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Bills' Damar Hamlin expects to be excited and emotional in return to Cincinnati

Damar Hamlin walks onto the field with his hands on his hips while wearing a black t-shirt with a multicolored Buffalo Bills logo and a gold cross necklace.
Gary McCullough
FILE - Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) walks onto the field for warm-ups before an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Whether he plays or not, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin says he has nothing to worry about in preparing to return to Cincinnati for a game against the Bengals on Sunday night so long as he stays true to himself.

Cincinnati might be where Hamlin nearly died after going into cardiac arrest before being resuscitated on the field on Jan. 2. What’s more significant some 10 months later is how the place and the experience have come to represent where the next chapter of his life began.

If there’s one thing Hamlin learned during his recovery — and courageous bid to resume his career — is that he has the resolve to overcome just about anything.

“It’s a new life, a new mission that I’m cherishing. And it is unique, of course,” Hamlin told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

“I’m super thrilled. I’m super excited. I’m a thousand emotions. I’m every emotion, all the good ones and the bad ones. But there’s strength in that,” he added. “And I think there’s strength in walking through the fire, and walking into your fears.”

Hamlin then put aside whatever personal emotions he might be experiencing, and turned the attention to his team.

“My focus is on getting a win,” he said. “That’s going to be my message to all of my teammates.”

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It’s no coincidence Hamlin is focused on winning. The first words out of his mouth after being awakened from a medically induced coma in a Cincinnati hospital were, “Did we win?"

It’s unlikely Hamlin — who missed practice Wednesday due to an illness — will suit up Sunday. He’s been a healthy inactive for all but one of Buffalo’s first eight games since he's last on the team’s safety depth chart.

No matter his role, the Bills continue to take their cues from Hamlin. The third-year player has shown no signs of trepidation since being cleared for contact in April before finally making the Bills' 53-player roster in August.

“My approach is just another game, honestly,” said cornerback Dane Jackson, who has known Hamlin since the two were growing up in Pittsburgh. “If he’s in a good headspace, and he wants right for everything — it happened to him not us. I mean, we experienced it, but as long as he’s good, I’m good.”

Safety Micah Hyde said Hamlin has motivated the entire team.

"His mindset all around is truly inspiring,” Hyde said. “I’m excited for him. And it’ll be good for our team to get back there and get back on the field obviously for D-Ham’s sake, but even the guys that attended that game last year.”

The 25-year-old Hamlin’s journey is coming full-circle with Buffalo’s first return to Cincinnati since he collapsed after making what appeared to be a routine tackle.

Hamlin’s heart stopped as a result of commotio cordis, which happens when a direct blow at a specific point in a heartbeat causes cardiac arrest. Doctors have assured Hamlin he can resume playing without any fear of setbacks or reoccurrence.

Hamlin acknowledged his journey hasn’t been easy, especially given the attention focused on someone who wasn’t accustomed to the spotlight growing up in the Pittsburgh exurb of McKees Rock.

“As much as I want to be a superstar, man, I don’t like the spotlight. I don’t like all the attention that comes with it, positive or negative,” he said. "But I’m here standing in front of it and I’m leading the charge, and I’m super excited to continue to do that.”

Hamlin spoke to the AP while promoting a new partnership with Abbott, a global healthcare company, which is launching a program called HeartMates. The initiative will provide survivors of heart-related issues a safe space to share their emotions, to receive emotional support and connect with others who have had similar experiences.

The ability to lean on others and voice his emotions is something Hamlin found beneficial, whether it’s sharing with friends and family or speaking to crowds at one of his many charitable events — including a stop in Cincinnati last summer — to hand out automated external defibrillators and promote CPR training.

“It’s a lonely journey going through things like this, and I’m speaking from experience,” Hamlin said. “Just having that little outlet of just allowing to release and express yourself, it’ll empty the stress cup just a little bit.”

He’s not been afraid to show vulnerability, acknowledging he had feelings of trepidation in the days leading up to his first practice in pads at training camp in July. And he credits the support he’s received from his family and teammates.

“I haven’t had all the answers throughout this process,” Hamlin said. “All I’ve been doing is just keep putting my right foot in front of the left, and just keep being who I am.”