CINCINNATI (WIVB) — For a while, those watching Monday night’s Bills game on TV may have had a better idea of what was happening than those in the Paycor Stadium stands.
Every fan of the blue and red knows that Bills Mafia is not strictly based in Buffalo. Supporters living outside the Queen City can almost always count on a traveling Western New Yorker to meet them where they are and cheer alongside them when the Bills play away from home.
Buffalo resident Troy Licastro and his father, Mike, were two of the locals who made the trek to Cincinnati to watch two division leaders meet up in one of the final weeks of the regular season.
Troy was there to support his Bills, while his dad came to cheer on the Bengals in a city neither had ever been in. But the atmosphere was not an unfamiliar one.
“I saw Bills, hats, shirts, jerseys — whatever people were wearing — all around the city, myself included,” Troy Licastro said.
Licastro said this was the most welcoming place he’d gone to watch a Bills game after seeing them previously in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
“You’d pass [Bengals fans] on the street and they’d give you a ‘Who Dey?’ and you gave them a ‘Go Bills’ back and they were cool with it,” he said of his encounters with opposing fans.
The excitement of the Monday Night matchup continued into the stadium, where Licastro said “a buzz in the air” could be felt.
“It just had that ‘big game’ feel to it, but in a good way.”
And in some ways, it felt like home.
“It was so loud in there,” he said. “It was a great atmosphere. [Bills Mafia] definitely came in here ready to root for their team like any Bills home game.”
But late in the first quarter, the tone changed, taking a dramatic shift once the severity of Damar Hamlin’s injury was realized.
After less than 10 minutes of play, the Bills safety had collapsed on the field, suffering cardiac arrest. From the stands, Licastro says it didn’t appear as if the situation was as bad as it truly was.
“I feel as though people watching the game on TV probably had a better idea than we did in the stands,” he said. “I think it was a lot of confusion. They knew it wasn’t good.”
And when Licastro saw a member of the Bengals staff waving his arms “rapidly” and “frantically,” as he put it, that’s when he really knew it wasn’t good.
From that point on, the focus of both Bills and Bengals fans was solely on one thing — one person — Damar Hamlin. Players and staff from both sides gathered around the 24-year-old, who’s only in his second NFL season, both years of which have been with the Bills.
In the stands, talk, texts and calls around the Licastros turned into white noise as everyone sought to learn more about Hamlin’s condition, as well as the status of the game.
“It went from bad to worse. There was never a good moment there,” Licastro, who said he’s never seen two NFL teams clear the field like that mid-game before, commented.
The game was paused, and eventually, a message on the jumbotron appeared, letting fans in the stadium know that the game had been suspended.
People didn’t leave; some talking, some standing in silence. That focus on the field remained for many minutes afterward. Eventually, it was announced that the game would be postponed to a future date. When word of this began to get around, that’s when Licastro said people started to exit the stadium in droves.
“Honestly, the people in the stadium were probably the last to know that it got canceled,” Licastro said.
While they were there, Licastro said he didn’t expect the game to continue, but he and his father left once the postponement was official. It wasn’t an easy night that followed.
Constantly scrolling Twitter and watching both local news and ESPN (where the game was airing) for updates, Licastro, like many fans, said he couldn’t sleep until the Bills put out a statement saying Hamlin had suffered cardiac arrest and was locally hospitalized.
“I was wide awake and I was so focused on what was going on,” he said.
Shock, fear and sadness were shared among players and fans. Members of the Bills, including quarterback Josh Allen, were visibly shaken while standing on the field.
As Hamlin continues to receive care at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, his teammates have since returned home, getting back to Western New York shortly before 3 a.m.
It’s a somber mood across the region, but Bills Mafia’s love knows no bounds. Since Monday night, Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation has had a massive outpour of support, collecting more than $4 million in donations.
Through his associate, Jordon Rooney, Hamlin’s family provided a statement:
“On behalf of our family, we want to express our sincere gratitude for the love and support shown to Damar during this challenging time. We are deeply moved by the prayers, kind words and donations from fans around the country.
We also want to acknowledge the dedicated first responders and healthcare professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who have provided exceptional care to Damar. We feel so blessed to be part of the Buffalo Bills organization and to have their support. We also want to thank Coach Taylor and the Bengals for everything they’ve done.
Your generosity and compassion mean the world to us.
Please keep Damar in your prayers.”Family of Damar Hamlin
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Evan Anstey is an Associated Press Award, JANY Award and Emmy-nominated digital producer who has been part of the News 4 team since 2015. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.