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Damar Hamlin Finds New Perspective in Return to Pittsburgh



Steelers Bills Damar Hamlin

PITTSBURGH — Acrisure Stadium, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pitt football since 2001, was called Heinz Field when Damar Hamlin played at Pitt. 

That’s one of the roughly million differences between how things were when Hamlin played his last home game for Pitt in 2020 compared to now. 

Back then, Hamlin was a draft prospect. 

Now, he’s made it to the league.

At the time, Hamlin, a McKees Rocks native who starred at Pittsburgh Central Catholic before staying home to play at Pitt, had never played for a team outside of Pittsburgh. 

Since 2021, he’s been a member of the Buffalo Bills.

Hamlin had been to what was then Heinz Field countless times but hadn’t spent much time on the visiting sideline.

That’s where he was in Saturday night’s Bills-Steelers preseason game, and it was a little odd. 

“I was on the (opposing) sideline just trying to think of just trying to think of all the times that I was on that sideline,” Hamlin told media at the postgame podium. “It was only a few. Spring practice, offense vs. defense, the defense was over there for the spring game. I was on the blue team or the white team, wherever it was, and I was on the sideline once, but I really haven’t been on that sideline visualizing all week just coming here, seeing myself on the other sideline, it was something to adjust to.”

Hamlin adjusted well enough to make three tackles, all solo. 

The first one– a tackle of Anthony McFarland with less than three minutes to play in the first half– earned an ovation from the Steeler faithful after public address announcer Larry Richert said Hamlin’s name. 

Did Hamlin hear the ovation?

“Of course, I heard it,” Hamlin said, smiling. “It was special, man. It was just a testament to the love that’s shown from my city.”

Hamlin also has a love for Saturday’s opposing quarterback.

He and Kenny Pickett were teammates at Pitt for four seasons. 

Pickett wanted Hamlin’s jersey in the traditional postgame exchange. 

Steelers Bills Pickett Hamlin

Pitt grads Damar Hamlin and Kenny Pickett embrace after the preseason game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

“It was great to see him,” Pickett said. “Obviously, playing with him here for, what was it, three or four years? Same with (Bills CB) Dane (Jackson), I have a lot of in this stadium with those guys so it was really special to see them at the NFL level. We’re doing exactly what we said we’d be doing when we were in that Pitt locker room on the south side. So it’s a really cool experience.”

Hamlin was happy to see Pickett, too, but he wanted to give his jersey to somebody else. 

“I really wanted to give it to Coach (Mike) Tomlin,” Hamlin said. “Just knowing how much he meant to this city, growing up, being at Pitt and even before Pitt, seeing what culture he brought to the city of Pittsburgh and him allowing us to be so close when I was at Pitt. It meant a lot to me and it really shaped my vision for myself.”

Hamlin ended up giving the jersey to Pickett.

Along with Pickett, Hamlin got to see some of his old Pitt coaches before the game. 

The head man, Pat Narduzzi, was there, as was Pitt’s safeties coach, Cory Sanders, and its secondary coach, Archie Collins, who was the cornerbacks’ coach when Hamlin was at Pitt. 

Hamlin said seeing those guys “reminded me of when I was on the chase.”

“Of the dream of just even making it to the NFL,” he said, “just trying to lock into all the small details what they’re telling me, and you know how it translates over to the next level and its true. That’s my message to the kids that are out there (at Pitt) right now.”

Hamlin’s also thankful for his current coaches for having him and Jackson come out from the pregame coin toss. 

“It was super neat,” Hamlin said. “I was super appreciative of my coaches for allowing me to do that.”

Hamlin was the one who called the toss, correctly picking tails.

Being able to play in his hometown stadium– or anywhere else– is something many were concerned about throughout the first part of 2023 after Hamlin collapsed on the turf in Cincinnati Jan. 2.

Hamlin fought to get back on the field, and in the process, inspired millions.

Having that impact on people isn’t lost on Hamlin. 

“It means everything to me …” Hamlin said. “I wanted to truly have a purpose and be able to leave my mark here before I left this place, you know what I mean? To be able to be an inspiration and stand for certain things, courage, perseverance. It’s not always easy. It gets tough at times. Sometimes, I (think to myself), why me? But God doesn’t (put us) in any places that we can’t stand.”

Although the Bills didn’t win on the field, losing 27-15, it is, after all, just the preseason. 

Overall, this weekend was a win for Hamlin.

“(Playing an NFL game in Pittsburgh is) definitely off the bucket list,” he said. “I always wanted to come back into this stadium as a pro, play in front of the home city. Last year was super fun in Buffalo. People talking stuff all week. Even my friends, they’re diehard Steeler fans. So they love us all year, but when we play the Steelers, they can choose sides. But it’s all love on both sides.”

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