CHARLOTTE – The Panthers started Wednesday's walkthrough with a prayer. And each of them carried the message in their own way.
They have a game to play this week, but they're also people who can't help thinking about Damar Hamlin, Buffalo's 24-year-old safety who went into cardiac arrest during the Bills' Monday Night Football game against the Bengals. Hamlin remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit at a Cincinnati hospital after having his heartbeat restored on the field during the game. He has shown "signs of improvement (Tuesday) and overnight," according to the Bills’ latest update posted Wednesday afternoon.
Interim coach Steve Wilks said the Panthers addressed Hamlin's condition in a team meeting, offering support to the team and well wishes toward Hamlin before Carolina resumed practice.
"I wanted those guys to have a clear headspace and understand that we understand the magnitude of what happened," Wilks said. "(We) wanted those guys to go out there and feel comfortable about what we're doing."
The news hit members of the Panthers' locker room in ways unique to each individual. Some players called back to their personal connections to Hamlin, while others considered the fragility of life in general.
Practice squad safety Kenny Robinson, a close childhood friend of Hamlin's, was excused from practice and went home to Pittsburgh to process the news. Wilks said Robinson has been friends with Hamlin since middle school and frequently keeps in touch with him through a group chat.
"They were like brothers," Wilks said. "So he's taking it pretty hard. (I) spent a lot of time with him this morning and wanted to send him home so he can be able to have time to really process things. …
"I wanted him to understand, as well as anybody else in that locker room, that we care about you beyond the game of football. As much time that he needs, he's going to take."
Rookie running back Raheem Blackshear went through training camp with the Bills, and was a few lockers away from Hamlin all offseason. Blackshear answered a handful of questions about Hamlin quietly before he declined to talk further, offering prayers and support for Hamlin and his family.
"It's hard for me personally," Blackshear said. "I've been in the locker room with Damar; that's my brother. I love him to death. I'm praying for him."
Linebacker Shaq Thompson felt a personal connection to Hamlin's condition, as he lost his mother after she suffered cardiac arrest in 2019.
"It hurt deeply, honestly," Thompson said. "I kind of took it personal because we're all part of the same shield. I don't really know him personally, but that can happen to any and everybody, right? It was just like a regular tackle, and then he collapsed. …
"Prayers to him, that team, his family, Kenny Robinson, one of my brothers here."
Quarterback PJ Walker said he was watching the game when Hamlin went down and that he changed the channel once he realized the magnitude of the situation. Walker said he'll have thoughts about what happened on Monday "in the back of my mind every time I step on the football field," likely until the end of his career.
"I know a lot of guys just question, after seeing that, probably playing football again," Walker said. "I know I sat there, and I thought about just life in general after that happened. It was one of those situations where you're just questioning a lot of things. … I pray for him and his family."
Running back D'Onta Foreman said he didn't know how to react when he first saw the news, but that it "shook him up" as he learned more details about what happened and Hamlin's condition.
"I think he gives a real picture about (how) we're human," Foreman said. "We're not like these human beings who are just immortal or something like that. We're human, and we go through the same thing everybody else goes through.
"Playing the contact sport we play, anything is subject to happen. We just want to pray for his family, man; that's something that's scary. I wish the best for him."
For Wilks, there was also an immediate connection, since he was on staff here with Bills head coach Sean McDermott (McDermott was defensive coordinator here from 2011-16). Wilks said he sent McDermott a text Monday night, telling his former co-worker they were praying for both his family and the Hamlins.
Wilks said seeing McDermott and the Bills' roster react to what happened on the field and that the event caused him to put life into perspective.
"It makes you understand and realize how precious life is," Wilks said. "We love this game that we play and coach, but nothing is more precious than life itself."