BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Family’s been at the center of Damar Hamlin’s decisions when it comes to his football career and so far it hasn’t steered him wrong.
Growing up in McKees Rocks, just ten minutes outside of downtown Pittsburgh, Hamlin wanted to stay close to home so playing at the University of Pittsburgh was the perfect choice after graduating from Catholic Central High School.
“I’m extremely close to my family. My mom, she was sixteen when she had me and I just try to think about when I was sixteen years old and I just couldn’t imagine having a little boy,” Hamlin told News 4 on a zoom call.
“It was probably so stressful but both of my parents had my young, at sixteen and pretty much since that point they put everything they had into me to get me to where we are right now today.”
Hamlin credits a great deal of his success to his mother and father, Nina and Mario Hamlin, who saw their son get drafted by the Bills in the sixth-round (212th overall) of the NFL draft.
“It was us at first, just me and my mom and my dad and they taught me hard work. They taught me you gotta work for everything you and basically they just taught me all of the lessons of life,” Hamlin said.
He spent five seasons playing close to home at Pitt from 2016-2020. Hamlin was awarded a fifth season by the NCAA after injuries caused him to miss all but three games his freshman season in 2016 and forced him to miss three games in 2017 his sophomore year.
After that though, his career took off emerging as one of the best safeties in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Hamlin led Pitt in tackles in 2018 and 2020 and was second on the team in 2019. This past season Hamlin ended with seven pass breakups, two interceptions and 3.5 tackles for loss in 10 starts.
The decision to stay home paid off not only with his football career but what came next, rather who came next in his family.
“I’ve got a baby brother [Damir Hamlin], he’s six years old right now and that was the biggest reason probably why I chose Pitt. Just staying close to my family and then having my little brother around so I could be a role model for him and just show him examples of life that I’ve never really had,” Hamlin said.
“I never had no one here to be that force of like this is what you should be doing [when it comes to a sibling role model], this is going to make you successful. I kind of had to figure it out as I was going up until this point, up until I found myself in a routine. So it’s just a blessing to be able to be that for him,” Hamlin explained.
And while Damir has seen his big brother at home for the past six years, the next step in his career is going to be a bit of an adjustment as Damar is moving to Western New York.
“He’s excited. He was crying before the draft once he realized if I don’t go to the Steelers I’m not going to live close no more,” Damar laughed.
“But he’s excited with Buffalo once we told him it was three hours away. His first question was is there a beach in Buffalo?”
Even though he won’t be in Pittsburgh, there is a sense of home for Hamlin with the Bills as he joins his childhood friend and college teammate, Dane Jackson in Buffalo.
“I never could like imagine that, even growing up you think about stuff like that but I never imagined being reunited with even a teammate but someone specifically to Dane. Me and Dane grew up probably ten minutes from each other,” Hamlin said.
“He was always on his journey, I was on my journey, went to different schools all our lives but we ended up going to Pitt together and then just to reunite at this level it’s just crazy. We have such a good relationship like that’s really like a brother to me.”
The two are so similar from growing up in Pittsburgh, staying home, going to Pitt to also even both played defensive back: Hamlin a safety and Jackson a cornerback. The Bills drafted Jackson in the seventh-round in 2020.
“I really feel like we always stayed true to who we are since we were kids so it’s really like nothing has changed over the course of life,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin now joins a Bills safety room that has arguably the best duo in the league with Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, two veterans he hopes to learn anything and everything he can from.
“I really can’t wait. When I was doing my draft training Jordan Poyer had started training there as well and he was just somebody that I was already trying to pick his brain because he’s a vet in the NFL and he had a lot of advice for me and now I’m on his team so I’m gonna reach back out to him and Micah,” Hamlin said.
“I can’t wait to just be a sponge, you know I’m gonna be a fly on the wall in every situation I can get. Just to have people like that I look at them as role models right now because they’re where I want to be so I’m taking everything I can. I’m blessed to be able to have those type of people on my team and I know they’ll be nothing but giving of knowledge and information and I can’t wait to just soak it all up because at the end of the day it will make me better as a player.”
