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The first NFL game since Damar Hamlin's collapse will take place this afternoon

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The NFL season resumes this afternoon for the first time since Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest during a game Monday night. Though his condition has improved, he remains hospitalized. Reporter Greg Echlin spoke with players on the Kansas City Chiefs about how they feel about taking the field today after such an emotional week.

GREG ECHLIN, BYLINE: This afternoon's kickoff in Las Vegas between the Chiefs and the Raiders will be the first since the NFL ended Monday night's game after Damar Hamlin collapsed. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes says taking the field for this game won't be the same.

PATRICK MAHOMES: You put all this work in for months to try to go out there and play your best football. But when you get on that field, I'm sure it'll be a little bit of a weird feeling because it was such a scary incident. That was terrifying.

ECHLIN: The NFL announced late Thursday the Bills-Bengals game was canceled and would not be rescheduled. That creates lots of questions about who's at the top in the AFC as the regular season ends and playoffs begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Touchdown Chiefs.

ECHLIN: Last Sunday, Mahomes threw three touchdown passes when the Chiefs needed a victory to stay in contention for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. That win gave the Chiefs extra incentive to pay attention to last Monday's game between the Bills and the Bengals, the other top seed contenders. Mahomes says he wasn't prepared to see what unfolded.

MAHOMES: And I'm not going to say we take it for granted, but you go out there, and you play a game that you love, and you just enjoy it, and you don't think about things like that happening. Whenever something like this happens, I think it impacts everybody.

ECHLIN: It's been more than 50 years since a similar tragedy shocked the NFL and its fans. In 1971, Detroit wide receiver Chuck Hughes became the only player in the NFL to die after collapsing on the field. Hughes suffered a fatal heart attack during the final minutes of a game against the Chicago Bears. Severe injuries are common in football, and earlier this season, Chiefs wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster suffered a concussion when he was knocked unconscious during a matchup with Jacksonville. He says he doesn't remember anything about the incident or his concerned teammates surrounding him. But Smith-Schuster says he and players like Hamlin know the risks and have tried since they were kids to fulfill their NFL dreams.

JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER: That's what it is. And football has always been that for him. And I can say that because it's always been that for me.

ECHLIN: There's been growing concerns in recent years about the brute force or violence of football and what could happen medically as a result. Backup quarterback Shane Buechele says he received warnings early from his father. He played major league baseball for 11 years and told Shane football was not the family's choice for sports.

SHANE BUECHELE: His mom never let him play because of the physical nature of football. So that's why he went baseball.

ECHLIN: Buechele says although he knew the potential dangers of playing football, he chose it anyway.

BUECHELE: From the quarterback position, I feel like you can take over a game more than you can maybe in a baseball game. The only way you can is as a pitcher. And I pitched. I loved it. But that's nothing like football.

ECHLIN: All teams will be back on the field this weekend for the finale of the regular season, including the Buffalo Bills, who will take on the New England Patriots. What will continue to be on the minds of many players and fans alike is the status of hospitalized Damar Hamlin. For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Echlin
Ever since he set foot on the baseball diamond at Fernwood Park on Chicago's South Side, Greg Echlin began a love affair with the world of sports. After graduating from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he worked as a TV sports anchor and a radio sportscaster in Salina, Kansas. He moved to Kansas City in 1984 and has been there since covering sports. Through the years, he has covered multiple Super Bowls, Final Fours and Major League Baseball's World Series and All-Star games.