Former NFL player in Broward reacts to Hamlin’s ‘heartbreaking’ collapse, safety concerns

NFL: Hamlin in critical condition after cardiac arrest

Twan Sanchez Russell said parents' safety concerns increased after Monday Night Football tragedy. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Twan Sanchez Russell said he was distraught when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals and he has been anxiously awaiting updates.

Monday Night Football fans watched in horror as Hamlin tackled Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, who rammed into him and hit him in the head and chest. Hamlin stood up, took a few steps, and collapsed.

“I was watching the game with my family and it’s heartbreaking,” said Sanchez Russell, of Fort Lauderdale.

Hamlin’s body went limp. According to the NFL, the blow to the chest may have caused a cardiac arrest and after CPR the medical staff restored his heartbeat on the field. An ambulance rushed the 24-year-old player to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where he remained in critical condition on Tuesday.

“These things don’t happen often, but they do happen,” Sanchez Russell said about the inherently violent nature of the sport.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (85) runs near Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati. Hamlin was injured on the play. The game has been postponed after Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin collapsed, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Sanchez Russell, 48, played at the University of Miami, and after joining the NFL, he played for the Washington Redskins, the Miami Dolphins, and the Atlanta Falcons.

“Football changed my life,” he said.

Sanchez Russell’s perspective is different now. He is the athletic director of his alma mater: St. Thomas Aquinas High School, a private Catholic Archdiocese of Miami school in Fort Lauderdale. His role allows him to focus on players’ safety.

“At a high school game in Broward County, you’re going to have a doctor on the sidelines ... you’re going to have an athletic trainer in each sideline, ambulance in the end zone,” Sanchez Russell said.

St. Thomas Aquinas High School’s head football coach Roger Harriott said safety is his priority with his students. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)

Sanchez Russell said he has seen improvements in safety over the last few decades as awareness increases.

In 2016, the NFL acknowledged the connection between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurological disease associated with head trauma. The risks of playing include suffering a concussion, memory loss, mental illness, arthritis, heart conditions, pain, and inflammation.

Hamlin played for the University of Pittsburgh and joined the NFL in 2021. After 14 games as an NFL rookie, he replaced Micah Hyde as a starter this season. Hyde had suffered a neck injury in September and underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc, according to the NFL.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) lies on the turf after making a tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, blocked from view, as Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) assists at the end of the play during the first half of an NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati. After getting up from the play, Hamlin collapsed and was administered CPR on the field. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

“Regardless of what sport you play, there is always an inherent danger in it,” Sanchez Russell said later adding, “Parents have to do what’s best for them.”

Hamlin was fighting for his life in the intensive care unit on Tuesday afternoon when St. Thomas Aquinas High School’s head football coach Roger Harriott, who played football for Boston University, said the tragedy exacerbated parents’ concerns in Fort Lauderdale.

“What I tell parents is, for us, we’re going to take the necessary steps and measures to ensure their safety,” Harriott said.

Read messages of support

Damar Hamlin remains in critical condition: Here is what you need to know about cardiac arrest while playing sports
  • “My prayers and thoughts go out to @HamlinIsland the Hamlin Family. I’m praying that you pull through bro. Love.” — Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, who was tackled by Hamlin on the play during which the Bills safety was injured.
  • “Demar Hamlin is a kind caring extremely hard worker. He is loyal honest and can always put a smile on your face. He is more than an athlete, he is a son and brother. I pray God gives him mercy and brings him back to us.” — Bills offensive lineman Rodger Saffold on Twitter.
  • “Prayer is power and Prayer is POWERFUL we need the world to pray for Damar Hamlin and his family #Love #3″ — Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins on Twitter.
  • “Sending our thoughts and prayers to Damar.” — Cincinnati Bengals on Twitter.
  • “Damar Hamlin is the best of us. We love you, 3. Praying for you.” — University of Pittsburgh’s football account on Twitter. Hamlin played his college ball at Pitt.
  • “No one’s been through this. I’ve never seen anything like it, either.” — Longtime NFL quarterback Troy Aikman on the ESPN telecast.
  • “The NFLPA and everyone in our community is praying for Damar Hamlin. We have been in touch with Bills and Bengals players, and with the NFL. The only thing that matters at this moment is Damar’s health and well being.” — The NFL Players Association in a statement.
  • “Never before have I ever witnessed anything like this. The game doesn’t matter. Praying for Damar and his family.” — Former Bills quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly on Twitter.
  • “Football family & #billsmafia - With our prayers combined we can come together for #damarhamlin … God cover #3.” — Former Bills wide receiver and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Reed on Twitter.
  • “The game is not important. Damar Hamlin’s life is important. Please be ok. Please.” — Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J Watt on Twitter.
  • “Praying hard.. please be okay man.” — Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes on Twitter.
  • “It was definitely the right call (to postpone the game) by Roger Goodell or whoever had the authority to make that call. The safety of players in all sports is always the most important. It is a terrible thing to see and I wish nothing but the best for that kid and the city of Buffalo, for the franchise of the Bills and the rest of the NFL and also the Bengals that were playing in that game as well. I’m a huge fan of the NFL and a huge fan of football and you never want to see anything like that happen.” — NBA star LeBron James after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 121-115 win at Charlotte.
  • “Prayers for Hamlin. i hope everything is okay.” — Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a serious spinal injury on the same field in 2017 that left him briefly paralyzed.
  • “Absolutely speechless.. please pull through Damar!” — Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt on Twitter.
  • “Praying for Damar Hamlin…the entire world is lifting this young man up.” — former NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on Twitter.
  • “Praying for Damar Hamlin. Our hearts are with his family, loved ones, and the entire @BuffaloBills community.” — New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Twitter.
  • “I’m asking all New Yorkers to join me in praying for Damar Hamlin, his family, his teammates, and our brothers and sisters in Buffalo.” — New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Twitter.
  • “Sending our prayers to Damar Hamlin and his family. We are all Buffalo Bills fans tonight.” — New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Twitter.
  • “Often times people watching forget what players risk on Sundays. Praying hard for Damar Hamlin and his family. God speed.” — Houston Texans offensive lineman Scott Quessenberry, younger brother of Bills offensive tackle David Quessenberry.
  • “Father God, I pray that Damar Hamlin is okay and here with us. I also ask that he have a speedy recovery mentally & physically God; in Jesus name… Amen.” — New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner on Twitter.
  • “Come on 3.” — Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders on Twitter.
  • “I wanna send a prayer to Damar and his family.” — Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase on Twitter.
  • “Praying for Damar Hamlin and his family.” — New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones on Twitter.
  • “Please join me in prayer for Damar Hamlin.” — former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow on Twitter.
  • “Lord, please be with Damar Hamlin, his team, and his family…my heart hurts in this moment for him.” — Grammy-winning gospel artist Kirk Franklin on Twitter.
  • “#DamarHamlin you are in my prayers.” — actress Kerry Washington, who’s married to former NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
  • “Full of so many different emotions. Just thinking about @HamlinIsland and his family. Your football family is with you as well. This is bigger than the game.” — Green Bay Packers offensive tackle David Bakhtiari on Twitter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.