Big Love for Damar

A nation shows concern after a ghastly injury

McKEES ROCKS, Pa. — Uneven cobblestone roads weave their way through a town just off the western edge of Pittsburgh. Those old streets reveal dilapidated houses, some covered in leafless vines, boarded-up storefronts and brick facades struggling to bring back the excitement of yesteryear.

A block off the main road, a brightly colored sign decorated with a painting of balloons sits behind a chain-link fence. “Kelly and Nina’s: ‘Where the place is small, but the love is big,’” it reads. Below it sits a caution sign for children at play, while a rusting slide lies in the background.

McKees Rocks is a small borough outside of the Steel City with a population just under 6,000. Its footprint has never been wide-reaching.

Late on Jan. 2, though, eyes and hearts around the world were drawn to a young man from that small community on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. What pulled them? A desire to do something about a tragic scene they had all witnessed.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old native of McKees Rocks, went into cardiac arrest on the field during Buffalo’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, laying flat out after he made what seemed like a routine tackle.

As the minutes ticked by, the motionless Hamlin received CPR, as agonized Bills and Bengals players cried and prayed. Hamlin then was rushed to a nearby hospital, spending days in critical condition before being transported to a Buffalo hospital. He was discharged a little more than a week after his injury and appeared at the Bills’ playoff game this past Sunday – a season-ending loss to Cincinnati, but a signal of his continued recovery.

Yet ever since Hamlin lay unconscious in the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, people from around the NFL, the country and the world were doing what they could to make the situation better, seeking out his charitable foundation, called Chasing M’s, and its GoFundMe — a campaign Hamlin started in 2020 to buy toys for kids impacted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic.

Chasing M’s is run through Kelly and Nina’s Daycare in McKees Rocks, a service opened nearly 15 years ago by Kelly Griffin and Nina Hamlin, Damar’s mother.

A sign for Kelly Nina's Daycare hangs on a fence on Jan. 22, 2023 in McKees Rocks, Pa. In Dec. 2020, Damar Hamlin created a GoFundMe sponsored by his charity, the Chasing M's Foundation, to raise awareness and funds for the children of McKees Rocks. All proceeds from the fundraiser would benefit the daycare. (Photo/Alysa Rubin)

Less than 24 hours after Damar was injured, the GoFundMe he started climbed to $6 million. It hasn’t stopped.

The love that’s been shown to Hamlin and his humble roots is certainly big. It’s now $9 million big — and still counting. More than 247,000 donations have been registered as of Monday night.

“Honestly, we didn’t even realize that was going on at first. We were too busy worrying about his health,” Griffin said in an interview. “I don’t even think I found out until a week later because he did start his foundation when he was still only in college.

“But he didn’t get a response from it, so he just started (buying toys) on his own.”

A wave of charity

In the wake of Hamlin’s collapse, all kinds of people have chipped in to help his charity.

Large gifts rolled in from prominent names around the NFL soon after the postponement of the Bills-Bengals game in which Hamlin was hurt. Among them, donations from Colts owner Jim Irsay, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and even former Houston Texans and Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien. One of the first, New Orleans Saints quarterback Andy Dalton, was returning the multitude of donations Bills fans sent to his foundation years ago when he led his former Bengals team to win a game that indirectly allowed Buffalo into the playoffs.

“This is something completely different. This is a tragedy that something happened. One way to show our support is we wanted to give back in the way that we can,” Dalton said in a news conference on Jan. 4. “I think the outpouring of support, from really the entire country, shows that this is so much bigger than the game of football — and the impact that football can have on so many different communities, so many different lives.”

Closer to home, in Buffalo, Hamlin’s No. 3 was everywhere in the form of shirts, impromptu shrines, and now, a mural stretching across a large brick wall. Bills fans could walk through the grocery store and share a passing “Hope he pulls through” without actually knowing each other.

Lily Wozniak, a recent college graduate, lifelong Bills fan and Orchard Park, New York, native lived that reality and said “everyone was feeling that pain.” She works for Journey’s End Refugee Services in Buffalo full time, but on the side, she’s a 9U (under 9) softball coach for the USSSA NY Pride.

