Fans give millions to Damar Hamlin's toy drive for kids

Damar Hamlin’s goal was simple: He wanted to raise $2,500 online to buy toys for needy kids.

It took about two years.

Then came Monday, when the Buffalo Bills safety was critically injured and needed his heart restarted on the field in a chilling scene that unfolded during a nationally televised game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He instantly became one of the biggest stories in sports, and thousands of people found his GoFundMe page.

The result: roughly $3.7 million donated in the first 12 hours. And the number is climbing.

A fundraiser that as of last month had raised $2,921 was up to $3,637,590 by 10 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday — with about 130,000 people going online in that span to donate, on average, about $28. Some of the donations were smaller. Some were more than $5,000. On average, about three donations were being made every second in that initial 12-hour span.

And many came with messages of hope for a 24-year-old player in his second season, sedated in a Cincinnati hospital, listed in critical condition and with some teammates unwilling to return to Buffalo just so they could remain close to him.

“There are moments in life that stop the world,” wrote Michael Lynch, who donated Tuesday morning. “We all pray for two things. Your speedy recovery and that your impact to the world is enhanced by your go fund me.”

The messages poured in from different fan bases, many of the donors letting the world know that they support other teams. One came with a hashtag that read, “we are all Bills fans.”

Hamlin started the GoFundMe in December 2020. He was just wrapping up his college career and getting ready for the NFL draft process. And he wanted to have a toy drive at Kelly and Nina’s Daycare Center in his hometown of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, a place with about 6,000 residents along the south bank of the Ohio River.

“As I embark on my journey to the NFL, I will never forget where I come from and I am committed to using my platform to positively impact the community that raised me,” Hamlin wrote when setting up the drive. “I created The Chasing M’s Foundation as a vehicle that will allow me to deliver that impact, and the first program is the 2020 Community Toy Drive. This campaign gives you the opportunity to contribute to our first initiative and positively impact children who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.”

He pulled the first event off with about 10 days of planning. Gifts poured in, some of it clothing donated by Pitt, where he had just finished playing. Hamlin’s upbringing was far from easy: He lost three friends to gun violence while growing up and saw his father incarcerated for about 3 1/2 years for selling drugs. But as soon as he was able, Hamlin wanted to help others.

So, he started the toy drive. And on Monday, the world finally noticed.

Many of the donations came from Bills fans, affectionately known as Bills Mafia, and this is far from the first time they’ve gone online to show support. In recent years, Bills fans have shown support for Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s foundation after he left a game — also in Cincinnati — with a concussion; for Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson’s charity after the Ravens lost a playoff game to Buffalo; and many made donations of $16.88 to the P.U.N.T. Pediatric Cancer Collaborative in western New York following the death this summer of FIU player Luke Knox.

Luke Knox’s brother, Dawson Knox, is a tight end for the Bills. The $16.88 was a nod to their jersey numbers.

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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press