Damar Hamlin’s heart attack in the first quarter of the NFL’s January 2 “Monday Night Football” game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals was shocking but it wasn’t unique.
On October 24, 1971, Charles Frederick Hughes died on the football field—the first and only NFL player to do so. A back-up for the Detroit Lions, Hughes caught a 32-yard pass in the fourth quarter of a game against the Chicago Bears. Three plays later, while running back to the huddle, he collapsed and began convulsing on the field.
Team doctors tried CPR to no avail. Hughes, it turns out, had a family history of heart disease. One of his arteries was almost completely blocked. Apparently, the exertion on the field triggered full cardiac arrest. Hughes’ death was nothing short of a tragedy.
Even so, the Lions and Bears finished their game.
That was the response of a better, more spiritually healthy America. In our post-COVID and post-9/11 world, our collective impulse to tragedy is to shut down, to put everything on hold–this is America’s literal cancel culture.
Every public misfortune, both great and small, is now an event that requires an emergency response—including storms (“bomb cyclone,” “polar vortex”), public violence, respiratory viruses, and so on.
After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2014, for instance, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick shut-down the entire city for hours while police conducted a manhunt for the killers. The city complied, sheltering in place for nearly an entire day in a foreshadowing of the COVID lockdowns.
Contrast this American response to the deaths of three people to the response of Londoners during the height of the Blitz, when German bombers pounded the city on a near nightly basis. Ordinary Britons, at the time, took it as a point of pride to continue on with daily life as much as possible.
An observer recounted the following story:
In November 1940 novelist Vera Brittain and a friend took a taxi through the ruined areas of the East End of London. On the way an air-raid alarm sounded, and a policeman stopped the taxi and warned the driver and passengers to take shelter. The taxi-man glared at the policeman with ‘unutterable contempt’ and carried on towards Bethnal Green, with the approval of his two charges.
A similar attitude prevailed in America. Here is a story from Tommy Nelson, one of the workers who helped construct the Hoover Dam:
I recall one incident, just to give you an idea how high ball this job was. During the change of a shift—I was working a swing shift—I heard the swish of an air hose way up high there. I looked up there, and here comes a high scaler. He looks like a little ant. Apparently, he got knocked off before he got tied on. He was coming all the way down. He lit very close to where I was flagging these trucks.
There was a shovel operator by the name of Red Wixson operating a shovel nearby where this fellow fell. I took a quick look to see if there were any trucks coming. I didn’t think there was much I could do for this guy, but best I take a look. So I went over to him real fast. Red jumped out of his shovel. There wasn’t nothing you could do for him. But there was trucks coming and they were stacking up. Along came a hard-boiled superintendent. I won’t use the language he used. But he said, ‘Get those blankety-blank trucks moving.’ I said, ‘Carl, there’s a man killed over here.’ ‘Well, he won’t hurt anybody; Get ‘em going.’
More than 100 workers died while constructing the Hoover Dam. At the project’s visitor center today, there is a plaque in honor of these men “who died to make the desert bloom.” Whatever else one may say about the endeavor, it clearly mattered to those who built it. Many of them endured great danger and hardship to ensure it was constructed. They believed in what they were doing.
Perhaps those men were too unreasonable about certain common sense safety measures. Perhaps. But it is equally clear that we modern Americans could benefit from an infusion of their determination and toughness.
No matter how many regulations, seat-belts, masks, air bags, and helmets we put in place, human beings will never overcome danger. The question is not whether we can escape death but what we do with it when it comes.
It would be better if, in the face of our own mortality, we asserted the goodness of life and excellence. After the NFL canceled the game between the Bills and Bengals, what happened? The players went home, left to dwell on their thoughts and feelings alone.
Once Hamlin had been treated and was taken to the hospital, what else was there for his teammates to do? In circumstances like these, the temptation in our time is to shut down—to embrace the void. Instead of action, there is lassitude.
Certainly, immediate reminders of mortality can lead us to useful introspection. In the face of death, what does a football game mean? But we should not take this too far. One could question, ultimately, the goodness of every human action. If we know we will die, then why get married, have children, and work hard? Why do anything at all?
A people in love with death has no answer. Their culture and civilization will therefore begin to erode around them. We see exactly such a world coming into being today. The unrelenting attack on the Chrisitian faith in the West is intimately related to this spiritual implosion. We no longer have the faith in providence and divine goodness that sustained our ancestors. So much the worse for us.
Mine is not an argument for callousness toward death nor a case against grieving. There is a moment for sadness, reflection, and mediation on the loss of those we love. But there are also moments for action, friendship, and toughness in the face of pain. Our society leans too far toward the former and not enough toward the latter.
Finishing the Bills-Bengals game would have been a way of honoring Damar Hamlin. It would have set an example of pride and determination in the face of spiritual suffering. When Hamlin woke up from his coma, the first question he asked the doctors was whether his team had won. It makes sense. Hamlin, like all professional athletes, has spent enormous time and effort to get where he is. He has, in many ways, already sacrificed his life and body to pursuing his craft.
But the answer to Hamlin’s question is that no, the Bills did not win. They didn’t even play.
There is little worse in the face of disaster than the feeling of helplessness. In February 2019, a fellow Marine officer and friend decided to use his pre-deployment leave to hike 200 miles through the Sierra Nevadas before heading to the Middle East. We still don’t know what happened, but, after a number of powerful storms swept through the area, he failed to return. His body was never found.
I remember the first few days after we got the news that he hadn’t made it out. All I wanted was to do something. I wanted to help search for him, to go out and help. That option was not available to me then. But I do have the opportunity now to honor his memory through both word and deed. Every time I hike through the Sierra Nevadas, I remember my friend by emulating his example–by seeking to challenge myself by challenging the mountains he loved. I honor his memory not simply by meditating on the pain of loss but by aspiring to emulate his virtues in myself.
America’s inability to adequately process grief through life affirming action has caused great spiritual suffering. The 9/11 Memorial in New York City is a good example. Our chosen way of remembering the victims of the World Trade Center attacks was to create two giant black pits where the towers once stood. The visitor is invited to stare into the abyss of death and despair. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. is the same way—a list of names on black rock, sunk into the earth.
These memorials do not draw us back into life and action but lower our gaze and sink our hearts. They are gaping wounds that we do not allow to heal. This way of processing death and grief is not healthy and does not indicate a thriving civilization.
Continuing the Bills-Bengals game after Hamlin’s injury would have been a countercultural act of defiance, a vote in favor of life in the face of loss. It was, in the end, a missed opportunity.