CINCINNATI — Cincinnati team chaplain Vinny Rey played in the NFL for the Bengals for nine seasons. He witnessed his share of frightening moments on the field as anyone with 133 career games played would.
He saw Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier lying motionless after a play in 2017. He’s been left on the ground after a helmet-to-helmet hit and exited games on a cart while his wife watched anxiously.
Nobody experienced anything like what players witnessed Monday night at Paycor Stadium with the cardiac arrest of Bills safety Damar Hamlin and the immediate aftermath.
But as the horrifying minutes shifted to contemplative days, Rey felt he knew what mattered most because he remembered what his chaplains, Karen and LaMorris Crawford, provided for him in times of uncertainty.
“One of the best things they did was just be there,” Rey said. “This league is all about producing and what you can do. It was good for me to have a chaplain who was like an oasis. I’m not being judged.”
In the wake of a night that Joe Burrow and others admit will change their perspective on the game forever, addressing the mental health of these players took center stage in Cincinnati this week.
Technically, that meant addressing available resources through NFLPA player representatives like executive board member Mike Thomas and activating training discussed in offseason sessions.
But in practice, it was much more basic. It was about what Rey learned as a player and where healing begins.
“It was not a protocol, it was more, ‘I will be around here so you guys can see me,’” the 35-year-old Rey said. “I’m going to give you a hug, man, to know I care about you. However you feel about it, to speak or not speak, or if you want to move on or feel like you can’t move on, everything you say is valid because I’m a person and I care about you.”
The world has changed. Thus, the world around NFL tragedy has changed. It created an environment better prepared to handle unprecedented events.
This week in the Bengals locker room a once-upon-a-time-taboo topic like stress on the mental and emotional well-being of players earned time, attention, resources and prioritization.
Damar Hamlin’s progress lifts Bengals locker room as levity mixes with love
Looking back at a week on the emotional brink, the end result was just what Rey always coveted: an oasis.
“You give a space to say, ‘Don’t hold that in,’” Thomas said. “Talk about what you saw, talk about how you feel, ask the question … It’s OK to show emotion. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to say how you are feeling.”
Bengals clinician Dr. Peter Ganshirt, director of player relations Eric Ball, strength and conditioning director Joey Boese, security director Mark Herren and Rey take a day prior to the season as a core group built to be deployed in case of serious situations that could affect players and talk through made-up examples.
It could involve off-field matters, family issues or something traumatic that unfolds between the lines. They are charged to envision versions of any and all possibilities.
Who would you reach out to? What would your approach be? What resources are available? What are best practices to help?
Nobody could quite imagine the terror of what happened Monday night, but there was still a preparedness in training of principles and philosophies.
Catch it on the @NFLLegends podcast👇
🎙️: https://t.co/wNXkcFNxoA | https://t.co/lImCZM9nY8 pic.twitter.com/vl1WEbOiZb
— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) March 26, 2021
That started in the aftermath, but a transition needed to occur fast to messaging and information.
A central voice added to the mix was Thomas, a nine-year veteran and vice president on the NFLPA executive board. The 31-year-old was familiar with the structuring of mental health services in the past. Thomas had multiple calls on his phone from the NFLPA when he stepped foot in the locker room prior to the game being postponed. That spanned from information about the ongoings that night to how to assist reeling players as soon as possible.
“I love the fact that even after everything happened, we were given the resources, the whole league was, but especially the Bills and Bengals given all the resources we need to process everything moving forward,” Thomas said. “It’s just, it’s still moving parts. Trying to figure out everything. There’s no manual.”
As Bills process trauma, team’s mental health takes priority
Rey is not an integrated chaplain like some around the league, meaning he doesn’t travel with the team or hang out on the sideline during games. He’s typically around once or twice a week. After Monday, he’s been asked to be around every day. The same has been true for Ball and Dr. Ganshirt. The NFL made more trained professionals available also, along with the NFLPA-organized Zoom player calls. There was one for all NFL players, along with an individual call just for those associated with the Bengals. The Bills had one as well.
“It was almost like open mic, open session,” Thomas said. “Ask any question you want. If we can answer it, great. If we can’t answer it directly because we know the questions you want answered, we will give you as much information as we can. Your families are included on it as well.”
Rey also leaned into the family aspect of the event. His wife, Noel, spent years watching nervously when injuries would leave him slow to get up on the turf or close friends enduring the same anxiety.
“It’s great, it’s entertaining for y’all, but it’s crazy for me to watch.”
One suite at Lincoln Financial Field. Lots of anxiety.@Bo_Wulf spent an Eagles game day with Carlyne Graham, wife of DE Brandon Graham.https://t.co/I3RwPn4BDg
— The Athletic NFL (@TheAthleticNFL) January 7, 2023
Nearly every wife and mother, sister and brother received messages after watching in horror what happened to Hamlin.
That could be your loved one.
Noel was around a number of Bengals players’ wives and significant others during the game.
“That was a benefit. She watched me nine years. I’ve had some serious things happen,” Rey said. “She was uniquely able to identify with the family in that way.”
