Robert Golden knows those looks. He knows those tears.
Like millions of people across the country, the former Pittsburgh Steelers safety was watching Monday night when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin made a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals, climbed to his feet and then collapsed from what was later determined to be cardiac arrest.
Distraught players on both teams watched in horror and disbelief as medical personnel administered CPR on Hamlin for nine minutes before loading him into the ambulance that had been driven onto the field and transporting him to a nearby trauma hospital. The 24-year-old safety remained in critical condition at University of Cincinnati Medical Center on Tuesday.
The NFL took the unprecedented step of suspending play and has not determined how or whether to finish the game, even though the AFC matchup is crucial to determining playoff seeding.
“When something like that occurs to one of your teammates, your brothers, your friend, it’s hard to ever block that out of your mind and go out there and ever give it your all again.”
— Former NFL player Robert Golden, on seeing a teammate suffer a life-threatening injury
It was a little more than five years earlier, on the same field, that Golden and his teammates saw up close another deeply troubling situation unfold. In the first quarter of a Monday night game on Dec. 4, 2017, at Cincinnati, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a serious spinal injury while making a tackle.
“I can remember I went to look at Ryan Shazier and he was laying on the ground pretty much gasping for air, begging for help to come,” said Golden, 32, who played for the Steelers from 2012 to 2017.
“I remember that moment where I was like speechless, didn’t really know what to feel. The game had stopped, and everybody was attending to Ryan. Once they got him off the field, it was like, ‘OK, now go back to play.’
“As players, we’re on the field, we don’t know if he’s paralyzed, we don’t know if he can breathe. We don’t know any of these things. Psychologically, you’re out there thinking: ‘Man, should I make this tackle? Do I even want to tackle? Do I even want to play?’ ”
Unable to move his legs when he was lying on the field, Shazier suffered a spinal contusion. Two days later, he underwent spinal stabilization surgery. His playing career was over, and some doctors believed he might never walk again. After months of rehabilitation, however, he was able to walk across the stage — clutching the hand of his fiancee — to announce Pittsburgh’s selection in the 2018 NFL draft.
Golden recognized the look of fear and sorrow in the eyes of the players Monday night, both Bills and Bengals alike, as they cried, hugged one another and knelt to pray.
“When you experience something like that, it’s more of a mental trauma that you have to get over,” he said. “Guys get injured all the time. Because we’ve been playing the game for so long, we know how to persevere and go into rehab and training, get ourselves back healthy and get back out there on the field.
“But when it’s life or death, or an ability to walk or not walk for the rest of your life, that’s mental. It’s like, ‘Man, will I ever be able to get over what I just witnessed?’ I feel for Damar and his family but also his teammates. Because I know the feeling down deep in my soul on whether or not I ever wanted to play football ever again. I’m sure there are a lot of players in the NFL that feel the same way I felt back in 2017.”
Cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, a sports psychology expert, said there is no typical or “normal” reaction of people who witness that type of trauma.
“The normal is there’s no right way to be normal,” said Beilock, author of “How the Body Knows Its Mind” and president of Barnard College. “Whether it’s players crying or reevaluating, or probably some who probably wanted to just get right back on the field. Where we go wrong is when we start to think there is one right way to react to these situations.”
Golden retired from the NFL in 2018, asking Kansas City for his release during Chiefs training camp. In 2021, he founded a charter school in his hometown of Fresno, Golden Charter Academy. He said seeing what happened to Shazier hastened his own exit from football.
“For me, the situation really played a huge part in the rest of my career,” Golden said. “When something like that occurs to one of your teammates, your brothers, your friend, it’s hard to ever block that out of your mind and go out there and ever give it your all again.”
Golden was watching the Bills-Bengals game from home. After seeing the injury and the reaction of players, coaches and other personnel on the field, he looked back at YouTube clips of Shazier’s injury. He then began to text old Steelers teammates and coaches.
“It just brought back a lot of those emotions where I just wanted to reach out to a lot of my ex-teammates that I still have relationships with to let them know I love them and I’m thinking about them,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of those emotions not only came up with Damar but a lot of it was like a scab that was picked from the Ryan Shazier situation.”