CINCINNATI — As the medics worked a few feet away from an ambulance — and players kneeled, cried and waited along with everyone else inside Paycor Stadium — Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd just wanted to get closer.
The medical staff performed chest compressions to revive Hamlin, whose heart stopped after a cardiac arrest. For Boyd, this wasn’t just another player. He considered Hamlin a brother.
Boyd kept fighting to get closer as the medical staff worked on Hamlin and Bills players stood near. As Bengals coach Zac Taylor watched Boyd’s efforts to get near Hamlin, he sensed a deeper connection.
“TB, [do] you know him?” Taylor said.
“Yeah, that’s my guy,” Boyd said.
Over the last 10 years, Hamlin has gone from admiring Boyd from afar as one of the best players in greater Pittsburgh, to following in his college footsteps to Pitt, to being drafted to the NFL. During that process, their relationship evolved from a mentorship to friendship.
That sense of brotherhood between Boyd and Hamlin has extended off the field and helped cultivate relationships with other members of the Bengals, including Higgins. Hamlin was part of a group that included Boyd, Higgins and Cincinnati receiver Ja’Marr Chase that went to Mexico’s Cabo San Lucas in July.
What happened to Hamlin on that night in January was never discussed during the trip. Instead, Hamlin enjoyed camaraderie with the group and one of the people closest to him.
“The same reason I hang with him, they hang with him,” Hamlin said of Boyd. “I don’t call a lot of people my big brother. I don’t call nobody my big brother. That’s somebody I really consider a big brother.”
THE FIRST TIME Damar Hamlin saw Tyler Boyd was when Boyd was on the football field.
When Hamlin was a freshman at Central Catholic in Pittsburgh, he saw his hometown Sto-Rox High School square off against Boyd and Clairton High in a regional playoff game.
“He was the person to watch,” Hamlin recently told ESPN. “He was the first one really setting the example in the city for my generation coming up. So, throughout little league you heard about Tyler Boyd.”
Boyd, 28, is three years older than Hamlin and had already left Pitt for the NFL by the time Hamlin decided to play there. But when Hamlin signed with the Panthers, he said he wanted to soak up any knowledge he could as he transitioned from top Pennsylvania prospect to NFL hopeful.
“Damar will pick your brain to get better — ‘What do I have to do? What can I do?” said Chris LaSala, an associate athletic director at Pitt who has been with the program for 27 years. “And Tyler was an unbelievable guy for us here at Pitt.”
Boyd was receptive to sharing tricks of the trade, especially with a hometown guy. Clairton is located 20 miles southeast of McKees Rocks, where Hamlin is from. Beyond Hamlin’s football ability and willingness to get better, Boyd appreciated the way Hamlin carried himself.
“Loyalty is one of the biggest things for me when I view a person and figure out how they are and just go about that way,” Boyd said to ESPN last month. “And he handled business the right way, man.”
K.K. Mosley-Smith, one of Boyd’s closest friends who grew up on the east side of Pittsburgh, said once someone has earned Boyd’s trust and a bond is formed, that feeling is reciprocated.
“His [sense of] brotherhood is tremendous,” Mosley-Smith said. “He’s the anchor to a lot of things. He’s the anchor to a lot of people.”
AFTER A RECORD-BREAKING career at Pitt, the Bengals selected Boyd in the second round of the 2016 draft. Despite his status as a pro, he made it a point to maintain ties to his hometown.
With the exception of his rookie year and the COVID-19 pandemic, he has hosted a free football camp for kids in greater Pittsburgh. Hamlin has been a regular volunteer, helping out with drills and even bringing along his younger brother, Damir, before he was old enough to participate.
Boyd would also come back to Pitt and mentor Damar and the younger players on the team.
“TB was always coming back, explaining how the (NFL) works,” Mosley-Smith said. “Just telling him what it takes to get there and just being a big brother. And it just created a bond between the two.”
That relationship deepened during the pandemic, Hamlin said.
“We spent our whole entire COVID session together,” he told ESPN. “Working out every day together. Having fun together. From there, we just kind of stayed around each other. We spent a lot of time together in the offseason.”
That has remained consistent even after Hamlin’s cardiac arrest raised his profile. Boyd was with Hamlin when they celebrated Damir’s eighth birthday earlier this year. When Boyd and Hamlin each had overlapping football camps this summer, they still fulfilled their obligations to each other and participated in the other’s.
“Even though they both had so much going on that weekend and their own events, they still made the time to be present for each other’s events,” said Boyd’s mother, Tonya Payne, who organizes and coordinates his annual camp.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN Boyd and Hamlin has created new and stronger ties to a couple of Boyd’s teammates.
In 2022, Tee Higgins traveled to Pittsburgh to volunteer at Boyd’s camp. It was the first time one of his Bengals teammates had participated. It was also the first time Hamlin and Higgins met.
The two players had a cursory relationship previously. Both had a familiarity with each other from their college days, with Higgins’ Clemson and Hamlin’s Pitt playing against each other in the ACC. After Boyd’s one-day camp ended, Hamlin, Higgins and Boyd all hung out.
“When I met him, he was a cool guy,” Higgins said in January. “You know, big smile, ‘What’s up bro? How you doing?'”
Payne said the images of Boyd, Higgins and Hamlin with the participants created memories the kids would never forget.
“Just being able to see them give kids a memory that’s gonna last a lifetime for them,” Payne said. “Because it’s like, ‘I’m not just with one NFL star, I’m with three.'”
Higgins’ memories with Hamlin in the summer of ’22 came back to him after his collision with Hamlin in January. Higgins said the play didn’t involve a random opponent but someone he actually knew.
As Higgins grappled with his role in the play, Hamlin’s mother, Nina, reached out to Higgins and let him know it wasn’t his fault.
“Just telling me that she’s thinking of me, praying for me and things like that,” Higgins said days after the incident. “Telling me that he’s OK.”
Higgins and Hamlin have stayed in touch, checking on each other or responding to something funny on Instagram one might have posted. And even though months have passed and Hamlin is back playing for the Bills, the recovery he has made wasn’t lost on Higgins.
“Things like that, what happened to him, doesn’t usually happen, you know what I’m saying?” Higgins recently said in a hushed tone. “It’s a miracle what happened.”
JA’MARR CHASE WAS training in Austin, Texas, ahead of the upcoming season when Boyd reached out. It was about a trip to Cabo, a final getaway before the Bengals reported to Cincinnati for training camp.
Chase and Higgins were unaware the trip would include Hamlin. Mosley-Smith and a couple of others came, too. Boyd was the common bond that connected everyone.
The group enjoyed four-wheeling, boating and a barbeque dinner among other bonding activities during their time together. Everyone agreed there was no need to bring up the moment that would also tie them together forever.
“That was my first time hanging with him,” Chase said. “We were happy to see him playing football again and, you know, being the same person he’s back to now.”
A lot has happened since that night nine months ago. Boyd and the Bengals eliminated the Bills in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. That was also the first game Hamlin attended since his injury. This season, Hamlin has played in one game and has been a healthy scratch in the team’s other seven contests as he continues to be a depth player for Buffalo’s defense.
While Boyd has made it a point not to bring up that harrowing night, he knows Sunday’s game will bring those memories back to the forefront.
“It’s going to be very inspirational,” Boyd said. “We’re playing exactly where we left [off]. We’re playing at home. I know the fans are going to cheer for him.
“It’s going to be a greater feeling just being able to compete against him in a full game. That’s what we wanted. We always talked about that.”
Buffalo Bills reporter Alaina Getzenberg contributed to this story.