive to support local kids. The foundation's GoFundMe has brought in more than $7 million, most of which was donated after he was injured Monday.

Hamlin's communities have rallied in support for him. Hamlin's college team, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, put out a statement of support. And teammates and friends have posted tributes on social media.

John Petrishen, who played with Hamlin at both Central Catholic and the University of Pittsburgh, said Hamlin has followed through on his word and become a role model for many.

“Ever since I've known him, he's always been very passionate about where he's from,” Petrishen said. “And he's always had plans to have an impact on his home community and always had goals and aspirations to give back.”

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at