Sean Kirst: The year Bills' fans learned the hard way that football is not life and death (2023)

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Sean Kirst

I understand the aching frustration. How could I not? Like so many Western New Yorkers, I grew up as part of it.

The Buffalo Bills were swamped the other day by the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-10, and the season of sky-high Super Bowl hopes – the one that really began in the it-can't-end-this-way seconds after last January’s playoff defeat to Kansas City– was over with a finality few in the region expected.

The Bills went down hard, and so much of the reaction I hear or read involves speculation about who should be fired and who should be let go and who needs to be better and who ought to be benched.

Sean Kirst: The year Bills' fans learned the hard way that football is not life and death (1)

This is life in a town with a tumultuous love for its football team, a community whose hunger to experience a can-it-ever-happen-championship is built on the fierce longing of generations. One element of that passion we annually share, almost as therapy, is the burning days-after analysis – the point by point, how-did-this-happen-yet-again review – when seasons of seemingly high promise come apart, which in Buffalo take up whole shelves in our mental libraries.

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Still, I’ve got to tell you, and I mean this:

Already, when I reflect on this Bills team, I am not thinking about a maddening Joe Burrow laser of an 8-yard-completion or a grinding, won’t-go-down Joe Mixon run through a snowy dusk in Orchard Park.

I am thinking about climbing into my parked car outside a coffee shop on a gray January day, and my phone dinging with a text as I settled in, the signal for a message that for a minute– as I read it– seemed impossible to understand.

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This was Thursday, Jan. 5, about two and a half days after the Buffalo-Cincinnati regular-season game, on a Monday night. The text was from Katie O’Brien, a Kenmore native, president of the Houston Bills Backers and the person who originally introduced me to Ezra Castro – the Bills fan from El Paso who became famous as “Pancho Billa” before his death from cancer in 2019.

I had talked to O’Brien the night before about a column, so I was not surprised to see the text. Even so, when I first read it, I had no idea what she was talking about:

'Did we win? Absolutely, all of Buffalo did! We got our guy!"

The time stamp was 1:55 p.m. Baffled, I made a copy of her note and googled it, and that is how – sitting in that car on a quiet afternoon – I saw a flood of stories from around the nation that contained variations of those words, with astounding news.

Damar Hamlin was not merely awake.

He was himself.

“Clone” 🥷🏽

— 𝐃𝐚𝐦𝐚𝐫 𝐇𝐚𝐦𝐥𝐢𝐧 (@HamlinIsland) January 24, 2023

In that moment, yes, in both gratitude and awe, I promised myself that no matter what, I would remember the larger meaning of this season.

I suspect you have your own memories of where you were when you found out. The revelation was an impossibly uplifting counterpoint to what happened in the first quarter of that Jan. 2 Bengals contest – a game played barely a week after at least 47 people in Western New York died in a blizzard and only three days after a fire killed five children in Buffalo.

For a grieving and weary community, kickoff seemed a communal and temporary moment of solidarity.

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Instead, it turned into a terrifying and hopefully lasting reminder of the humanity of the players on a football team, and what they really put on the line, every week. Early in the game, Hamlin collapsed on the field after what seemed to be a routine tackle.

He is 24– for many of us, younger than our own kids– and the nature of what was truly at stake became clear once the television cameras, pointed away as emergency workers did their jobs, started showing the expressions of Hamlin's teammates.

To me, this is simply how it will always be: The 2022-23 football season, and everything surrounding it in Buffalo, was enshrined in the utter grief and horror on each face.

Hamlin was on the field for a long time, while his weeping friends acted as human shields against the cameras. I think millions of people sprawled awake in bed that night, processing what they saw, fearful of what they might learn when they looked at their phones in the morning.

For the next two days, there were brief and cautious reports that Hamlin was improving, until two doctors in Cincinnati offered the tale that led to O'Brien's joyous text:

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Jeanette "Sis" Korbel, 96, has been a Bills fan since the team's start in the 1960s and wants to see them win it all. “I want a Super Bowl before I die, and this is our best chance. Never lose hope,” she said.

Hamlin, still intubated, had written a note asking: "Did we win?"

Eight months ago, a racist killer at Tops stole 10 innocent and monumental lives, leaving a terrible wound in the Cold Spring community and all of Buffalo. Last month, a lethal blizzard – followed within days by the catastrophic house fire– took a collective toll of the lives of more than 50 adults and children.

Nothing about the outcome on a football field could even remotely touch the flesh-and-blood aftermath of such events, seared into the civic soul. But the Hamlin vigil did not concern the results of any game.

In a city already thrown under a shroud, the life of a young Buffalo Bill– far beyond any academic argument about a game, a playoff position or a title– was abruptly set at risk, a sickening crisis shared as it happened by a global television community, and everything in those few days fell into raw perspective.

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Only one result had any meaning. The shock we witnessed on the field sent a message of its own, and I think many of us braced ourselves for what was coming, for what might be the next alert.

This time, the news was different.

Damar lived, after going into cardiac arrest.

So, yeah: I’m a 63-year-old guy who has watched the Bills since earliest memory, who like all of us can talk for hours about the great triumphs and oh-so-close defeats and what led to each one, but there is nothing from all those years even close to the feeling when I realized that Hamlin – in all the ways that matter– would be all right.

The Bills, already on an emotional tsunami, took in that news as a team in Orchard Park. A few days later, they defeated New England behind Nyheim Hines’ game-opening kickoff return for a touchdown – one of the great and electric moments in pro football history – then struggled mightily to put away the Dolphins in the playoffs before the Bengals, with such stifling efficiency, ended Buffalo’s season.

Sean Kirst: The year Bills' fans learned the hard way that football is not life and death (6)

The Bills lost, decisively, and now there is widespread gnashing of teeth, a great rehashing, about how that came to be. From a clinical business perspective, maybe, there is truth to all of it, and the club will need to make another round of hard decisions to remain on a tier where the Bills can annually challenge teams like Kansas City or the Bengals.

Yet I am left to think about what the last year represents in Buffalo, and how Hamlin’s return – even the idea, unfathomable a few weeks ago, that the guy was well enough to be in the stadium for that Bengals playoff game– will always be what quarterback Josh Allen described as “an extreme silver lining.”

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In the same way as so many reading this, I can tell you where I was – the exact spots – for so many pivotal moments in Bills history: Scott Norwood lining up for the decisive Super Bowl kick, or Frank Reich leading the impossible comeback against the Oilers, or the Bills leveling the Raiders in that euphoric 51-3 AFC championship game when every touchdown added to the joyous disbelief.

None of it compares to how I remember what I was doing, and the feeling in my gut, when I learned about Hamlin and that message he wrote out for his doctors.

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"Did we win?"

The question was collective. Even now, so is the answer.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at



  • Damar Hamlin
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Sean Kirst


Born in Dunkirk, a son, grandson and great-grandson of Buffalonians, I've been an Upstate journalist for more than 48 years. As a kid, I learned quiet lives are often monumental. I still try to honor that simple lesson, as a columnist.

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