Until this challenge that came after his Cincinnati Bengals had thumped the Baltimore Ravens, 27-16, at Paycor Stadium Sunday to further cement their AFC North championship and set up next Sunday’s rematch (8:15 p.m.) with these same Ravens in an AFC Wild Card game right back here at this same field.
As for the week:
Last Monday night, the Bengals veteran wide receiver watched through tears and fear and an overwhelming sense of helplessness as his friend, his “brother” from back home in Pittsburgh — Damar Hamlin, the young Buffalo Bills safety — lay fighting for his life on the Paycor field after suffering a cardiac arrest while tackling Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins following a 13-yard reception midway through the first quarter of their nationally-televised Monday Night Football game.
In the days that followed, as he and the rest of the nation worried about Hamlin’s mere survival, Boyd also stepped to the forefront to defend Higgins from the social media trolls who somehow blamed him for the injury to the Bills defender.
Then Sunday, on his first time back on the field since the injury to Hamlin, Boyd caught a short Joe Burrow pass in the second quarter and found himself on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit from a Ravens defender that left him sprawled on the field, just 10 yards from where Hamlin had lay six days earlier.
Four Bengals trainers and medical staffers tended to him and soon Boyd was helped to his feet and walked off the field under his own power. As he neared the sideline, he extended an arm skyward and gave the edgy crowd a thumbs up.
After a stop in the blue medical tent near the Bengals bench, he briefly retired to the locker room to get a concussion test.
The team listed him as questionable to return then, but after a good medical report he did come back to the sideline, helmet in hand, and then was back on the field, where he made a fourth-quarter catch and finished the game with five catches for 51 yards.
Immediately after the victory, the team turned their locker room into a party room. The music was cranked up, players put on caps proclaiming them AFC North Champions.
And then running back Joe Mixon — ‘’always the man with the plan,” Boyd laughed — handed out four boxes of big, thick cigars he had bought at a Northern Kentucky party store before the game.
Soon the room, was filled with thumping bass sounds, pungent smoke and dancing players.
Boyd puffed on his Tabak Especial from Nicaragua and laughed and danced and then, he coughed. And coughed some more,
“I don’t really smoke cigars, not at all,” he quietly admitted later. “But, this is special.”
In fact, few players appreciated this moment more than the seventh-year pro out of the University of Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been here when everybody was super down after our last game of the season and all we had to do was pack up our stuff and leave,” he said.
The first five years he was with the Bengals, they had losing seasons. They won just 25 games in those seasons. That span included those early Zac Taylor years when the Bengals won just two games in 2019 and then just four a year later.
“Now we’ve won the AFC North in back to back seasons, the first time ever here,” he said. “I’m just so happy, so glad to still be a part of it.”
What made him the happiest though was the remarkable recovery Hamlin has been making over the past few days.
When his friend lay on the field, Boyd inched out closer to him than his teammates and watched the Bills trainers and others bring the 24-year-old defender back to life and finally get him in an ambulance and on his way to the UC Medical Center, where he remains today.
Boyd went to the hospital that night and returned on Friday, accompanied by Higgins.
While Boyd comes from the Pittsburgh area of Clairton, Hamlin, who is 3 ½ years younger, is from McKees Rocks.
They both went through youth league football there and now Boyd’s mother is the president of the Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletic Association. Hamlin’s father coaches the Sto-Rox Little Vikings team.
Boyd was a high-school standout and then a hometown hero at Pitt. Hamlin idolized him and then followed him to Pitt and then into the NFL.
They’ve worked each other’s summer camps for kids and Boyd brought Higgins along last year and he and Hamlin hit it off.
Last Monday was going to be the first time Boyd and Hamlin were ever on the field together.
During pregame warmups, the talked, told each other they loved one another and, in Boyd’s words, “we wanted each of us to have a heck of a game.”
The tragedy overwhelmed Boyd until late last week when Hamlin showed improvement.
Then came Friday’s brief visit as the hospital.
“It was great,” he said. “All I needed was to see him awake and speaking and being functionable. That really brought me up. I felt joyful. I felt I had won in life, too.”
He said the visit lifted Higgins, too, especially when Hamlin’s mother took him under her wing and told him she knew it wasn’t his fault and that she was praying for him and loved him.
“This has taught all of us — across the league — that there are things bigger than football,” Boyd said. “We’re all brothers.”
He wore Hamlin’s No. 3 Bills’ jersey during warmups Sunday and on his left arm during the game, he sported an orange sleeve that said” Chasing Millions,” the name Hamlin’s Foundation back home that aids children.
“That’s why this feels so good in here now,” Boyd said as the party raged on in the locker room. “It’s just one day of celebration. We know we have to get back to business tomorrow, but we’re going to enjoy it now.”
So once he left the stadium, would the party go on?
He started to laugh, then stifled a cough.
“I’ve got all my family in, so it’ll start with them,” he said. “And after that we’ll get something shakin.’”
Will it include more cigars?
Boyd shook his head … then danced off.