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In Damar Hamlin’s Hometown, Anguish Has Turned to ‘Happy Tears’

McKEES ROCKS, Pa. — The marquee at the Parkway Theater and Film Lounge gave more prominence to a recovering local hero than to its latest movie showing on Sunday, proclaiming, “You Won Damar Keep Fighting” and urging him to “Get Well Soon.”

A sign at the First Baptist Church asked people to pray for Damar Hamlin, 24, and his family as he continued to recover in a Cincinnati hospital after entering cardiac arrest upon making a tackle, something witnessed by millions of viewers on “Monday Night Football.”

Churchgoers and football fans communed with Hamlin in mind, as they have done for nearly a week in this distressed but tight-knit borough across the Ohio River from downtown Pittsburgh. They have cried for him, prayed for him and gained cautious hope, embracing a native son who made it to the N.F.L. with the Buffalo Bills and then kept extending his hand to others, leaving home but never losing his connection to the place where he grew up.

As the news about Hamlin’s recovery has grown more hopeful by the day, stunned disbelief and apprehension have become “happy tears,” said Michele Turner, 48, the owner of a bakery where Hamlin’s mother, Nina, has been a longtime customer.

At the First Baptist Church, the Rev. Jay Freudenberg said during his sermon that he had been shocked to tears upon seeing Hamlin collapse. But he also said that he was heartened not only by the televised prayers of fellow players, fans and even commentators in the following days, but also by the networks that did not cut away from them.

“Something bad happened Monday night, but something great happened Monday night,” Freudenberg said. The show of prayers “didn’t get cut.” He added: “Nobody put it down. And this young man is on his way to recovery.”

The Rev. Jay Freudenberg led the congregation in prayer at First Baptist Church in McKees Rocks on Sunday.Credit…Nate Smallwood for The New York Times

At the Parkway Theater, Buffalo’s game on Sunday against the New England Patriots was shown on the main screen, while the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Cleveland Browns on another screen in front of a drum kit and a piano in the lounge area. If only briefly, talk about football pivoted from its inherent catastrophic risks to the frivolity of playoff possibilities. The Bills beat the Patriots, 35-23.

During earlier phases of the Covid pandemic, while Hamlin played at the University of Pittsburgh and spectators were prohibited or restricted from attending many sporting events, his parents, relatives and friends often filled the theater’s 45 seats to overflowing to watch his college games, said Aaron Stubna, 51, the theater’s owner.

“After getting good news about Damar, it’s almost like we’re looking forward to the game,” Stubna said before kickoff. “Regardless of who you root for, I think you want Buffalo to win to honor him.”

More on Damar Hamlin’s Collapse

  • A ‘True Leader’: As a professional football player and community mentor, Damar Hamlin has reached two of his life goals: making it to the N.F.L. and helping others along the way.
  • N.F.L.’s Violent Spectacle: The appetite for football has never been higher, even as viewers look past the sport’s toll on players’ lives. Mr. Hamlin’s collapse should force a reconsideration, our columnist writes.
  • Danger Across Sports: Mr. Hamlin’s collapse has brought attention to sudden cardiac arrest and the vulnerability of athletes from the youth leagues to the professional ranks.
  • Faith and Football: The outpouring of public piety from players and fans shows how Christianity is embedded in N.F.L. culture in a way that goes beyond most sports.

Even so, some had avoided watching video of a seemingly innocuous tackle becoming a life-threatening collision. “It’s too personal,” said Mike Dean, 42, a local radio personality who hosted one of Hamlin’s youth football camps last summer. “If it’s a movie, I know the person is acting. This is real life. We see so much on TV about people killing and stuff. I didn’t need that. I’m cool.”

Instead, Dean said, “I prayed and prayed and prayed.”

Shortly after Buffalo opened Sunday’s game with a stirring kickoff return for a touchdown, two families from nearby townships ducked into the main theater while celebrating a birthday. When CBS showed a photo of Hamlin watching from his hospital room, Kellie Bonini, 46, said: “That’s pretty awesome. It makes me tear up a little bit that he’s sitting up, he’s talking.”

Asked if it was time for the N.F.L. to resume playing now that Hamlin’s recovery is increasingly optimistic, Bonini, a self-described big sports fan, said: “It is a little scary. I think it needs to change a little bit. But I definitely want to see him get healthy and hopefully back to playing because that’s what he wants to do.”

As doctors have become more sanguine about Hamlin, there are signs that Buffalo is becoming something of a fan favorite in the playoffs. Sean Sprankle, who was celebrating his 44th birthday, said a friend had texted him, saying, “Now that Damar’s good, I’m thinking of putting money on the Bills to win the Super Bowl.”

The Roxian theater in McKees Rocks.Credit…Jared Wickerham for The New York Times

On Monday, there will be a prayer vigil here for Hamlin at Sto-Rox High School. Friday was Damar Hamlin day in the schools. Students have been writing get-well cards to him, wearing blue and red ribbons in the colors of the Bills, donning Bills jerseys and those from his days at Pitt. At a basketball game Friday night at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, where Hamlin went to high school, students also wore red and blue and held aloft one of his jerseys.

McKees Rocks, known locally as the Rocks, reached its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, drawing immigrant expertise to work in the iron, steel and railroad industries. Its population peaked just above 18,000 in the 1930s, but has dwindled to fewer than 6,000 today, according to census figures. Its citizens — about half are white, mostly of Italian and Eastern European heritage; and 29 percent are Black — celebrate a mélange of traditions, but more than a quarter live in poverty.

Locals lament the influx of drugs and crime. But Hamlin has purposefully remained connected to the Rocks, which helps explain the outpouring of support for him, such as a sign on the marquee at the Roxian music venue that says, “We Love You Damar!”

His ties to home are evident in the tattoo inside his left biceps that says “Gray St.,” where he lived; in his decision to attend Pitt instead of Penn State or Ohio State so that his family could conveniently watch him play; in the youth football camps he holds; and in the toy drive he started in connection with his mother Nina’s day care center that has grown via a GoFundMe campaign to more than $8 million.

“He never forgot us,” said Archie Brinza, 50, the borough council president. “Now we’re fighting for him.”

On Saturday, Hamlin posted on social media that he had been overwhelmed by public support, asked for continued prayers and wrote that “when you put real love out into the world it comes back to you 3x’s as much.”

Local athletes are not star-struck by Hamlin; they find him approachable and knowable, said Marvin Mills, 44, the football coach at Sto-Rox High School. Before nearly every game, Sto-Rox players call or text Hamlin, and he responds with encouragement, they said. “He’s the hero of the neighborhood,” said Zay Davis, 19, who just completed his senior football season. “We all have the same dream, and he fulfilled it. He’s like a big brother. I see his mother all the time.”

Davis and friends started a clothing line called 1WayOut, and Hamlin, who also has an apparel line, called Chasing Millions, has inspired the possibilities of their enterprise, Davis said. “If he can, why not me?” Davis said.

Morgan Lewis watched a report on Hamlin at the HardWork Sports and Performance gym in Pittsburgh. He said he couldn’t wait till Hamlin walked through the gym doors again.Credit…Jared Wickerham for The New York Times

On Saturday morning at the HardWork Sports and Performance gym in Pittsburgh, where Hamlin trains in the off-season, Morgan Lewis, 31, a trainer, turned on the big-screen television to ESPN to get the latest medical update.

Many people “think he’s OK, he’s back to normal,” Lewis said. “This ain’t nothing normal.”

Still, Lewis said he couldn’t wait for the next time Hamlin walked through the door again in the off-season.

“It’ll be,” Lewis said, “like seeing a real-life angel.”

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