Skip to main content

Bengals Leadership On Display As It Embraces Damar Hamlin's Fight And The Season's Next Step

Joe Burrow: Leading.
Joe Burrow: Leading.

During the most trying of weeks for those who love and fear football, there has to be some bit of comfort for Bengaldom with their leadership on display.

They can take solace in the facts that while they are with Bills safety Damar Hamlin as he fights for his life, their head coach is Zac Taylor, his quarterback is Joe Burrow and DJ Reader is his nose tackle. Their humanity dwarfs their numbers and at 11-4 the season after a Super Bowl run, the numbers are pretty good.

"I would say that is very correct," said Eric Ball, the Bengals director of player relations after Wednesday's walk-through at Paycor Stadium.

Ball, a good people who played for Sam Wyche, mentored under Jim Anderson and worked for Marvin Lewis, has seen it all at Paycor. Until now and he mulled what he believed to be big the moment of Monday night.

It was after the ambulance had left the Paycor field with 5:56 left in the first quarter of the Mega Bowl with the Bills that would decide a lot of things that didn't matter when Hamlin collapsed with a cardiac arrest and had to be brought back to life at midfield.

As they rushed Hamlin to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the Bengals and Bills went back to their sidelines to figure it all out when Ball saw Taylor cross the field to talk to Bills coach Sean McDermott.

"What do you want? What do you need?" Ball said of what Taylor sought. "That said a lot to me. He made a decision. He went across the field. That in itself speaks volumes. That was communication. 'Let me speak to you directly.'"

On the darkest of nights, it offered a glimmer of how Taylor has kept the locker room together for 24 wins the last two seasons after six the first two. It's about the players first, second and third. How they eat, how they practice, how they meet, how they rest.

He listens to them. At 39, Taylor has adroitly read the room of the generation coming up behind him. It's not that he's a player's coach. He's more of a partner.

"Based on the uniqueness of that situation in which no one has ever experienced," Ball said. "That was a lot of firsts for a lot of people. Putting the player first. The league is always talking about player safety, player safety, player safety. And then the humanity of it all working with McDermott."

Burrow saw it because Burrow sees everything.

"I was proud in that moment to be playing for a guy like Zac," Burrow said after the walk-through. "He handled it as good as you can in that position, and as well as, you know, the medical professionals, the doctors and trainers from both sides. It was a pretty immediate reaction to what was going on. And I was proud of all the people involved in the situation to get out there and do their jobs to try to save him."

Taylor revealed Wednesday exactly what McDermott told him he needed.

"Once you get wind Buffalo needs to talk about it a little bit more particularly Sean, that's why I went over there," Taylor said. "When the first thing that came out of Sean's mouth was, 'I need to be at the hospital with Damar,', that's kind of a no-brainer for everyone involved in the conversation to separate and let the NFL take the next steps. Which they did."

Burrow also showed the leadership that has made him a football legend in diverse worlds ranging from Ohio schoolboys to Cajun lore as he chisels his pro legacy. When the coaches sent their teams back to their locker rooms to get a temperature Taylor and McDermott already knew, Burrow gathered his fellow captains to walk to the Bills locker room and talk to the Buffalo leaders.

"I wasn't sure what the right thing to do was," said Taylor of his first reaction when he saw his guys coming down the hall. "When you saw both those groups interacting, you immediately knew that was the right decision. I think both sides needed that. Both sets of players, the leaders on the teams, for them to come together, I just stood back and watched. You could tell that's something both locker rooms needed.

"I'm appreciative our captains responded that way and that was the thought to do that."

Like his head coach, Burrow just wanted to make sure everyone was feeling the same thing.

"I know they didn't want to go back out there either. So we just wanted to make sure they knew we felt that same way as they did," Burrow said. "Nobody wanted to continue to play the game in a situation like that. You know, I know how everybody would be feeling in our locker room if it was one of our guys, and I know how we were feeling when it was one of their guys. So it was a scary, emotional night.

And the fact that Taylor was already in front of the Buffalo locker room is exactly what Ball is talking about. When the referees came to the Bengals locker room looking for Taylor, Ball pointed them to Buffalo.

"He didn't want people to have to be running back and forth talking to each other," Ball said. "He was down there already … That's communication… That was natural. That was genuine."

The Bengals leaders were also genuine Wednesday when they were faced with trying to play Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) on the same field against their AFC North rival Ravens.

Burrow says the players would like to be involved in the conversation about what happens to the Bengals-Bills. Will they or won't they play it? Burrow says the Bengals would do what the Bills wanted.

"We're kind of in the dark on that whole situation," Burrow said. "I think that would be tough, just scheduling wise. I think whatever Buffalo would want to do would be what we would want to do as well. We're behind them 100 percent and support them in whatever they would decide to do going forward."

More leadership: Burrow has tried to find each player and give him a message.

"You have guys that you care about that I think everyone out there was watching it and thinking that could be me, that could be any of us in this locker room," Burrow said. "So, one, I just wanted to make sure everyone knows in that locker room how I feel about them, make sure I tell them that, and at the same time, trying to let everyone know that we still got a game to play, we still got a job to do. We still got goals and aspirations ahead of us for the season, as tough as that is right now, but that's where we're at."

Reader gets all of that.

"It's a surreal moment for everybody. All the leaders on the team were doing a great job. Just as a team, we love each other," Reader said. "You don't say to your brothers as often as you should. That's someone you grind with, sweat with, bleed with all the time. It's something that should be said more because that's the respect you have for each other in this game. It was good to have everyone else come up and say we love each other and wrap our arms around each other and be there for each other."

Ball has seen a lot on that Paycor turf. David Pollack and Ryan Shazier never played again after getting carted off. A Super Bowl title got carried into the tunnel with Carson Palmer in the 2005 playoffs. Keith Rivers had a jaw broken as a rookie and the great AJ. Green limped off with seven Pro Bowls and didn't play for a year-and-a-half.

"Still, with all those, as they were taken off the field, there was thumbs-up," Ball said. "We didn't get that Monday night."

But what did get a thumbs-up Monday was Bengals leadership.

"One of the guys in our brotherhood is down right now. We just want to be around them, give the support we can," Reader said. "The league conversation, I don't really get into. It was handled. Whatever was said was what it was. It's about the player and the person and his family, making sure they are good. As a team and a locker room, that's what's important right now. We've got a game this week. They've got a game this week. We're trying our best to wrap our arms around the situation."