As speculation swirled of cancelled games and changed rules and ownership meetings and what was next in the life of the Bengals and Bills as Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin began his climb back, the Western PA moms, as usual, were keeping it together.
Family and football and reminding us we're all connected and intertwined like the laces of a football.
That's what it is in places like McKees Rocks, Hamlin's hometown, and Clairton, the crib of Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd on the hard edges of Pittsburgh, about 18 miles from each other. Everyone, it seems, is woven around football. Growing up and playing at Pitt, there was one role model who made it big and it was Boyd and that's how they became "boys," long before Hamlin collapsed of a cardiac arrest Monday night at Paycor Stadium as the two played against each other for the first time in the NFL.
So Nina Hamlin reached out to Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins to reassure him it was fate and not him that felled her son. Hamlin had met Higgins while they both worked Boyd's youth camp in Clairton Meanwhile, Boyd's mom reached out to Mario Hamlin, Damar's father she knows through the Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletic Association. Tonya Payne is president of the organization that helped keep Tyler off Clairton's mean streets and is mushrooming with her son's generosity. Mario coaches the Sto-Rox Little Vikings, where she believes Damar has a little brother playing.
"I texted Damar's dad just to let them know I was going to stay in town and if they needed anything, like food or toiletries or whatever they needed, I could get out to the store," said Tonya Payne Thursday night, back in Pittsburgh. "He got back to me a few hours later with an update. I can't imagine."
So there was sanity in a week of uncertainly and despair.
It is the kind of wild, wild week where the Bengals didn't know if or when they would play Buffalo again. As word broke Thursday they would not in the first cancelled game since 1935 and FDR and the NRA outside of a NFL-NFLPA work stoppage, that appeared to leave them with the AFC North title.
There's one game left and it is with division rival Baltimore at Paycor (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12). The Ravens are 10-6, the Bengals are 11-4. But word was also breaking across cyberspace Thursday night if the Bengals lost Sunday, they would have to win a coin flip to host the Wild Card game if they were playing the Ravens. That's a game always hosted by a division winner, which by league rule has been determined by winning percentage and would give the Bengals the division title and home field under the existing rules right now.
The 32 owners have to vote Friday at noon to change the rule, so stay tuned.
It's why Bengals center Ted Karras had the line of the day.
First of all, he wasn't ready to celebrate the Bengals' first ever back-to-back division title in history not knowing more about Hamlin's condition. And second, as the NFL Players Association representative for the Bengals, he had not heard a word from the league.
Cincinnati Bengals 2022 AFC North champs?
"I'm not commenting on that until I get a hat," Karras said after Thursday's practice.
Meanwhile, while Boyd, 28, met the media Thursday, he made sure he wore the hat of Hamlin's foundation, "Chasing M's," as he traced how he became so close to Hamlin, 24. You've got to remember that Boyd's high school and college careers are seen as iconic at the confluence of the Three Rivers.
"During my era, when I was coming up, I was kind of the only guy who had made it, outside of Aaron Donald. (We were) a little closer than that," Boyd said. "That little league, youth organization is what kept a lot of the younger guys and me close because they kind of looked up to me. They saw how I did my high school career, how I went to college and how I translated from each level of football.
"Those guys just wanted a mentor, a guy they could follow and trust and I was that outlet for them. I always wanted to give back no matter what, because I didn't have that person I could lean on to help guide me in that right direction. So when those guys came up, I just made sure I did my best, even if they didn't come to Pitt or didn't want the advice, I was still going to go back and let them know how they should move prior to developing into that next level."
The laces of a football.
When Hamlin followed Boyd to Pitt, Boyd had his break-out game five years ago against those Ravens that put these Bills in the playoffs for the first time in 17 years in the final minute of the season. Just like the country is doing now for Hamlin's foundation, the Bills Mafia showered Boyd's foundation with $65,000. He handed the money over to his mother to turn the Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletic Association into more of a year-long endeavor by adding basketball.
A year later, Damar Hamlin's Little Vikings joined the association.
"I call it 'The Touchdown Money,'" Tonya Payne said. "You look at how guys get to know each other and have a rapport. You know guys in college, they get drafted to different teams and you meet other guys. Tyler worked Damar's camp for two years and when Damar came to Tyler's camp, he met Tee and they bonded. That was really, really tough for Tee. Just doing your job and that happens and everyone is trying to make it your fault. What people don't know is they have their own rapport."
Make no mistake that the guy who wore No. 23 at Pitt (Boyd) and the guy who wore No. 3 there (Hamlin) were in each other's ear leading up to the game. They were going to swap jerseys at the end, Boyd giving him the Bengals No. 83 and Hamlin giving him the Bills No. 3 that he ended up giving to the world by the end of the night.
"It was crazy, me and him were pretty much talking the whole week," Boyd said. "It was his first time playing against me in uniform and just being on the same field together because I didn't get to play with him in college …. We were very prepared. Then right before we actually played, we were warming up in pregame and I saw him and we talked it out. We told each other we loved each other and just have a heck of a game and we were going to swap jerseys at the end. Then things went south, man."
When it sounded like Damar was getting better and so was Tyler and the Hamlins had what they needed, Tonya Payne drove back to Pittsburgh with plans to drive back Saturday for the Baltimore game. Her son admitted it's going to be a hard game to play and you can best believe it's not going to be any easier for Tonya Payne to watch. It was only a few weeks ago she almost lost her mind over a finger.
"It's a heartbreaking situation for any mother. No matter how old they are, they're still our babies," Tonya Payne said. "When Tyler dislocated his finger, I got the call that it came through his skin. I wasn't at the game that day. I was ready to hit the road and drive because his finger was messed up.
"I could not imagine how his mom was feeling. But every mom knows what it is to have your baby get injured. It was heartbreaking to watch."
But she's also heard the good news.
"He's holding his parents' hands. That must be such a comfort for them," Tonya Payne said.
Like holding the laces of a football and somehow keeping it all together.