She sat in her apartment watching Hamlin’s collapse with her two roommates and a few friends, recalling that they immediately sensed the grave nature of the situation. It prompted a long discussion with her softball team about personal safety in the coming days.

“I remember all of us in the room just felt sick. It was just a really scary moment,” Wozniak said. “Especially (because the) Bills are part of our community. They’re so integrated into our community, so it was just really hard to see one of our players down and receiving CPR.”

Wozniak suggested doing a fundraiser for Chasing M’s during a meeting with her team’s parents. One parent ran with the idea, and soon after, they were selling squares — a simple betting game based on the score at the end of each quarter — for $33 each in conjunction with the Bills’ wild card round game against the Miami Dolphins.

Within days, Wozniak said, all 100 were sold. The $3,300 pot was distributed between winners of the pool, the NY Pride’s travel and equipment fund and, finally, $333 to Hamlin, in honor of his No. 3.

The girls on the team helped peddle the squares around school and found themselves scrimmaging in the Bills’ fieldhouse a few days after the fundraiser was finished. There, Wozniak revealed the amount given to Hamlin’s charity — much to their delight.

“We feel this level of connection where (the Bills) are almost like a part of our family. They’re always giving back to our own community,” Wozniak said. “And so us as Bills fans, we’re thinking ‘OK, they do so much for us, they lift our spirits, why don’t we do the same for them?’

“I think the girls really recognized the significance of that, and they were really excited to share a portion of our fundraiser to the foundation.”

Head coach Lily Wozniak poses with her 9U USSSA NY Pride softball team after a scrimmage at the Buffalo Bills' fieldhouse. The team made a $333 donation to Damar Hamlin's Chasing M's foundation. ~ Provided photo

In Horn Lake, Mississippi, 55-year-old Bill Marchese sat in his 1,800-square-foot Bullfrog Corner Liquors store, which he said sells 4,000 to 5,000 bottles of liquor and wine each month. He was alone, watching the Bills-Bengals game on a 40-inch smart TV.

Though he lives halfway across the country these days, Marchese was born in Buffalo and raised a Bills fan. He knew he needed to do something.

With a background in the restaurant business, his first thought was to send food to Buffalo, but he figured the home of the Buffalo wing probably had enough food already.

Instead, he grabbed a small, orange bucket and printed out Hamlin’s face with a message asking customers for donations and to “pray for Damar Hamlin.” He placed it on the counter next to his register.

Marchese made his first $33 donation recently and plans to send more of equal amounts in the near future.

In his Bullfrog Corner Liquors store in Horn Lake, Miss., Bill Marchese put out a bucket asking for donations in honor of Hamlin. He's made one $33 donation and plans to make more in the future. ~ provided photo

“As I get older, I’m always moved to do something,” Marchese said. “And obviously the connection to Buffalo and being a Bills fan and the stuff that we’ve been through the last year with everything, I wanted to do something. It was an emotional thing.”

Close to home, far from Buffalo

Joe Johnson has been making T-shirts since 2015. A northwestern Indiana native and diehard Chicago sports fan, especially when it comes to the Chicago Cubs, he started making shirts to show support for players whose “jersey you couldn’t even buy in stores yet.”

In other words, he has a passion for showing off what people are passionate about — he likes to call T-shirts a “12-hour tattoo.”

At Obvious Shirts, his best-selling items are short and to-the-point Cubs gear, though his brand encompasses all Chicago sports and has stretched nationally on occasion with witty slogans and inside jokes for specific fan bases.

Johnson was on the couch at home, flipping between the Bills-Bengals game and the Chicago Bulls game on Jan. 2, with his focus toward basketball. He first learned of Hamlin’s collapse via Twitter.

“I freaked out,” Johnson said.

Though he wasn’t immediately sure of it, Johnson suspected a cardiac-related injury for Hamlin, which struck a chord that dated back to Johnson’s own childhood.

