Ravens safety Geno Stone knows Damar Hamlin better than most, and is forever changed by what happened to him

Published 1/5/2023 3:59 p.m. EST, Updated 1/6/2023 8:16 a.m. EST

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - OCTOBER 09:  Joe Mixon #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals rushes against Geno Stone #26 of the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland.

On Tuesday morning, with the jarring images from the night before still firmly in his mind, Ravens reserve safety Geno Stone didn’t raise his hand in a team meeting room when someone asked if anyone personally knew the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin.

“I didn’t really want to talk about it,” the typically affable Stone said in the Ravens locker room on Wednesday. “You know what I’m saying? It was still fresh for me. I didn’t know how to take it.”

But Stone, a 24-year-old, third-year pro originally drafted in the seventh round by the Ravens in 2020, certainly knows Hamlin better than any of his teammates — and better than most of the millions of people who learned about Hamlin Monday night when the Bills safety went into cardiac arrest on the field at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium following what looked like a hard, yet routine, tackle.

He and Hamlin not only have similar backgrounds and jobs in the NFL, but they’re friends. They’re the same age and were raised in the same region: Western Pennsylvania, a cradle of youth and high school football. They grew up about an hour apart near Pittsburgh. On the field, they play the same position — “baby safety,” Stone says — alluding to the fact they’re similarly undersized (around six feet, 200 pounds), relatively speaking. And they’ve both largely been backups in their young careers, meaning they often don’t make headlines.

Their high schools were in different classifications so they didn’t regularly face each other in football, but they did run track against one another in various meets, and they went on a few college recruiting visits together. For college, Hamlin stayed close to home at Pitt, though he was recruited by better football programs. Stone went to the University of Iowa. As young, mostly unheralded pros, they’ve occasionally met up in recent offseasons, share several mutual friends — such as Jordon Rooney, Hamlin’s marketing rep who has been giving updates on his condition — and have made sure to find each other to exchange pleasantries after the Ravens and Bills have played.

So, for Stone, the frightening scenes — Hamlin getting up after the tackle, then collapsing backwards; trainers and medical staff sprinting off the sidelines to help; the reporting on ESPN’s broadcast of the game that Hamlin was receiving CPR on the field; the look of horror on teammates faces who witnessed everything firsthand and stood together blocking anyone from seeing more out of respect; and the fact that Hamlin, taken by ambulance to a local hospital, is still in intensive care in Cincinnati — all of that is even much more than a shocking reminder about the realities of the violent contact sport he’s played for most of his life.

“It hit close to home,” Stone told The Baltimore Banner. “It’s crazy. Just to know the guy. Be around him. Talk to him. Hang out with him. Things like that. To know the type of person he is and how much he really cared about his community. ... I’m still praying for him, praying for his family. Hoping everything goes right and he’s able to see the impact he had on the world.”

Stone and his mom were watching the Bills-Bengals game on Monday night, like more than 20 million other football fans. For the Ravens, it was already a game to pay attention to as a scouting opportunity, since Cincinnati was to be their next opponent in a game that could have decided the AFC North winner (if the Bengals had lost).

Ravens coach John Harbaugh talked in a press conference Monday about how he had planned to watch the game live, then break down the coaches’ game tape almost immediately afterward. All the Ravens players who spoke to the media in the locker room Wednesday said they were watching, too.

When Bengals wideout Tee Higgins caught a pass from Joe Burrow in the first quarter and the Buffalo defender who tackled Higgins briefly got up then fell limp backward on the turf, Stone wasn’t sure who it was at first. Then, unfortunately, he did.

He realized the man on the field was somebody he knows. Someone he still talks with.

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The horrifying sequence pushed Stone through a range of emotions. He thought about Hamlin’s story. Recruited out of high school by the likes of Big Ten powers Ohio State and Penn State, he chose to attend Pitt in part to serve as role model for kids in the neighborhood where he grew up, including his younger brother (now 7) still living at home with mom. Damar Hamlin’s parents were teenagers when he was born and when he himself was a teenager, his father, Mario, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for intending to sell crack cocaine.

Stone thought, too, about the way fans often relate to players — viewing them more as cogs in a game meant for their entertainment rather than people.

“Fans always try to talk about you, ‘He needs to break a leg,’ stuff like that. They never really look at it as you’re a human being at the same time playing this game,” Stone said. “He stayed home, just so he could make sure he could watch his little brother grow up and show kids what type of person you could be from that area and make it big. That’s the type of guy he is.”