That’s proven an under-discussed aspect of the process. This is not just about making the player OK with what they signed up for. They have a sense of control. The families are helpless to do anything but watch and pray. Making the entire support structure feel heard needed to be and was addressed.
“The families can ask questions,” Thomas said. “We know it is scary, it’s unique. The fact we have been pouring in those resources and guys feel like, ‘Nah, we aren’t just getting right back to football until we can address what happened.’ That’s awesome to see.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was a 35-year-old defensive backs coach at Marshall University. The Staten Island, N.Y., native kicked around five college coaching jobs at this point when tragedy struck with the attacks on the World Trade Center within sight of his hometown.
He recounted that day with his team this week as everyone shared stories of fear and perception of everything they thought they knew in the world changing around them.
This space didn’t as much exist then. The instant understanding to check in with everyone wasn’t the norm. Concepts like opening up a meeting with a collection of men to first talk about their feelings before moving forward would have drawn laughs and exits.
“Twenty-one years ago, it was even different back then and how people had to deal with that,” said Anarumo, adding how impressed he was with the number of resources available to players and coaches this week. “We talked about it as a defensive group (Tuesday). To give guys a chance to say, ‘Hey if someone’s got something to say, feeling a certain way, make sure everybody is OK.’ That’s what’s most important first and then we move on to football from there.”
Thomas specifically recalled Anarumo’s story about 9/11, but recognized that was far from the only emotional sentiment. That included even a feeling of guilt from some that felt in the moment they should keep playing football before realizing later just how serious the situation was for Hamlin.
The conflict in every direction was visceral.
“Guys were able to express how they felt,” Thomas said.
Hamlin could be anyone. It could have been Thomas, husband and father of three. It could have been Ted Karras, 26, the latest in a long line of Karras football players, but also a husband, son and vivacious fan favorite.
“It brought out a lot of leadership and brotherhood and prayer,” Karras said. “Contemplation, deep thinking. I felt very, very deflated after that.”
He said the news of Hamlin’s positive turn and being together with a group of men going through the same emotions helped rejuvenate him.
“It’s amazing,” Karras said. “I feel like 1,000 pounds are lifted off of me with that.”
Head coach Zac Taylor, in particular, took heart with a message Rey was speaking about and asked him to disseminate it to the team as the week evolved.
“There’s a difference in moving on and moving forward,” Rey said of what he shared. “Moving forward is allowing everyone to have a chance to share how they feel, how they felt and have an open space.”
Dehner Jr.: Zac Taylor shows nation humanity Bengals have long valued, admired
That was chief among the first messages of the week. First conversations. It set the tone and opened the door if anyone felt the need to walk through it.
“Eric Ball and Vinny Rey do a really good job of communicating with the players on the resources that are available to them,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “I know the NFL has pushed really hard to make it OK to seek help. And I think that’s a new thing in our sports world these days. It’s something that’s encouraged and available. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. I think it’s a really positive thing for all athletes, football in particular.”
Just days earlier the Bengals captains, led by Burrow, chose to let the Bills captains know how they felt about not playing the game in the moments after the ambulance left with Hamlin on Monday. They walked down the tunnel to meet up with Bills’ leaders, and assured them it was OK to not want to play. It ended in an amazing scene of consoling hugs between the two teams outside those doors.
“I’m proud of that,” said Thomas, one of seven captains. “I’ve never been a part of anything like that, seen anything like that or heard of anything like that. It was special.”
The takeaway lesson of the poignant moment was players needed to keep an eye out for each other. Monday marked 159 days since this team first reported for training camp. They’ve spent nearly every one of those days together with this team in some capacity. They know each other.
The high alert was out for coaches and players alike to keep tabs on teammates and then understand how to handle it.
“As coaches, you try to pay attention to see if something’s off, if they are a little bit off of who they normally are,” Callahan said. “We do spend a ton of time with these guys and you know when something is wrong with somebody, generally, not all the time. I think you just try to pay more attention to make sure you are not missing something. If you see somebody is having some issues or not sure how they feel about things, you do your best to direct them to somebody that can help or have a conversation with them yourself.”
By the time Thursday and Friday rolled around, the locker room looked and felt normal — not to mention intently focused on beating the Baltimore Ravens in a game suddenly holding increased stakes. Players played ping pong, cards and cornhole, like any other week. The chatter was loud and the hip-hop uptempo.
Thomas stood next to a whiteboard, recounting the goings-on of the week and his role in everything before his point shifted slightly.
“That was a routine tackle, you know what I mean?” he said. “Because that was a routine tackle.”
He backed up a step and paused, his hand over his mouth briefly, fighting back tears.
“I’m still processing,” he said.
The beautiful light in the darkness of tragedy has been the space provided to do so.
“I love this team,” Thomas said. “That’s why we are able to still be playing ping pong right now. We are able to still be playing cards and trying to get ready to play a game. We are playing for each other, being together with each other, that helps. I guarantee every guy is not just OK right now. I’m not OK and I know these other guys aren’t OK, but we are in this together and we are going to figure this out together. That helps.”
(Top photo: Scott Boehm / Associated Press)