Free agency struck a blow to an already flimsy notion of ‘loyalty’ in professional sports between players and teams. On the one hand, it allows players greater freedom to reach the top of their market by easing access to the open market. On the other hand, it also allows teams to seek out the top available talent at the expense of those they already have.
This if anything, however, only served to create even stronger bonds among players collectively. They all understand that they can be on another team, even teammates, in the near future. And that could be by their choice or their team’s choice.
So when one player moves from one team to another, that doesn’t mean those loyalties die. Just ask Levi Wallace, who spent his first four seasons with the Buffalo Bills, including the 2021 season with a young Damar Hamlin as a sixth-round rookie, who nearly lost his life on the field earlier this month.
“It broke my heart that I couldn’t be out there with my teammates from old”, the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back admitted on the 33rd Team podcast recently, speaking about the Hamlin injury. “Just seeing the faces, I’d never seen these guys cry before. Just seeing that pain, that I couldn’t be there and support them in that, it kind of broke my heart”.
The incident nearly broke the hearts of many, of course, particularly the millions who watched it live. Hamlin suddenly collapsed after a midfield collision with Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. We later learned that his heart stopped on the field and he had to be resuscitated on the spot before being transferred to a nearby hospital.
Fears for his life persisted for a day or two, and while he is making remarkable progress after suffering lung damage, it is understood that he still has a long road ahead of him. And it can’t be taken for granted that he will play football again, though that remains the hope. The primary interest is now for the man.
“He’s just a great dude. He reminds me of myself when I came into the league”, Wallace said of Hamlin. “Just super passionate, always looking to learn the game. He was behind two All-Pros with [Jordan] Poyer and Michah [Hyde], not knowing if he would ever get on the field. And then Micah gets hurts this year and he’s had an exceptional year”.
Hamlin started 13 out of 15 games this season, his second year, registering 91 tackles, including six for loss, with a forced fumble, 1.5 sacks, and three quarterback hits across 846 snaps. He only played 50 defensive snaps as a rookie, but 125 on special teams, while Wallace was still there in 2021.
Wallace recorded his fourth and final interception of the season in week 18, just days after Hamlin’s frightening on-field injury. He told reporters after the afterward that that ball would be going right to his former teammate.