The back of Damar Hamlin’s helmet sports the slogan “Choose Love.” It’s the newest of seven messages the NFL permits players to display on their helmets, the last vestiges of the league’s nod toward social progress begun in 2020. Like the other slogans, it’s a sentiment so vague as to be meaningless … right up until the moment it becomes clear how critical, and correct, “Choose Love” is.

Hamlin lies in a Cincinnati hospital bed in critical condition after a tackle in which he suffered cardiac arrest. His health remains the priority here, far more important than what the league decides to do about the Bills-Bengals game. As he recovers, hopefully to live a full, long and productive life, everyone else involved in this tragedy, from the center to the margins, has to figure out how to move on. How do players, fans and the league pick up the pieces after one of the most shocking, disturbing moments in NFL history?

The players always know. Their faces, their actions, their body language always tell the true story. When a player goes down with a twisted ankle or a pulled hamstring, his teammates might not even break stride on their way to the huddle or the sideline. This is the NFL, where painful tweaks are as much a part of work life as social media breaks are for the rest of us.

When a player suffers an injury that’s more serious — the kind that could end a season — players will kneel in silent solidarity, but when the cart leaves the field, the game goes on. That exact scenario happened earlier this year on the same Cincinnati field where Hamlin fell, when Tua Tagovailoa suffered a concussion and the Week 3 game went on minutes later with hardly a hitch.

But Monday night felt different right from the start because of the devastated looks on the Bills’ faces. Josh Allen held his hands to his mouth as if in horror. Tears streamed down Stefon Diggs’ cheeks. Players pulled at their jerseys, hugged one another, turned away from the scene as Hamlin received CPR right there on the turf. First responders worked on Hamlin for 10 minutes, minutes that must be among the most agonizing those players have ever endured in their lives.

“At the age of 24, I didn’t even know I could die,” ESPN commentator and former Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark said in a remarkable commentary Monday night. He’s not alone; so many players and fans alike share that belief in their own immortality. When the truth presents itself like it did Monday night, in stark and unavoidable terms, it shakes people to their souls.

Tragedy reveals character, and Monday night gave NFL fans the opportunity to show empathy, to display compassion, to choose love. So many took advantage, donating — at this writing — more than $3.6 million to Hamlin’s tiny GoFundMe. On social media, many others took the opportunity to share photos, videos and stories of Hamlin; the picture that emerged was that of an admirable man with dreams of playing football and goals of helping those not as fortunate as him.

There were the ghouls and the opportunists, of course, leeching onto Hamlin’s tragedy to advance their own petty agendas and conspiracy theories, or complaining that postponing the game would disrupt the end of the NFL season — as if that matters at all. But in a moment where real life tore its way into the cloistered bubble of sports and social media, the ignorant and the attention-seekers were irrelevant and ignored; empathy and connection reigned.

In 2020, at the end of his final year at Pitt, Damar Hamlin organized a toy drive for kids in his hometown of McKees Rocks, Pa. This is the young man who went down on the field tonight in Cincinnati. He is a man; not a number on a jersey. Prayers for Damar. pic.twitter.com/mSa80YklRK

The NFL came under attack for waiting 71 minutes to postpone the game, but that’s a byproduct of the always-on, we-need-answers-now social media-driven culture of 2023. The league waited two full days to postpone games in the wake of Sept. 11 and played on as normal in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Granted, players were not on the field and fans in the stands for either of those tragedies, but still — bureaucracy is an ocean liner that, by design, takes a frustratingly long time to turn. There will be hard questions about the NFL’s response, and there should be, but the league and the teams made the right move — the humane move — in the moment.

Damar Hamlin in a December game against Miami. (Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports)
Damar Hamlin in a December game against Miami. (Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports)

Hamlin’s health and safety are the only priority right now. His teammates will need help, too, counseling and understanding to help them through the trauma of watching a tragedy unfold before them. The league has obligations — moral, legal, ethical — to help its current players through this moment, and then do all it can to ensure this never happens again, whether through equipment changes, rule changes or emergency protocol adjustments. The fear in players’ eyes, the dread that hung over Monday night — the league has to do everything in its vast power to make sure that games don’t ever turn tragic.

Bills and Bengals fans gathered after midnight outside the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, trying to keep candles lit in a strong breeze. They represented the best of what NFL fans can be, compassionate and caring, understanding that a football game isn’t “war” … it’s a game. Across the country, NFL fans followed their example, giving money, offering prayers, sharing empathy, choosing love.

The league will be back to business soon enough — the playoffs are coming, of course — but maybe a touch of the connection that bound the NFL community together Monday night will persist. That would be a fine testament to the example of Damar Hamlin.

Damar Hamlin celebrates after a play during the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Highmark Stadium on Dec. 17, 2022, in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.