Hamlin was training at Bommarito’s in South Florida where he met Poyer before the draft.
“I was asking him questions about Buffalo and just about the defense and just how they’ve gotten to the point that they’re at, just being a high contender,” Hamlin said.
“And just picking his brain to see what makes you stay in the league longer. He was just so resourceful and it was just a blessing to be able to have him there.”
Hamlin will come in and compete for a backup job which he has a good chance of getting after veteran safety Dean Marlowe left in free agency. Outside of Poyer and Hyde, the Bills only have Jaquan Johnson and Josh Thomas on the roster right now.
With how durable and productive Poyer and Hyde have been over the past four seasons, safety isn’t a position the Bills have had to worry about having much depth at. If they do decide to only go with two backups on the 53-man roster, Hamlin will have to beat out Johnson or Thomas as it stands now to land a spot.
“The Bills are getting a leader, someone who cares about his teammates, someone who’s gonna want to put everyone in the right position to be successful along with myself,” Hamlin explained.
“Just a ball player, just a dog on that field, just somebody who’s gonna give it his all no matter what position I’m at.Just a super team player like I just want to get up there to Buffalo and contribute. It could be anything, defense, special teams, I could pass out water you know whatever it is I just want to be the best teammate there is.”
A mentality he learned through not only through hard work but working through adversity and obstacles he faced growing up.
“I would say the hardest thing to do in Pittsburgh is stay focused, everyone’s just trying to find their way and that’s just how it is here. Just even making it to this point and being able to be here it’s just a testament to my hard work and my parents for keeping me on track,” Hamlin said.
“There’s a lot of things that you could get into here that aren’t necessarily the best things in the world. The hardest part is to stay focused and to stay on track and to you know keep living correctly. That’s why I am where I am, that’s why Dane is where he is along with other successful people coming out of our city.”
Hamlin used the word “focused” many times when it comes to his path in life because he knows all too well what would have happened if he didn’t.
“I’d say I probably lost ten-plus friends on this journey.”
“Just even in the last recent years, it’s almost sad to say but it’s kind of numbing like the feeling of just losing people but at this point it’s just kind of a part of life, I guess for me. Having friends that are just trying to find their way and just trying to be able to just provide for their family in any way they can but ultimately lost a couple guys,” Hamlin said.
But that fuels him to be successful.
“They’re part of my motivation and my reason for me even wanting to get this far because ultimately it all started, we all had the same dream.”
Not only did Hamlin have to stay focused on his own journey so he didn’t go down the wrong path, he also had to stay on track while dealing with others who didn’t.
“One specific situation during my last season at Pitt I lost one of my close friends and you know it was tough, it was tough. But I still showed up to the facility, I was a leader for my team and I got through it. At the end of the day my teammates were there for me so that’s why I say, I hate to say it this way but it’s kind of a part of life. You gotta keep rolling with the punches and I know what they wanted for me and it’s to be right here,” Hamlin said.
Honoring them through his success brings him a little bit of peace through it all.
“I know they’re all looking down smiling, I know they’re all looking down smiling.”
Not only does Hamlin want to honor those he lost but also serve as motivation for others who might be faced with similar choices. His message is simple:
“Everyone’s situation is different but at the end of the day this way of life right here is gonna have you more successful than a lot of those other paths and it’s shown,” Hamlin said.
“If you stay straight on this path and you just use your resources and connect with the right people you’ll be successful and you’ll turn out okay, it will all be okay for you.”
Hamlin also wanted to use his resources to give back to his hometown. He started the Chasing M’s Foundation and hosted a toy drive after the 2020 season at Kelly and Nina’s Daycare Center in McKees Rocks. Not only did he pass his goal of raising $2,500 but it was also special because this is his mom’s daycare center.
We know how much Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane value bringing in high character guys, adding to the culture they’ve built and Hamlin certainly fits that mold already.