ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Mitch Morse was coming off the field after what he would later acknowledge as being a bad day in practice. And the last thing the Buffalo Bills center wanted to deal with were questions about how emotionally draining last season was for him and his teammates.
“I don’t really feel like talking about last season, if that’s OK,” Morse politely said, but not before offering his insight on the mental strain players deal with every year.
“I’m not going to say last season, this season, next season. This sport takes a toll on its players a lot more than people know, not only physically, but mentally,” he said. “Even though the money is tremendous, the stakes are at their highest and can really take a toll on anybody. And everyone gets touched. No one’s safe.”
Morse apologized a few days later for being what he considered gruff, even though he wasn’t.
What his perspective and response reflected was how delicate the topic of last year might still be on a team preparing to open its season at the New York Jets on Monday night — and how much more difficult it would’ve been to endure if not for the emphasis coach Sean McDermott placed on mental health.
It was, after all, Morse who spoke for the team in crediting McDermott for putting football aside and bringing in an array of specialists in the days following safety Damar Hamlin’s near-death experience during a game at Cincinnati on Jan. 2. Morse said he was grateful for the coach's sensitivity in allowing players to take a pause and be vulnerable and express their feelings.
It was a season like no other in Buffalo, where the Bills held together amid one emotional blow after another — from Hamlin needing to be resuscitated on the field, to the sudden death of tight end Dawson Knox’s younger brother Luke in August, and the team rallying to the community’s aid in the aftermath of a racially motivated supermarket shooting that left 10 Black people dead in May 2022.
And that doesn’t include two major snowstorms — one in which some 50 people died — that disrupted the team’s schedule, and what was initially feared to be a career-ending neck injury to safety Micah Hyde.
What stood out was how McDermott's approach allowed the Bills to persevere in a season they finished 13-3 to win their third straight AFC East title before running out of gas in a playoff loss to Cincinnati.
“Last year might have been tough, but I still think in the grand scheme of it, we’ll look back and be proud of how we handled it,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “We came up short. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t really necessarily define each individual person.”
And perhaps, he said, a team that returns a majority of players from last year can grow from the emotional bonds players built collectively through the experiences.
“It’s OK to feel sad. It’s OK to feel angry. It’s OK to feel upset, vulnerable. A lot of times us as humans, we hold that in,” said Poyer, whose own dealings with mental health issues have allowed him to openly discuss his struggles with alcoholism to help others. “Yeah, that was tough, but look, we’re still here. It made us better.”
McDermott grew to appreciate the importance of the psychological aspect in sports long before he got into coaching. He drew on his high school wrestling career, and the individual discipline it required of him to balance physical and mental strength in becoming a two-time time All-Catholic and national prep champion with a 61-0 record, while giving up just one takedown.
"It led to an awareness of how important it is to equip people, in this case players, with the right tools for them to perform at their best,” said McDermott, who was rewarded for his leadership with a two-year contract extension that locks him up through 2027.
It wasn’t until he landed the Bills job in 2017 that McDermott was able to apply his mental health philosophy by adding a psychologist to his staff, which the team initially shared with the NHL's Sabres, who are also owned by Terry Pegula. The Bills have since hired Desaree Festa to their performance science staff and are one of just six NFL teams to employ a full-time psychologist.
Little could McDermott have envisioned how important a role Festa and her staff would play last year, while also believing the effects have the potential of carrying over to this season.
“Every team’s a new team, but that being said, you grow through life’s experiences,” McDermott said. “And it makes you stronger moving forward.”
It’s difficult for the Bills to sweep aside last year when the reminders remain, some in a more uplifting way.
Hamlin has made such a remarkable recovery he showed no signs of hesitancy while making the 53-player roster last week. Hyde is fully recovered, too, and reclaimed his starting job.
“I think how coach handled it was the right way, bringing in specialists to talk to guys, allowing us to be vulnerable and giving us time and space,” quarterback Josh Allen said.
“I think there’s a deeper bond between players because of the situations that we went through last year and bonds that will last a lifetime,” Allen added. “I see that in our locker room. It’s such a positive thing to me to see guys being open with each other. And I think that makes for a closer team.”
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