What Damar Hamlin Gave Back on His Path to Stardom


Damar Hamlin in his senior season at Pitt Credit: Pittsburgh Panthers Football Team

Damar Hamlin, safety for the Buffalo Bills, routinely lined up in the secondary as he had since his peewee football days in Mckees Rocks, Pennsylvania. The stakes were high: Monday Night Football and the Bills’ AFC 1 seed hanging by a thread. Early on, the Bengals held a 7-3 lead and were again driving on the Bills. Hamlin, one of the Bills’ leading tacklers, stepped forward and brought down Bengals’ receiver Tee Higgins after a short catch. The collision, seemingly harmless at first glance, ended up causing one of the scariest on-field incidents in NFL history; with 5:58 remaining in the first quarter, Hamlin went into sudden cardiac arrest.

The story of Hamlin’s tragic injury has attracted the attention of the sports world and beyond. However, the most important part of his story is his off-field contributions to his community on his path to the NFL.

Hamlin, 24, grew up and played football up to the collegiate level in the Pittsburgh area. He began playing youth football in McKees Rocks, a town of 6,000 just outside of Pittsburgh, and continued his career at Central Catholic High School where he became a 4-star recruit and the 4th highest-rated prospect in Pennsylvania. His recognition extended nationally and he garnered over 30 offers from FBS schools nationwide. However, given the opportunity to attend several big-name football programs, such as Ohio State and Notre Dame, Hamlin decided to pursue his dreams close to home at the University of Pittsburgh.

Much of his decision to attend Pitt was so he could remain present in the upbringing of his little brother, Damir (“Mir”). Damar made sure to include Mir in his football journey by often bringing him along to games and practices. John Petrishen, a teammate of Hamlin in high school, college, and briefly in the NFL with the Bills, told ESPN, “He [Mir] was like a little brother to everyone.” He also said that Hamlin was not only a great big brother and role model, but also a father figure.

McKees Rocks is an area plagued by poverty and violence; according to the US Census Bureau, the area has a poverty rate of 30% and the FBI labeled it as the most dangerous city in Pennsylvania due to having the most violent crimes per capita in the state

Although Hamlin excelled beyond his peers at home, he was determined to give back to his family and community. Whilst in preparation for the NFL Draft, Hamlin organized his first McKees Rocks-based toy drive in 2020. This was before the NCAA ruling that allows student-athletes to receive provisions for their name and image, so the drive was fueled purely by his will to give back. It was facilitated by Hamlin’s mother’s daycare and collected toys and winter essentials for children in need. The drive became an annual event and was accompanied by a GoFundMe page to raise $2,500. 

As the nation prayed for his recovery, Hamlin’s fundraiser received renewed support and far exceeded its goal with over 200,000 donors and 8 million dollars raised in the week since his injury.

Hamlin speaking to Orange Arrow student-athletes (Summer 2018)
Photo Credit: Shawn Robinson

Amongst his contributions to the community, Damar Hamlin volunteered for Orange Arrow, a non-profit organization founded by a former Pitt defensive back, Shawn Robinson. The organization works alongside college student-athletes to coach grade school student-athletes to aim for success off the field. When asked about Hamlin’s character in an interview with The Foreword, Robinson said, “He [Hamlin] came into Pitt as a high recruit. He could’ve come in with an attitude or arrogance, but he was always a kind and caring individual. It’s always a joy to interact with him.” He also said that Hamlin embraced the opportunity to be a role model and motivate youth.

“He was proud to represent McKees Rocks,” Robinson said. “He would tell children from the area that ‘if I can do it, you can too.’”

As of January 9, Hamlin has recovered significantly and has returned home to Buffalo where he will receive further treatment and cheer on his team for the upcoming NFL playoffs.

Though it is uncertain whether or not he will play again, at the age of 24, both Damar Hamlin’s on and off-field accomplishments will leave a lasting legacy on the McKees Rocks community.