ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP)Jimmye Laycock’s first thought during those initial chilling moments went to Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety who collapsed on the field in Cincinnati last week.
The former William & Mary coach’s second thought, upon seeing teary-eyed players’ reactions, then turned to Sean McDermott, the Bills coach and his former player. If anyone was capable of navigating a team through the rough, emotional waters, Laycock knew it was McDermott.
”You knew how serious everything was. And that’s where in a situation like that a true leader is needed. And Sean certainly is a true leader,” Laycock said by phone this week. ”They were very, very lucky they had a head coach in Sean McDermott.”
Some 10 days later, with Hamlin now home after being discharged from a Buffalo hospital and the Bills refocused and uplifted following an emotionally draining week, Laycock’s assessment is proving true.
Though many – starting with emergency personnel and nurses and doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center – played key roles in Hamlin’s remarkable recovery, McDermott is drawing praise for the vulnerability, poise and compassion he displayed while keeping his team together.
”He showed that compassion, but he still showed that he was in charge,” Laycock said. ”And I think that’s the thing: Some people will just give in, and he won’t give in to it.”
And those are the qualities he saw when McDermott first arrived at William & Mary as a walk-on safety from the Philadelphia suburbs, who eventually was voted a team captain and broke down in tears in Laycock’s office when informed he had earned a full scholarship.
”That’s why I wanted to keep him around as a coach,” Laycock said, laughing at how McDermott’s tenure as his assistant lasted only one year before he was hired by his hometown Eagles in 1999. ”I am just so proud of him as a coach, and I’m more proud of him as a person.”
In his sixth season in Buffalo, the 48-year-old McDermott already had cemented his tenure by helping transform a perennial loser in the midst of a 17-season playoff drought to a contender that has now qualified for the postseason five times.
What stands out this year is McDermott’s ability to lead the Bills through a season filled with disruption and pain.
Buffalo (13-3) tied a single-season franchise record for victories despite two major snowstorms altering its practice and travel schedule, including playing a ”home” game in Detroit in November. Injuries to key players – Von Miller, for one – have thinned the roster. And before the season began, the Bills mourned the sudden death of tight end Dawson Knox’s younger brother, Luke.
Hamlin’s heart stopping before being resuscitated was the most personal of all.
McDermott took immediate action by settling his players in the locker room, where they decided not to resume playing. His compassion was evident during an on-field meeting with Bengals coach Zac Taylor, when McDermott told him: ”I need to be at the hospital for Damar, and I shouldn’t be coaching this game.”
Upon returning home to Buffalo, McDermott spent much of the first two days splitting his focus between Hamlin and his team’s mental health, with little regard to having to play New England the following weekend. He did so while, as NFL vice president Troy Vincent said, McDermott battled his own emotions.
When it came time to address the media for the first time three days after Hamlin collapsed, McDermott projected a balance of vulnerability and strength.
He grew emotional, pausing for nearly 10 seconds when discussing the outpouring of support for Hamlin.
”Damar’s mama’s going to share with him when he wakes up,” McDermott began before lowering his head. Sniffling back tears, he continued: ”It’s amazing to me to know the impact that this has had on so many people.”
McDermott didn’t flinch when asked about the importance of mental health, saying seeking counsel ”is not a sign of weakness, if anything that’s a sign of strength.”
And he even managed a laugh when a reporter’s cellphone went off, with the ring tone playing Paul Simon’s bouncy hit ”You Can Call Me Al.”
”At least it was a happy song,” a smiling McDermott said in a moment that cut the tension.
Bills players say McDermott was no different behind the scenes.
”His humanity,” center Mitch Morse said.
”I think the coolest thing about this is, more than anything, his vulnerability has been huge for us. This sport at times can be such a macho, tough-guy thing. And I think when you look at this team room, no one had any macho left to give,” Morse added. ”He gave us the opportunity to just let our guard down.”
Safety Micah Hyde has watched McDermott evolve by learning how to lead and care for players, rather than simply coach them X’s and O’s.
A turning point for Hyde came during the COVID-19 pandemic seasons, which had the potential to drive the team apart because of players’ varying opinions. McDermott was able to strike a balance without taking sides so as not to alienate anyone.
”I think that he was battle-tested, and I think he really showed everybody who he is: That’s Sean McDermott,” Hyde said. ”And it didn’t surprise any of us because he’s been showing that to us over the last couple of years. So it’s remarkable that the whole world can see what type of person he is.”
Tim McDermott isn’t surprised by how his younger brother rose to the occasion. This is, after all, how their parents raised them.
Rich, an educator and football coach, and Avis McDermott, an analyst for an insurance and financial firm, made indelible impressions by working countless hours a week, leaving little time for vacations, which were instead devoted to taking their sons to football and wrestling camps.
”We saw early on in our lives what it looks like to put others first, in this case, putting their kids first,” said Tim McDermott, president of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. ”We saw this sense of drive, hard work, resilience, perseverance of getting knocked down, keep going, get knocked down and keep going.”
And this is what was reflected in how his younger brother carried himself in a time of crisis.
”I’m very proud of him in the way he’s gone through this, led through this and stayed consistent to who he is,” Tim McDermott said. ”And I think he’d probably say he didn’t do anything that anybody else would’ve done.”
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