No one knew how the Buffalo Bills were going to look on Sunday in their first game since Damar Hamlin's injury, but if the first play was any indication, the Bills look ready to roll.
With Hamlin watching from a hospital in Ohio, the Bills honored him before the game and then Nyheim Hines honored him on the opening kickoff by returning it 96 yards for a touchdown. The stunning touchdown sent everyone at Highmark Stadium into a frenzy as players and fans alike celebrated the improbable fact that the Bills were able to score on their first play since Hamlin's injury.
CHILLS.— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 8, 2023
📺: @NFLonCBS pic.twitter.com/9uXnx91reb
The score marked the first time in 18 YEARS the Bills had return an opening kickoff for a touchdown and the first time they've ever done it at home.
It was an emotional way to start a game for a team that has been on a roller coaster ride of emotions all week after watching Hamlin suffer a cardiac arrest on Monday night in Cincinnati. In the hours after the injury, it wasn't even clear if he was going to live, but the Bills safety has been making steady progress over the past few days.
On Wednesday night, he was able to communicate with his medical team for the first time by writing them notes on a piece of paper. By Thursday, he was able to verbally communicate. By Friday, he was able to participate in FaceTime phone calls, and on Sunday, he was watching the Patriots-Bills game with his family.
GAMETIME!!! @BuffaloBills 💙 pic.twitter.com/PQYClonUHb— 𝐃𝐚𝐦𝐚𝐫 𝐇𝐚𝐦𝐥𝐢𝐧 (@HamlinIsland) January 8, 2023
Hamlin was watching when the kickoff return happened and he had a simple four-letter reaction.
OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!— 𝐃𝐚𝐦𝐚𝐫 𝐇𝐚𝐦𝐥𝐢𝐧 (@HamlinIsland) January 8, 2023
He was probably equally excited in the third quarter when Hines returned ANOTHER kickoff for a touchdown.
NYHEIM HINES' SECOND KICK RETURN TD OF THE DAY.— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2023
📺: #NEvsBUF on CBS
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/Zuxd3911Wt pic.twitter.com/hrsxcc29Hv
That TD gave the Bills a 21-17 lead in the second half, and Hamlin was equally excited for that return.
🔓🔓🔓 HINES FREE 🔓🔓🔓— 𝐃𝐚𝐦𝐚𝐫 𝐇𝐚𝐦𝐥𝐢𝐧 (@HamlinIsland) January 8, 2023
Hines is the first NFL player since 2010 to return two kickoffs for a touchdown in the same game.
You really couldn't write a better script than this. Six days ago, Hamlin's health was the only thing anyone could think about, and six days later the Bills put a giant smile on his face with not one, but two kickoff return touchdowns. It was a storybook way for the Bills to start their game against the Patriots, a game that they need to win if they want to clinch the No. 2 overall seed in the AFC.
The Bills and the NFL's 31 other teams were all honoring Hamlin on Sunday. Not only did most players wear a Hamlin T-shirt in warm-ups, but each team also outlined the "3" on their field in blue paint.
The Bills went on to win 35-23, securing the AFC's No. 2 seed while ousting the Patriots from the playoffs.