ORCHARD PARK – Damar Hamlin would have easily, as he likes to say, “steered left or right” growing up in the remote town of McKees Rocks, northwest of Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.
The temptations were all around him, problems seemingly lurking around every corner in a district where guns, drugs and gangs were responsible for some of the highest crime rates per capita in the country.
Hamlin, a sixth round draft of the Buffalo Bills in 2021, lost three of his close friends to bullets, pointless deaths that police never solved. And in his own home, his father Mario – trying to make ends meet for his wife Nina and Damar – turned to drug sales. He was pounded, found guilty, and spent 3½ of Damar’s formative years in prison, leaving his wife and son on their own.
It was more adversity than a young man should face, but for all that, Hamlin struggled through the possible pitfalls because, as he says, his parents raised him to understand the difference between right and wrong.
“I would really give all of this credit to my parents, which is really the biggest difference I’ve seen in the lives of everyone around me,” Hamlin said the other day after training on One Bills Drive. “Just the fact that I have two parents in my life who are devoted to me and all drawn into me, every move from little to growing up.
“There were times when I could have turned left or right, but my parents were always there to fix me and get me back on track. I have to give them credit, it really had nothing to do with me. The only thing I had to do was just listen and that was the kind of kid I was. “
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Yes, that was the kind of kid he was and is. Despite his unwillingness to borrow, Hamlin is where he is today – with the chance to play in the NFL for the reigning AFC East champions – because he made the decision to rise above the turmoil that is coming surround him.
“Some of the stories you hear from these guys are like, ‘Man, this is tough; What a tough hand this player, this person got, ‘”said Bill’s general manager Brandon Beane. “But what an accomplishment for Damar to avoid things. He knows people who have died or whatever, but at the end of the day he is about football, he’s a good person and he becomes a good professional. “
When Mario Hamlin, a good man who made a bad decision, left, Damar knew exactly what to do. His mother already ran a daycare center, and Nina and Mario had just started an office cleaning company before Mario was arrested.
Damar wasn’t even in high school, but it was time to grow up and become a man. He went to school in the morning, worked out in the afternoon, took the bus to McKees Rock for a quick bite to eat, met his mother at daycare, and then took her to the office to clean.
“Wednesdays were always the longest days,” he says with a smile. “My mother worked at the daycare from six in the morning to six in the evening, and then we cleaned up our accounts by 10 or 12 noon, depending on the day. Just step on the plate, just be there for my mother, just try to make it easy for her. I had this work ethic in me that we say nothing can ever be too much. “
Despite being in jail, Mario remained a viable part of Damar’s life, and her phone calls fueled his pride in how his son juggled school, soccer, work, and was the man of the house, every day.
“It was tough, it was a real adjustment, I really had to grow up and figure out life for a little bit on my own without having a father figure in my life,” he said. “The good thing is that by that time I already had good goals and good morals. It was never out of my life, but physically it wasn’t there and that was different – it’s a different ball game to be played over the phone than in person. But only because I was who I was and what was already instilled in me did I stay focused. “
One way Mario and Nina tried to protect Damar from the day-to-day fighting at McKees Rocks was to get him out of the city’s public school and enroll him in Pittsburgh Central Catholic.
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Financial aid covered part of the cost, but the daycare and cleaning company had to pay the rest of the tuition and keep the food on Damar’s back and food on the table.
“I used to be so excited because I couldn’t hang out with my friends or do things on the weekends they were doing because I had real work and things to do,” he said. “I wanted to be a kid – go to school, go home, play the game – but I really didn’t have that time. But it built that hard work ethic, that extra work, that mentality. My mother knew what she was doing all the time, she just built it up in me. “
After a stellar career at Pittsburgh Catholic, where he was named Senior AAAA Defensive Player of the Year, Hamlin had dozens of scholarship opportunities, but he chose to stay home and visit Pittsburgh.
There he played 46 games and recorded 275 tackles, 6 interceptions, one fumble recovery and 21 pass breakups and became one of Pitt’s most accomplished special team players, the trait that more than anyone else led the Bills to call him up.
He has a tough road ahead of him as he tries to beat Josh Thomas for fourth safety spot behind Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Jaquan Johnson, but to date he has impressed the hierarchy.
“Damar did a great job,” said Beane. “He has to learn our scheme, it’s not exactly the same scheme as in Pittsburgh, which was a little easier than what we do. Having instincts can help you overcome your lack of knowledge in a system. Read, react, and just play football and that’s the thing he has. He’s a great boy, he wants it, he works hard and gives himself every chance to fit into the mix, even though he was picked in the sixth round.
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Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will have a huge say in who the Bills keep as a backup, and the last two preseason games will go a long way towards that determination.
“There are some ups and downs in some of the things he does, but there are a lot more positives than negatives,” said Frazier. “He’s still learning, still getting the feel of the pro game, and obviously Friday night (in Detroit) was his first chance to experience the speed of a game. I thought he was doing really well. So far we are satisfied with the progress he has made. We have to keep bringing him into different situations and see how he reacts. “
Hamlin is aware of the challenge, but like any challenge he has faced in his 23 years on this earth, he is ready to take it with full strength.
No one on either team played as many snaps as Hamlin against the Lions, a total of 63 with a team high of 49 on defense and 14 on special teams. He had two defensive tackles, including a sack, and also made a tackle while covering a punt.
“I feel like I played well, I got thrown in a lot of places and played a lot of ball,” he said. “I read my keys well, had no real mistakes and that was great for me as a rookie. I learn from everyone in front of me, I watch everyone in front of me, every move they make. I’m young and just a sponge right now, come here every day and try to win the day. “
Something he’s been doing for most of his life.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.
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