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Damar Hamlin's home community is rallying for their 'role model'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin is alert and communicating three days after collapsing on the field during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Doctors say he's still using a breathing tube, but he's moving his hands and feet and was able to ask in writing if his team had won Monday night's game. Hamlin has received an outpouring of support from people across the country. From member station WESA, Julia Zenkevich reports fans in his hometown of Pittsburgh are rooting for Hamlin, whom friends and teammates call a role model.

JULIA ZENKEVICH, BYLINE: Hamlin grew up in McKees Rocks, a borough of about 6,000 people just outside of Pittsburgh. He walked on to the Central Catholic High school football team his freshman year with two clear goals - make it to the NFL and give back to the community he grew up in. From his first days on the team, recently retired head football coach Terry Totten says Hamlin was a steady presence.

TERRY TOTTEN: Whether it was high times and success on the field or, you know, being injured and fighting through an injury, he maintained a certain level of confidence in himself and it showed through to others. He very much was a leader on my football team in that locker room, on campus, on the field.

ZENKEVICH: Dave Fleming was the defensive coordinator at Central Catholic for 22 seasons and worked closely with Hamlin. Fleming says Hamlin is a true student of the game. He ran drills, studied plays and took the time to rewatch games and understand the opposing team. And he encouraged his teammates to put in extra work as well. In 2015, during Hamlin's senior year, Central Catholic lost a game to longtime rivals North Allegheny High School. Practice was slated for 9 the next morning, but Fleming says Hamlin got the team there at 7:30 and started running plays.

DAVE FLEMING: Damar was the reason that that happened. And I got to tell you, we had 90 kids on the team that year, and every single kid was there. And that's the kind of leadership role and the kind of respect and admiration that his teammates had for him.

ZENKEVICH: Fleming says Hamlin had offers to play at dozens of Division 1 schools. He turned down Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State to go to the University of Pittsburgh, which is just down the street from Central Catholic, so he could stay close to family and friends. And he didn't wait until he made it big to start giving back. Hamlin often returns to Central Catholic to help with youth football camps and counsel younger players who dream of playing football professionally. Hamlin also started a foundation in toy drive to support local kids. The foundation's GoFundMe has brought in more than $7 million, most of which was donated after he was injured Monday. Hamlin's communities have rallied in support for him. Hamlin's college team, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, put out a statement of support. And teammates and friends have posted tributes on social media. John Petrishen and played with Hamlin at both Central Catholic and the University of Pittsburgh.

JOHNNY PETRISHEN: Ever since I've known him, he's always been very passionate about where he's from. And he's always had plans to have an impact on his home community and always had goals and aspirations to give back.

ZENKEVICH: Petrishen says Damar Hamlin has followed through on his word and become a role model for many. For NPR News, I'm Julia Zenkevich in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia Zenkevich
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh.