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NFL players refused to play after Damar Hamlin collapsed. As a mom, that's an important message to send my kids about 'toughness' and mental health

A mom shares how she talked to her son about Damar Hamlin's health crisis during Monday Night Football — and why she's glad the game ended. (Photo: Getty)
A mom shares how she talked to her son about Damar Hamlin's health crisis during Monday Night Football — and why she's glad the game ended. (Photo: Getty)

My 8-year-old son had been dressed for Monday night's Bengals vs. Bills NFL game since breakfast that day, fully embodying our star receiver as a true Cincinnati fan. As soon as he saw Damar Hamlin collapse on the field — due to what we'd later learn was cardiac arrest — the questions began. "Why did he faint? What is fainting? The hit didn’t even look that bad, how did that happen? Is he dying? Does CPR hurt?" Like parents across the country, I did my best to give him as much information as he could handle, navigating around his extremely sensitive nature.

When the NFL (allegedly) instructed the teams that they'd have a 5-minute warm-up before resuming play, (a now highly contested detail that the league denies), I pretty much lost all hope in humanity. They were really going to make these crying and grieving players head out onto the field to play elite level sports, with no regard for their mental health? I switched the TV off — I would not teach my 8-year-old, who plays youth football alongside his brothers, that he lives in a world where that happens. I let him know they were going to keep praying and waiting as the doctors helped Hamlin, and sent him to bed. I also wasn't sure if Hamlin would live, and whether my son could handle having watched an NFL player die.

While Hamlin remains hospitalized, I was proud to be able to tell my son in the morning that the players and coaches decided it wasn't a great time to play football, because they were so worried about their friend. This was a shining moment for us, as a society, watching a group of hard-core athlete adult men, who represent the epitome of toughness, choose feelings over competition. The last few years of mental health awareness infiltrating social media, the health and wellness fields and the media, had paid off. It’s also been a key conversation in our own house, as we work to build kids who are sensitive to both their own mental health needs, and others'.

Now, our children see that their emotions matter enough to stop a game, and to send thousands of fans home. I had a glimmer of hope about the world my four sons are inheriting. Tough men cry. Tough men pray. Tough men opt out of competition when they aren’t in the right headspace. Tough men ask for help and support when they need it, just as mental health resources are being made available to NFL players in response to Hamlin’s health crisis.

Mom and former clinical athletic trainer Kaitlin Caviston, in Pittsburgh, Pa., says she was sick to her stomach watching the events, as a parent and a clinician. "As a parent, I cannot stop thinking about Damar Hamlin's mom and how helpless she must have felt. This was easily the worst day of her life, and she had to experience it on one of the largest stages in the world. My heart goes out to her, and I'm so sorry that she had this experience. I can only think that her heart must have stopped too when she saw the AED [automated external defibrillator] come out," she says.

Caviston agrees that there should be no restarting a game after that. "This was too much — too scary, too jarring, too sad. You can't expect anybody to just go back to doing what they were doing while their teammate's life hangs in the balance. Honestly, I don't know an athlete who would have agreed to get back on the field." She was also moved by the portrayal of toughness we saw on the field Monday night. "Toughness can look like last night: Feel your feelings, be scared, lean on each other, cry, pray, wish, be present in that moment and hope that it will all turn out for the best."

Since that night, the notion of toughness has been redefined for my sons, who previously only saw aggressive tackles, cool gear and their perception of the glory of being in the spotlight. Our children got to see another version, a real version, that will stick with them as they themselves head back onto their little league football fields this summer. And I am much more confident now that if something major is on their mind, that they will see it as an option to take a minute, or a day, or a week, before heading back into competition.

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