Stone’s family story is similar. Like Hamlin, he was born to a teenage mom, Erin, who had him when she was 18. Stone’s father, Erin’s one-time boyfriend, Jermaine Flamer, wasn’t a big part of Stone’s life growing up. Another father figure in Stone’s life, Bobby Lepore, whom Erin was dating, died in car accident when Stone was 9.

When ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Buck reported Hamlin’s mom, Nina, was riding with her son in the ambulance to the hospital, Stone’s mother spoke up.

“‘This is why I always want to be there and come to your games,’” Stone remembers her saying. “Because there’s some away games I say you don’t need to travel that far. She said I want to travel with you. … It started hitting home for everyone.”

Hamlin and Stone also shared an on-field narrative this season: replacing injured starters. Stone started seven games in place of Ravens starting safety Marcus Williams after Williams hurt his wrist in October. Hamlin has started 13 games this season after Bills starting safety Micah Hyde hurt his neck in Week 2 (and needed surgery on what he called an “eye-opening” injury). That’s why Hamlin was in the game on Monday night.

The tackle he made before collapsing looked utterly routine, though. Defensive backs like Stone make it dozens of times each year, between camp and practice and games.

“We were all talking about it the other day. Think about how many times we’ve made that tackle,” he said. “We make that tackle on a regular basis and you get up like nothing happened.”

Football is an inherently violent game. Pro football collisions are often described by the players and coaches involved as “car wrecks.” Harbaugh described a hit that sent linebacker Patrick Queen off the field in a cart during a game last month as exactly that.

Queen, also watching Monday night’s game with family, said he just started praying as Hamlin laid on the field, obstructed from television cameras. “We were surprised,” he said. “Shocked.”

While players are more educated than ever before on the dangers of football, they still did not expect to hear that a fellow player required CPR after a hit. Only one NFL player has collapsed and died of heart failure: 28-year-old Chuck Hughes, in 1971.

An autopsy revealed Hughes suffered from an undiagnosed heart disease and a blood clot from a clogged artery had dislodged — possibly from a hit in the game against his team, the Detroit Lions, from the Chicago Bears.

On Wednesday, the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said commotio cordis is a possible explanation for Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, but that more investigation is needed. The condition has been documented for years in sports like lacrosse, hockey, and baseball, as it is often caused when a hard ball or puck impacts the chest at precisely the worst 40-millisecond window in the heart’s natural electrical cycle. Treatment of commotio cordis requires the use of an AED (automated external defibrillator) to restart the heart in its normal rhythm; CPR should be administered until that can happen. Both were used by medical personnel on the field Monday night, and experts say more people involved in sports should be trained in CPR and the use of an AED.

“That’s the thing about this sport,” Ravens rookie center Tyler Linderbaum, who played in college with Stone at Iowa, told The Banner. “The things we see, the injuries we see, the injuries we have to deal with, you don’t really have on a normal day-to-day job. There’s definitely those risks, but something like this is something I’ve never seen happen before.”

Stone, standing in front his locker after the Ravens practiced for the first time this week, was asked if he’d read up on what might have caused Hamlin’s cardiac arrest. He has. But learning how rare commotio cordis is did not completely erase the doubts that entered his mind Monday night.

He plans to keep playing, but his thinking is forever changed.

“I always knew the risks that I had playing this game since a young age,” he said, “especially with concussions. Everyone talked about concussions.” But he also admitted: “No one ever thought about this, though.”

Mostly, Stone is concerned for his friend. He looks forward to when Hamlin can see for himself the response from strangers — more than 225,000 people have donated more than $7 million to a two-year-old GoFundMe page (with an original goal of $2,500 for a toy drive) linked to Hamlin’s charitable foundation.

On Thursday afternoon, doctors at the University of Cincinnati held a press conference and said that Hamlin began to emerge from sedation he’s been under the past three days. One of the first things he did was ask a doctor, via writing, who won Monday’s game. He still can’t talk because of the breathing tube and ventilator, but Hamlin “has made a fairly remarkable recovery and improvement to the point where he is demonstrating the signs of good neurological recovery,” Dr. William Knight said. He credited the training staff and doctors on the field with recognizing Hamlin’s cardiac arrest almost immediately and beginning CPR within a minute to ensure blood kept flowing to vital organs like the brain.

When the time is right, Stone plans on reaching out to Hamlin directly. And, in the meantime, he’ll pray and try to get ready for another game — which just so happens to be against the same team, in the same stadium, and on the same turf where Hamlin landed, clinging to life, just a few days ago.

Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.