Speak for yourself.
It’s Bill Belichick’s first rule for players when addressing media. And it’s what Belichick did for almost all of his Thursday morning press conference, as he related the terrifying scene in Cincinnati three nights earlier to his own chilling memory of an afternoon two and half decades ago.
Carrying thoughts of Damar Hamlin, whose heart stopped beating in Monday’s game between the Bills and Bengals, and his experience as an assistant with the Jets, seeing the Lions Reggie Brown being kept alive as he lay on the field, Belichick shared a singular perspective. His, and his alone.
He spoke of outreach. To coaching counterparts Sean McDermott and Zac Taylor, mainly to express support for those coping with what they experienced in Buffalo and Cincinnati. To other coaches, in and outside of football, seeking insights on how to best proceed. And to the young men under his own charge, accepting their input as well.
“Really, all I’m going to say is I think everybody is doing the best they can,” Belichick said solemnly. “So, that could be on a lot of different levels and a lot of different perspectives. But I think we’re all doing the best that we can. I think everybody else is probably doing the same thing from whatever perspective they have on it.
“Football is a very great and competitive game. Unfortunately, injuries and things like this can and do happen from time to time. It’s very unfortunate. It seemed like the care that was given was very prompt and good. I’m thankful for that. But life’s bigger than this game. It’s just one of these humbling moments for all of us that stands out. I’d say as a coach it’s different and I’ve expressed this to the players multiple times. The amount of respect that I have for them and what they do, and how they do it is immense.”
In his next breath, in his own role “as a coach,” Belichick spoke for everyone whose commitment to football extends only as far as the stands and sidelines. Neither he nor we need worry about getting hurt in the game, from the game.
“I know the players, it’s different,” Belichick said. “They walk out there and put the equipment on. It’s a contact sport. What they and their families deal with as participants is different than what I do as a coach.”
Or what you do as a fan. Or what I do as a broadcaster.
That difference is largely understood. And still, too often under appreciated.
Until nights like Monday. And Sundays like the one in October, when an ambulance took the Lions Saivion Smith from Gillette Stadium to a local hospital for treatment and evaluation of a neck injury. Smith underwent fusion surgery a month later and is reportedly rehabbing for a return by spring OTA’s.
Thankfully, Hamlin’s condition has improved remarkably in the past 48 hours. Regaining consciousness on Thursday, his first words to doctors were written as if copied out a storybook. After his breathing tube was removed overnight, he FaceTimed with teammates Friday morning.
We can exhale. And smile. For now, hoping there won’t be a next time anytime soon.
“Football is entertainment,” Patriots captain Matthew Slater said into the same microphones as Belichick several hours later. “And at the end of the day, if you want to boil it down, we’re entertainers.”
And we are the entertained. We applaud and, at times, even disparage, Slater and his playing peers as they strive to please us.
What’s in it for them, besides love of the game, are pay and prestige, which for the vast majority of them never approach what we imagine such spoils to be worth.
What comes with it for them, inherently, is grave risk. To body and, as we now know too well, mind. Sometimes, like with Hamlin and Brown, we see it manifested in life-altering, life-threatening moments.
But peril is always present, on every play, with every step and in every collision. Including the seemingly routine, such as Hamlin’s tackle of Tee Higgins.
Sometimes the pain is obviously visible in the writhing reactions of the injured and expressions of teammates. But almost always, it’s felt far from public view. On mornings after games. In years to follow final seasons.
Being a fan or broadcaster requires us to reach a reconciliation. We make it out of our own love for the sport and/or livelihood. Never, as Belichick notes, suffering the consequences of the game’s brute physicality.
On Monday night, as fun in a game became life or death, like millions of others, I watched from my living room, young children alongside. Fearful, they had questions and concerns before bed. And more of the same the following few days, assured that their dad only has to talk about football.
The men who play it are sons, brothers and husbands of loved ones concerned not about someone else; but about someone special to them. Someone like 24-year-old Damar Hamlin, older brother of Damir and child of Mario and Nina.
Slater, who led the Patriots in prayer this week as their longest-tenured player and co-captain, was a kid when his dad, Jackie, wound down a 20-year career that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Matthew is now 37, a 15th-year Patriot perhaps bound for Canton too, and just like Jackie, the father of young children as his brilliant career nears an end.
“I remember my dad sustaining some injuries toward the end (of his career) and it was hard on me as a kid to process that,” Slater said. “‘What does this mean for Daddy? What’s going to happen moving forward? Is he okay?’ My mom trying to explain that to us, and us being — I was 10 when my dad retired — and us being young enough to not really be able to process all that was challenging.
“Now on this end of it, with my kids having questions about my health or about a teammate’s health or situations that may come up, it’s tough. That dialogue is aways challenging with children. And then (with) significant others, wives obviously, I mean that’s a totally different conversation.”
Processing for themselves what counterparts with the Bills have endured, Patriots players now ready to play them in Buffalo. Reliance on faith, each other and resources made available by the organization pulls them forward.
“All the different people we have in this building, team clinicians and different people to just help out, if they can’t do it themselves, they’re pointing you in the right direction (toward) resources,” said Devin McCourty, another 30-something (35) longtime captain, now in his 13th season. “We’ve had so many conversations and different things as a group and as individuals that allow you to kind of get into whatever space you need to just feel good and for your own mental health.
“I think we’ve had that door wide open this week, and that’s continued to be a thing over the last couple of years when dealing with COVID and different tragedies and adversity that have hit us as a team. We’ve had a lot of different things in place to help us out along the way.”
Slater, who leads and usually speaks in lockstep with McCourty, touched on those open-door sessions.
“Certainly, it’s been a great opportunity as a team to peel back some of the layers and just kind of (say), ‘Hey, football’s secondary,’” he said. “‘How are we going through this? How’s your family handling this?’ Etcetera.
“I think, in a way, it’s been a week for us to kind of grow a little bit closer.”
Slater and McCourty are men of deep faith married to women in medicine. Medical teams saved the lives of Demar Hamlin this week and Reggie Brown in December of 1997, as others up close and from afar offered prayers in varied faiths.
On Sunday, as they always do, Slater and McCourty will pray again for the well-being of opponents and teammates alike.
Then they’ll do what they do, competing against Hamlin’s teammates in Buffalo; while Belichick does what he does, in his 494th game as an NFL head coach; and we’ll do what we do, watching it all.
A Patriots win guarantees a playoff berth. A Bills victory possibly improves playoff seeding and scheduling. Either result is secondary to the one outcome both sides desire.
“I think as a whole community of players, that’s one thing we always talk about, we all want to walk off the field,” McCourty said. “Whether you’re an opponent, whether you’re my teammate, I want everyone to walk off and be healthy.”
And with that, Devin spoke for all of us.
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.