They’re athletes, yes, But they’re also entertainers. Characters in the most popular reality series ever produced.

They take the stage every Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday during the fall to score touchdowns, make tackles and give us something to talk – or complain – about on social media the next morning.

But those football players we turn into heroes when they perform well and vilify when they don’t are also men. Human beings who put their bodies at risk for our viewing pleasure every time the ball is snapped.

Damar Hamlin provided a chilling reminder of that Monday night.

The Buffalo Bills safety remains in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital after suffering cardiac arrest during his team’s Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

According to a statement issued by the team early Tuesday morning, the former Pittsburgh Panther had his heartbeat restored on the field before being transported by ambulance from the stadium to the nearby University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Hamlin collapsed seconds after making a tackle on Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, the former Clemson star, late in the 1st quarter.

Neither the Bills nor the hospital have issued any details as to what caused the cardiac arrest.

While information about Hamlin’s condition and potential recovery has been slow to be made public, NFL Network reporter Cameron Wolfe has indicated that his family is receiving frequent medical updates.

A spokesman representing the family, appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America program Tuesday, said that the player’s loved ones are  “taking it minute-by-minute” and are in “good spirits.”

The looks of concern and distress on the faces of players from both teams as they knelt around Hamlin while CPR was administered to the stricken 24-year-old spoke to the gravity of the situation.

It was also a graphic reminder of the humanity of those involved. They are far from the savage gladiators many portray them to be.

Hamlin, in particular, is a prime example. 

Take his reason for choosing to play his college ball close to his home in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks, Pa., rather than accepting offers from higher-profile programs such as Ohio State and Penn State.

“I’ve got a baby brother (Damir Hamlin), he’s 6 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 told WIVB News 4 in Buffalo, shortly after he was drafted.

Hamlin spent 5 years with the Panthers, starting his final 3 seasons and earning 2nd-team All-ACC recognition as a senior in 2020. He led the team with 67 tackles and 7 pass breakups that season and was drafted by the Bills in the 6th round, 212th overall.

Now in his 2nd NFL season, Hamlin became a starter in Week 3 after teammate Micah Hyde suffered a neck injury and was placed on injured reserve. Hamlin’s 91 tackles are 2nd on the Bills, a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

His most meaningful contributions, however, have come off the field in his community.

Even before leaving school, Hamlin started a foundation called Chasing M’s as a vehicle to raise money to buy toys for children affected by the COVID pandemic in McKees Rocks.

“As I embark on my journey to the NFL, I will never forget where I come from and I am committed to using my platform to positively impact the community that raised me,” Hamlin wrote on his foundation’s GoFundMe page. “The Chasing M’s Foundation is a vehicle that will allow me to deliver that impact.”

Shortly after he was rushed to the hospital on Monday night, Pitt’s official Twitter account posted a message describing Hamlin as “the best of us.” In the hours that followed, the former Panther helped bring out the best in a lot of others.

Not only did Bills and Bengals fans gather to hold an impromptu candlelight vigil outside the hospital while messages of support were received from all across the NFL, but donations to Hamlin’s foundation skyrocketed. 

The goal for this year’s toy drive was $2,500. It had already topped that with just over $2,900 collected before Monday’s incident. Since his collapse on the field, fans, teammates and players from opposing teams have shown their support by flooding the GoFundMe page with cash.

As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, Chasing M’s has raised more than $3.9 million.

It’s clear from Hamlin’s philanthropic efforts and concern for others that he is more than just a football player putting his body at risk for our entertainment. 

He’s a young man with a big heart. As he fights for his life and eventually begins the road back to a full recovery, we can only hope it’s a strong one, too.