Skip to main content

'I just want him safe and sound': Browns CB Thomas Graham Jr. reflects on friendship with Damar Hamlin

Graham, who befriended Hamlin when they both played at the 2021 Senior Bowl, felt chills when he heard positive updates on Hamlin’s condition after he suffered a cardiac arrest Monday


Thomas Graham Jr. was in the car picking up his sister from the airport Monday night when he received a phone call from his father. He wanted to let him know that something was happening to his friend.

That friend was Damar Hamlin.

"Your boy from Pitt went down," Graham Sr. said.

"Oh," Graham Jr. said. "Is he OK?"

He wasn't sure what to make of his dad's response to his question: "I don't know."

Seconds after they hung up later, Graham Sr. called him again. He watched the replay of Hamlin collapsing to the turf after he stood up following a big hit to the chest from Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." He also heard commentator Joe Buck say on the broadcast that Hamlin was being administered CPR.

Graham Sr. relayed the news to him.

"CPR?" Graham Jr. said. "What… What happened?"

That was one of the questions everyone watching the game was thinking as concerns for Hamlin's health grew every minute he remained on the field. Hamlin left in an ambulance 23 minutes after he fell and needed to be resuscitated. He suffered a cardiac arrest due to the hit, and the game was postponed.

Graham, the Browns' second-year cornerback, met Hamlin when they both attended the Senior Bowl in 2021 and remained in touch ever since their NFL careers began. They texted about how their jobs were going and how their families were doing — their parents also met each other at the Senior Bowl — and always tapped the "like" button on each other's posts on social media. They chatted and took a picture together after the Browns' game against the Bills on Nov. 20, and they looked forward to the next time they'd be on the same field again.

Graham, like many others anxiously awaiting updates, struggled to sleep Monday night as he constantly refreshed the Bills' pages on Twitter and Instagram. He also sent Hamlin a text knowing his phone was likely flooded with messages from anyone who knew him.

"I went to bed around 2 o'clock (in the morning), but I was probably waking up every hour and a half thinking about it," he said. "I prayed three or four times to just give him strength. Just allow him to keep fighting, and let the doctors do what they do."

Graham's friendship with Hamlin blossomed from the memories they made together while playing in the Senior Bowl game. Hamlin snagged an interception, and Graham kept photos on his phone of them celebrating after the play.

He also admired Hamlin's story, which he learned after he asked Hamlin during Senior Bowl week why he chose to go to Pitt. Graham remembered Hamlin — a native of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb — enthusiastically explaining how he wanted to stay close to home. He wanted to be a role model for his younger brother, Damir, who's now 7 years old.

Graham met his family in Mobile, Alabama, that week and saw how excited Hamlin was for Damir to watch him play. He also told him about the Chasing M's Foundation, which he launched just days after his college career ended to support toy drives, back-to-school drives, kids camps and more in the Pittsburgh area.

"What do the 'M's' stand for?" Graham remembered asking him.

"Millions," Hamlin replied with a smile. Graham smiled back and nodded.

"I can rock with that."

Graham has supported Hamlin's foundation ever since the Senior Bowl weekend, and the foundation's name took on a new meaning in the days after Hamlin was critically injured.

The GoFundMe page he initially started two years ago with a goal of $2,500 for a toy drive has risen to $7.7 million as of Friday morning. Donations have constantly poured in from people around the world.

"It's amazing," Graham said. "When he first did it, he did it in college. He had posted a video of his toy giveaway for Christmas, and I was like, 'Man, we were just in college,' and he had already set that up. Part of the reason he had stayed home was to give his fellow Pittsburgh brothers and sisters a role model.

"It's good that people are able to see not just his mission, but allow that goal to actually come true and help him help others who don't have it."

The donations skyrocketed on Tuesday and Wednesday, which were somber days across the NFL as players and coaches grappled with the dark reminder Hamlin's incident brought to them about the sport: Everyone who plays it puts their life and long-term health on the line every play.

The Browns discussed Hamlin and their emotions about his condition in their first team meeting this week. For some players, the transition back into football activities wasn't easy — Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II told local reporters Wednesday that "it's definitely going to be tough to finish out this last game."

Graham acknowledged the difficulty in trying to focus on football while Hamlin's condition remained uncertain.

"You think about it, but at the same time, you can't speak that into existence or imagine that," he said. "Then you start to play timid, and that's when a lot of things can happen."

Graham's face lit up Thursday afternoon, however, when he heard the positive updates about Hamlin's health.

Hamlin's teammate, Kaiir Elam, posted Thursday morning on Twitter that Hamlin was awake, and doctors from University of Cincinnati Medical Center said in a press conference later in the day that he had been able to communicate with doctors and family in writing and has been making "substantial progress."

After hearing the news, Graham first thought about Hamlin's family.

"That right there just gave me chills," Graham said. "I'm just glad they're slowly gaining their son back, their superhero back. He's their world. He's expressed multiple times that his family is his world. He's their role model, and I'm glad they got their role model back."

Friday morning brought more positive updates. Hamlin was able to address the team on a FaceTime call and told his teammates "Love you boys," per a tweet from the Bills.

Graham plans to show his support for his friend by wearing a light blue tracksuit from the Chasing M's Foundation that Hamlin gave him to the Browns' game Sunday against the Steelers.

But as the days wind down to the game, Thomas is just happy to hear that his boy from Pitt is continuing to make steady progress.

"I think the best thing about him is that he's authentically him," Graham said. "He wants everybody around him to win.

"I just continue to hope that every little thing is all right. I don't care if he can play football or not again, I just want him safe and sound."