He was diagnosed with Kawasaki Syndrome at both 3 and 5 years old — a disease that affects fewer than 20,000 people in the U.S. per year. It’s a rare condition that causes inflammation of arteries and can create problems for the heart’s blood flow. It kept Johnson from playing contact sports until he was in eighth grade.

“I realized I had a trigger for any type of heart-related condition,” Johnson said. “If I was watching a show and somebody was about to have a heart attack, I’d have to flip the channel.”

“This just resonated with me so deep. I decided right then and there that — even if it’s not heart related, it’s still affecting me — I wanted to help.”

Johnson said he was “glued” to social media until 2 a.m. the night of Hamlin’s injury, and he pushed to use his Obvious Shirts platform for a T-shirt drive the next day. After sorting through 40-50 design ideas for the shirt, he settled on “DAMAR” written inside the outline of a buffalo with the No. 3 inside a small heart on the sleeve.

More than 1,000 shirts were sold, according to Johnson, to make for roughly $35,000 in sales. After production and shipping costs, Johnson donated the entirety of the remaining revenue to the Chasing M’s GoFundMe.

He nearly didn’t make a shirt because he wasn’t sure he’d find much of an audience, considering he’s got a Chicago-based brand. In the end, though, he wound up with a nearly $16,000 donation.

“It struck the same nerve with many people as well, not just me,” Johnson said. “People came together and rallied to support this guy who was fighting for his life.”

Joe Johnson poses with one of his shirts in his OBVIOUS SHIRTS store. After witnessing Damar Hamlin's collapse, he made a T-shirt in Hamlin's honor, selling over 1,000 shirts and making a nearly $16,000 donation. ~ provided photo

A somewhat similar chain of events happened even farther from Buffalo – in Watertown, South Dakota.

Brittany Petrik, the owner of Roseabella Boutique, was watching the game with her family at home. They’re football fans, but they have no connection to the Bills or Bengals, simply an interest in what was supposed to be a close matchup.

As Hamlin went down and Petrik learned more about his charity efforts, she felt moved by his reputation of giving back even after hitting it big. Though she labeled herself as “small potatoes” compared to Hamlin, she runs a charity of the month at Roseabella and decided to sell sweatshirts in the immediate aftermath of the injury, with all proceeds going to Chasing M’s.

She raised $300.

“I just wanted to draw more awareness locally, and I think a lot of people in our local community were identifying with it and really connecting with the impact that he’s had,” Petrik said. “I just wanted to join in on that effort.”

Roseabella Boutique owner Brittany Petrik stands in front of her storefront in Watertown, S.D. Inspired by Hamlin's reputation of giving back, she donated proceeds from sweatshirt sales in Hamlin's honor. She raised $300. ~ provided photo

What’s next?

With a meteoric rise in donations and attention toward Hamlin’s foundation, what was once a small charity has blown way past any conceivable expectations.

CharityWatch, a not-for-profit that monitors philanthropies, warned on its website

that Chasing M’s — which is a legally registered nonprofit corporation in Pennsylvania — could be overwhelmed. However, it also said that Chasing M’s had enlisted a larger nonprofit to help it negotiate its current windfall.

Eventually, the torrent of donations has to slow down. But for now, the Chasing M’s Foundation has become a nationwide outlet for good deeds from people who couldn’t stand to watch what happened to Hamlin.

The small, $2,500 charity initially started by a young man defending passes at the University of Pittsburgh has now taken an unmistakable hold on history in the NFL and the nation as a whole.

With just a quick scroll through the GoFundMe’s list of donations, one can see the impact reach to individuals with unknown backgrounds, major corporations, sports franchises and many a cleverly named fantasy football league.

And with every refresh of the page, the big number at the top — representative of the love for Damar — keeps getting bigger.

“He’s getting back what he gave,” Griffin said. “I’m not even sure (what $9 million means). There’s millions of kids, and there’s still years to come.”

If there’s one thing Griffin knows for sure, it’s that whatever Hamlin does for young people in the future, it “doesn’t have to come out of his own pocket. It’s there.”

~ 01.23.2023

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