‘They took in our brother:’ Bills players grapple with Bengals matchup, shared trauma

The kinship between the two teams and cities is years in the making. It will be tested this weekend.
Buffalo Bills players and staff pray for Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin during the first half of...
Buffalo Bills players and staff pray for Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati. The game has been postponed after Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin collapsed, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)(Joshua A. Bickel | AP)
Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 10:37 PM EST
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[Full Bengals coverage]

CINCINNATI (WXIX) - The Bengals and Bills will meet on Sunday a day shy of three weeks after Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse at Paycor Stadium.

Even though the teams are playing for a chance at advancing to the Super Bowl, there’s respect across the Buffalo Bills organization for the Bengals team and front office as well as the people of Cincinnati.

“I think this was how it was supposed to happen,” said Buffalo running back Nyheim Hines. “I believe that we knew we would see each other.”

It was Hines who ran back the opening kickoff against the New England Patriots in the first game the Bills played following Hamlin’s collapse. By then, Hamlin had returned to Buffalo, but the runbacks (Hines had two that game) brought catharsis to a city that’s been through the wringer.

Consider Buffalo’s last 12 months: A racially motivated mass shooting, dozens dead in an historic blizzard and the trauma of Hamlin’s cardiac arrest... followed by this playoff run.

Cincinnati is an inextricable part of that story, but the confraternity of Bills and Bengals runs even deeper.

It began in 2018 when Buffalo fans donated to the foundation of former Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton after a Dalton touchdown pass (against the Ravens, no less) secured the Bills their first playoff berth in 17 years.

The good vibes continued into the Bengals-Bills Monday Night Football game earlier this month that was ultimately cancelled. The outpouring of support from Bengals fans appeared to cement the bond between these two cities of ostensibly similar makeup and character.

Both head coaches had memorable comments in the aftermath. Zac Taylor said it’s an example of “two communities that have been there for eachother.”

Sean McDermott had high praise for the entire Bengals organization, Taylor specifically, whom he said went “above and beyond in handling the situation the way they did.” Recall the ESPN report that the NFL wanted the game to continue and that it was Taylor who was instrumental on the field and in the locker bringing about its suspension. “Honest to God, he did that stuff on his own,” Bengals Owner Mike Brown later confirmed.

McDermott continued: “The amount of faith, hope and love that we saw on display over the last three days has been nothing short of amazing. [...]It was amazing how compassionate Zac was, and his players, their captains came down to our locker rooms and met with our team and captains... Just an amazing show of compassion, empathy and love. And it’s just amazing, because minutes before that we were going at each other. And so my hat goes off to Zac and the Bengals.”

The Buffalo Bills players haven’t lost that sentiment.

“The respect is truly there,” Buffalo offensive tackle Dion Dawkins said Friday. “The city of Cincinnati, they took in our brother and took care of him. Something like that can never be repaid. The respect will always be there.”

Hines used that same word: Respect.

“They’re a great opponent, a great team, and a lot of respect, for not only them, but their fan base,” he said. “Their fan base was great. They comforted a lot of Bills Mafia fans, and I saw a lot on social media, just for all that they did to make sure we were alright.”

But the niceties, if not the kinship, must inevitably stop. On Sunday, the Bengals and Bills will walk out onto the field at Highmark Stadium and play a football game, one team a bridling upstart, the other seemingly favored by destiny.

In Cincinnati, at least, the focus this week has been on the Bengals-as-underdogs—and not just to the Bills. The Bengals are the only team to suffer real negative consequences from the rejiggered playoff format. They’re the NFL’s disfavored and forgotten pariah, like jetsam the league cast away to hasten toward a fated end.

If that mindset is a locker-room diversion, it’s a good one; fate is always something heroes have to overcome. Perhaps why Bengals players seem to embrace the underdog label as much as they despise it.

The Bills, as betting favorites, don’t have that recourse (not that anyone in Cincinnati will feel sorry for them.) Asked whether the emotions of Bills players will be impacted, Hines replied, “Absolutely.”

No matter their roles or the outcome this weekend, the two teams will always share the wound of that night’s trauma. Hamlin’s progress has undoubtedly helped heal it; Sunday might finally offer a chance for the scab to become a scar.

“I think these two teams, these two organizations, will always be connected through that,” Taylor said Friday. “The positivity that’s come through it all, to see Damar getting healthier as time passes, and to see where it ended up, I think there’s always going to be a strong connection between the two fan bases. And that’s a good thing.”

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