ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills’ return to play for the first time since Damar Hamlin’s collapse was set to be emotional for everyone involved.
But the opening play in Sunday’s game, a 96-yard kickoff return for touchdown, scored by Nyheim Hines of the Bills, could not have provided a more triumphant moment for the team, the fans and the N.F.L. itself.
The stadium shook just 14 seconds into play, when Hines ran through the end zone then leaped into the stands where fans hugged and cheered him.
Carolyn Markowski is not a football fan, she explained, as she stood shivering outside Highmark Stadium late Sunday morning.
But she had seen Hamlin collapse on the field last Monday, rode a roller coaster of emotion as she followed his recovery and decided on Friday that she needed to be there when the team played again.
“We saw this man go down — I’m getting emotional thinking about it now — and I’ve been emotional about it ever since,” she said. “I said, ‘I want to go to that football game.’ I never wanted to go to a football game, never in my life.”
More on Damar Hamlin’s Collapse
- A ‘True Leader’: As a professional football player and community mentor, Damar Hamlin has reached two of his life goals: making it to the N.F.L. and helping others along the way.
- N.F.L.’s Violent Spectacle: The appetite for football has never been higher, even as viewers look past the sport’s toll on players’ lives. Mr. Hamlin’s collapse should force a reconsideration, our columnist writes.
- Danger Across Sports: Mr. Hamlin’s collapse has brought attention to sudden cardiac arrest and the vulnerability of athletes from the youth leagues to the professional ranks.
- Faith and Football: The outpouring of public piety from players and fans shows how Christianity is embedded in N.F.L. culture in a way that goes beyond most sports.
On Sunday, the Bills played an N.F.L. game for the first time since Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field. Sunday’s game, against the New England Patriots, carried some playoff seeding implications, but its meaning felt far more layered than that to those involved.
It was a vigil for a young man still regaining his health in a hospital bed.
It was a celebration of the live-saving competence of the often unsung medical personnel who sprang to action last week to save his life.
It was an emotional, hourslong communion in the cold for tens of thousands of people from this city, who have weathered all manner of other heartbreaking moments over the past several months, including a mass shooting last May and a deadly blizzard last month.
“This is what we do,” said Pat Danner, 85, who had Hamlin’s No. 3 painted onto her left cheek. “We’re all just trying to get together and make things better for everybody.”
The No. 3 was everywhere. Several Bills players, including quarterback Josh Allen, arrived at the stadium wearing shirts and hats with the No. 3 printed on them. Countless players across the league did the same while warming up for their respective games.
Before kickoff, Bills players ran onto the field waving flags that read, “Pray for Damar.”
Homes around the stadium displayed handmade signs dedicated to Hamlin on their lawns.
In the parking lot, a sign propped on a Ford pickup truck read, “Learn CPR, because you never know” — a reference to the procedures that helped save Hamlin’s life.
“It’s very emotional, and it should be,” said Lisa Bubel, 44, a firefighter E.M.T. from Rochester, N.Y., who was wearing Bills-themed sandals and who had made the sign. “It’s a heartwarming tragedy, I guess, is one way to put it. It’s united everybody. And in a world where we see bad news all the time, it has been great to see people come together as human beings.”
The charged atmosphere only grew as game time neared. Hamlin posted a greeting from his hospital bed, where he was watching the game.
“Nothing I Want More Than To Be Running Out That Tunnel With My Brothers,” he wrote. “God Using Me In A Different Way Today. Tell Someone You Love Them Today!
Moments before the game began, a photograph of Hamlin with his parents, Nina and Mario, was posted to his Twitter account. They appeared to be watching the game from his hospital room at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Thirteen members of the Bills’ medical and training staff were recognized on the field before the action began. They held three fingers in the air as they received a standing ovation from the raucous crowd.
After Hines’s return, Buffalo went up, 14-7, at the start of the second quarter, on Allen’s 4-yard pass to Dawson Knox.
After the catch, Knox held up his hands, which formed a heart shape, for TV cameras. In response, Hamlin posted a message that read, “I love you too.”
The game was tied, 14-14, at haltime.