BUFFALO, N.Y. (BP) — Faith and prayer are more prevalent in the NFL than the casual observer may think, Buffalo Bills team chaplain Len Vanden Bos told Baptist Press. But since the moments after Damar Hamlin fell to the turf in Cincinnati Jan. 2, Vanden Bos has witnessed a unifying desire for prayer among both players and fans.
“It’s been a very emotional week,” Vanden Bos said Jan. 10. “We’ve had a challenging year with a lot of adversity, but our team has overcome it.”
Hamlin collapsed from cardiac arrest after a routine tackle in the first quarter and was taken to a local hospital. He has since shown remarkable progress and was able to watch the Bills’ 35-23 win over the Patriots Sunday from his room. Hamlin was released to a Buffalo hospital on Jan. 9.
The game was postponed, then officially canceled days later.
“When Damar went down a lot of us began to pray right away,” Vanden Bos said. “We have a strong core of players and coaches who are followers of Jesus, so that was our immediate reaction.”
Vanden Bos stood about 20 yards from Hamlin when the play occurred and was soon out on the field with others. People grabbed a hand next to them.
“Some guys were praying. Some were crying. A lot of us were in disbelief,” he said. “We prayed on the field. We prayed in the locker room. We prayed when we got to the hospital.”
Those prayers have a multifaceted effect on all involved, he said.
“God invites us to pray by listening to Him as well as sharing our hearts and requests,” Vanden Bos said. “Prayer’s purpose is to build this relationship and to align us with His will. It’s in this alignment that we grow and learn how to follow Him.”
Vanden Bos coached football at several schools, including Western Michigan, Rice and Western Kentucky, before entering the ministry and serving at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago for 23 years. He was the Bears’ chaplain from 2013-14 before arriving in Buffalo in 2017.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who had recently been hired, joined team owners Terry and Kim Pegula in the desire to add a full-time team chaplain, said Vanden Bos.
When McDermott and Bengals head coach Zac Clay directed their teams off the field Jan. 2, the need for prayer followed into the locker room.
“Guys were all over the place as far as their emotions. So, myself and other coaches and players prayed with them to help them handle it,” Vanden Bos said.
Teams take different approaches to the need or availability of a chaplain. Vinny Rey, the Bengals’ chaplain, joined Vanden Bos on the field as Hamlin lay injured.
“He’s a great guy,” said Vanden Bos. “We met again near our locker room before going to the hospital and prayed again.”
Vanden Bos spent a couple of hours at the hospital before rejoining the team to fly back to Buffalo later that night.
Hamlin is popular in the locker room and someone Vanden Bos has gotten to know well.
“He’s a very generous person and hard worker. Great smile, infectious personality, very funny. He puts the team first so he’s a Buffalo Bill through and through,” he said.
Since the injury, donations to the Christmas Toy Drive Hamlin sponsors have surpassed $8 million.
There has been an openness to prayer among players since leaving Cincinnati. Vanden Bos has encouraged them through Hebrews 4:16 – “Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.”
“We had a full team prayer that first day I shared that with them,” he said. “It’s been an opportunity to reach some guys who might not normally come to Bible study or chapel.”
A new addition was made to the weekly Bible study last week when some players decided to gather each morning to pray.
The prayer movement spread from the team to fans to media as Hamlin’s injury and recovery dominated sports talk. Vander Bos called ESPN personality Dan Orlovsky’s on-air prayer “amazing, appropriate and bold.”
Much was at stake in Sunday’s game against New England. Due to the Cincinnati game’s cancellation, league officials ruled the AFC championship match would be held at a neutral site should it be Kansas City against Buffalo. The Patriots were playing to make the playoffs at all.
On Sunday, medical personnel and athletic trainers were honored alongside first responders for their roles in saving Hamlin’s life. Hamlin’s jersey number, 3, was seen throughout a packed Highmark Stadium. It was also on a 3 Realities card Vanden Bos gave players prior to the game.
- God is with us. (Psalm 23:4)
- Time is limited for each of us. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2)
- Jesus brings us the victory over death. (1 Corinthians 15:57)
“There was a lot of emotion because of the good reports we had gotten (on Hamlin’s recovery). Our hearts were already lifted up,” Vanden Bos said.
Then, the Bills’ Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
“People were yelling and screaming,” said Vanden Bos, who was in his usual spot on the sidelines. “We were thinking, ‘Wow, did that just happen?’”
After the game, Vanden Bos and Patriots team chaplain Jua Robinson joined players for the midfield prayer.
“The Patriots have a good core of believers on the team, and we have a strong brotherhood with them,” Vanden Bos said. “We’re rivals, for sure. But after the game a lot of guys were filled with gratitude for what we had seen God do in Damar’s life.
“One of the things I’ve learned in my time with the Bills and Bears is there are so many good guys in the league, so many strong Christians on every team. At that 50-yard line you get to see them living it out and trying to grow.
“You realize they’re people just trying to figure it out and do their best like everyone else, except they have a spotlight on them. It was a long and emotional week, but we are so grateful for God’s mercy on Damar.”