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For Colts' Rodney Thomas II, Isaiah McKenzie, potential for Damar Hamlin to play in preseason opener feels 'normal'

Colts safety Rodney Thomas II is one of Damar Hamlin's closest friends, and wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie was in Cincinnati with the Bills when Hamlin sustained a cardiac arrest last January. 


WESTFIELD, Ind. – Rodney Thomas II, one of Damar Hamlin's closest friends, figures it'll feel the same as it's always felt.

Isaiah McKenzie, one of Damar Hamlin's former teammates, figures it'll feel "just like normal."

The Colts play the Bills on Saturday. It's the first preseason game for both teams. And while there's not a final answer yet, there does appear to be a chance Hamlin, who in early January went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated on the field at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, could play.

To the rest of us, there might not seem like there's anything normal with even the thought Hamlin could play a football game this weekend.

To the guys that know him, though?

"From the beginning since it happened, it's exactly what I expected," Thomas said, "him back on the field doing what he loves, flying around, making plays."

There's no guarantee Hamlin will play Saturday – he and the Bills have taken a methodical, day-by-day approach to getting the third-year safety back on the field. But Hamlin has been a full participant in training camp practices, including full-padded, full-team drills in western New York.

"He's doing good," Thomas, who trained with Hamlin in their hometown of Pittsburgh this offseason, said. "Step by step, he's making his comeback."

Zooming out, it's remarkable we're even wondering if Hamlin will play in a preseason game or not.

It's been seven months since Thomas went on a nervy drive down I-74 to Cincinnati to visit Hamlin in the hospital the day after his cardiac arrest. Thomas entered Hamlin's room at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to see his friend sedated and intubated. He held his hand and said a few things to his friend.

"I know he could hear me," Thomas said in January. "Even if he couldn't hear me, it didn't matter. I said what I had to say."

For McKenzie, he and the Bills had to grapple with seeing CPR being administered on their teammate – Bills trainer Danny Kellington is credited with saving Hamlin's life – for an agonizingly long amount of time. He then watched Hamlin be loaded into an ambulance without any assurance he'd be okay.

"When he left in the ambulance, in my mind, I had to revert my mind back to football," McKenzie said. "I didn't want to but I didn't know what going to happen — were we going to play, were we not going to play. I was just on two different spectrums with what was going to happen. 

"... After we said we weren't playing, my mind went to, he's gonna be fine. It was like — this is not football, this is life. You always want to have a positive mindset."

Hamlin is the kind of person toward whom everyone gravitates. Thomas described him as "the most genuine person you could come across," while McKenzie described him as thoughtful and down to earth – and also the kind of guy who'd talk trash on the field and joke around off it. Hamlin once gifted him a "Chasing Millions" T-shirt, only for the 5-foot-8, 173 pound McKenzie, it was a kids' small.

Maybe McKenzie will get to re-live the practice battles he had against Hamlin on Saturday at Highmark Stadium. Maybe Thomas will get to catch his former high school teammate and friend making a play on the field in Buffalo. Maybe those will have to wait for another time.

But when that time comes for Hamlin, both Thomas and McKenzie expect it to feel normal.

And there's nothing normal about that.

"That's the plan," McKenzie said. "I hope so. I hope it goes well for him. I know the Bills, they love him and I love him as a person and as a player."

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