Shows of support and signs of unease mark the first NFL Sunday since Hamlin's injury
The NFL kicked off its final, game-packed Sunday of the regular season less than a week after a shocking on-field injury jolted players and fans and prompted a flood of well wishes from across the country.
Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin remains hospitalized after collapsing during a Monday night match-up against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hamlin, who suffered a cardiac arrest following a tackle, "is making continued progress" but is still in critical condition, the team said Saturday.
Before Sunday's game between the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots, Hamlin tweeted a photo from his hospital bed and cheered on his teammates from afar.
"GameDay.. Nothing I Want More Than To Be Running Out That Tunnel With My Brothers. God Using Me In A Different Way Today. Tell Someone You Love Them Today!" Hamlin tweeted.
Bills players and head coach Sean McDermott could be seen wearing Hamlin's number 3 on their chests, and fans throughout the stadium hoisted signs honoring Hamlin.
Then, in the very first play of the game, Bills running back Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, traversing nearly the entire length of the field and garnering uproarious cheers from the home-field crowd.
Over the weekend players and coaches from all 32 NFL teams were wearing "Love for Damar 3" t-shirts during pregame warmups, commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement on Saturday.
"Seeing the entire NFL family – teams, players, coaches, and fans like you – band together was yet another reminder that football is family: human, loving and resilient," Goodell added.
Before Sunday's game, the Buffalo Bills posted a video tribute to Hamlin on social media and wrote in a separate post: "Today is for 3."
It wasn't just Hamlin's own team that paid tribute to the injured safety.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans took a knee as a group before their game Saturday. Players from several teams across the league wore Hamlin's No. 3 jersey before their respective match-ups as a show of support. Even ESPN journalists turned their microphone flags upside down during broadcasts to make their 'E' logo look like a '3.'
Hamlin took to social media Saturday in his first public statement since his collapse to thank supporters for their words and gestures of encouragement.
"Putting love into the world comes back 3xs as much... thankful for everyone who has reached out and prayed," he said. "This will make me stronger on the road to recovery, keep praying for me!"
Still, despite Hamlin's recovery so far, the incident has served as a reminder to players of the physical risks involved in the sport.
"You put all this work in for months to try to go out there and play your best football," Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said ahead of his team's game on Saturday. "But when you get on that field, I'm sure it'll be a little bit of a weird feeling because it was such a scary incident. That was terrifying."
Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence said he and his teammates were blessed to be able to play professional football, but that Hamlin's injury was a reminder that "this game is a dangerous sport."
Howard Bryant, a sports commentator with Meadowlark Media, told NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday that injuries such as Hamlin's will always be a part of football as it's currently played.
"What's the line about football? It's the one sport with a 100% guaranteed injury rate. The goal in football is to hurt people," Bryant said. "So when you see something like this, there's no way out."