ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Within 30 minutes, the 10-foot-wide card was canvassed.
Hand-scribbled messages of prayer, love, healing and support for Damar Hamlin overflowed.
“A testament to everyone coming together as a person,” sign creator Ryan Maguson, 31, said. “It’s larger than football. You just see the good in people come out.”
On Sunday before the Bills kicked off their final regular-season game of the season, Damar Hamlin fans were out. Game-goers doused themselves in the number “3” – on sweatshirts and signs, in hearts and in sketches of a roaming buffalo. League-wide signs to “PRAY FOR DAMAR” throughout the week blessedly turned into “LOVE FOR DAMAR” pronouncements by the weekend.
Because the second-year Bills safety, who had suffered cardiac arrest six days earlier in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, was again conscious. He had awoken late Wednesday night, slowly beginning to breathe his own breaths in partnership with the intubation he received at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. By Thursday, Cincinnati doctors could report that Hamlin’s neurologic function appeared intact, Hamlin alert enough even to ask if his team had won the Bengals game. By Friday, intubation was removed. Hamlin was breathing on his own, even FaceTiming teammates from the hospital to express his love.
The recovery progress buoyed Bills fans across tailgating lots at Highmark Stadium on Sunday. They were relieved to hear signs of improvement, even as doctors had not yet upgraded Hamlin from critical to stable condition.
Fans hoped that they could do their part in showing a now-alert Hamlin how much support he had. They got to work.
Bills fans to Damar Hamlin: ‘We’ve all got him’
Jim Sonner, who has held Bills season tickets since 1999, was in Cincinnati when Hamlin collapsed. He remembered the immediate fear on players’ faces. When he saw an athletic trainer run out with “the big bag with the defibrillator,” worry turned to shock. Then, Sonner said, “We knew it was really bad.”
Bills and Bengals fans around him hugged one another and cried together, fearing for Hamlin’s life. Sonner returned home to New York on Tuesday night and wasn’t sure a Hamlin jersey would arrive timely.
So Wednesday, Sonner retrieved from his basement an EJ Manuel jersey he estimates he last wore close to a decade ago, when the Bills drafted the quarterback 16th overall in 2003. But a No. 3 jersey was a No. 3 jersey — Hamlin’s number was a good start. Sonner purchased glittered red letters and sufficient white-out Michaels craft store, and suddenly there was no sign of Manuel on his back.
“It just means the world,” Sonner said. “Whether he plays football ever again or not, it really doesn’t matter. I think the doctor said it best: He won the game of life.”
Marc Mersereau, tailgating two parking lots away from Sonner, sported a duct-taped and Sharpie version of his own Hamlin jersey. He said he almost always wears his Manuel jerseys to games, but never visibly. The lucky jersey serves as his underlayer beneath front- and back-facing support for wide receiver Gabriel Davis. Sunday morning, Mersereau grabbed his tape and marker.
His message to Hamlin?
“We’ve all got him,” Mersereau said. “It’s Buffalo. It’s family. Speaking of which, would you want any food?”
‘Brought the world together’
The crafty Bills Mafia members spanned far and wide Sunday. They affixed “3” patches to their chests and their shoulder blades, to the rim of their hats and the chains of their necklaces. At least one fan even wore Bengals receiver Tee Higgins to support the opponent whom Hamlin tackled immediately before collapsing.
Bills fan Dan Blair had printed his white “HAMLIN” letters onto a black hoodie by himself, his first attempt at the letters’ angles and size disappointing him but his second attempt earning his approval for gameday wear.
Tom and Kim Godsell began with rectangular blocks of cardboard and foam board at 8 o’clock last night. By the time their materials became blue and Zubaz-patterned jewelry, it was nearly 1 a.m. Tailgating would resume early that morning.
But this gesture meant more to them than a well-rested game experience, the Godsells watching Monday night’s game from Ireland and thinking ever since: “It was crazy how much it brought the world together — not just America.”
Magnuson, who created the 10-foot banner card, agreed. He saw thousands of game attendees regardless of age, team affiliation, hometown and even home country flock to the poster-printed request.
“If you get a chance to show some Love today,” the poster read, “do it.”
For Damar Hamlin, they did.
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein