(WLAX/WEUX) – Before delving into the Packers-Lions match-up on Sunday night, I wanted to share some thoughts on the Damar Hamlin situation and some insights from former Vikings head coach Bud Grant before the Green Bay-Minnesota game last Sunday afternoon.

As we all know, after several tense days of waiting, the news trickled out the past two days that Hamlin was making remarkable progress. Today the 24-year-old Bills safety was taken off his ventilator and speaking with family, and friends, and even 2023 marks the start of the 20th season I’ll have covered the Green Bay Packers.

It’s been a whirlwind two decades of highs and lows for the Packers.  From the 2010 Super Bowl season to season-ending postseason losses, two coaching changes (From Mike Sherman to Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur) and countless Packers players and opponent interviews to 300-plus Flashback stories on former Packers and life after football.

From Bart Starr and Dave Robinson and Brett Favre to Frank Winters, they all said they’d never trade the experience of playing professional football.  For anything.  That it was worth all the sacrifice and pain when playing the game, and the potential post-NFL career impacts as they aged.

But I was not prepared for what transpired on Monday night on a national stage during one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the season between Buffalo and Cincinnati.

Damar Hamlin’s collapse after tackling Bengals’ receiver Tee Higgins was a sobering reminder of the risk football players take every time they take the field.

I stepped away from MNF for a moment and was told by my son that a player was down on the field.  The viewing audience could quickly tell the situation was serious as players from both teams kneeled or nervously milled around as team trainers, doctors, and then first responders attended to Hamlin.

Concern and shock were evident on their faces; and when the announcers stated CPR was administered before the ambulance departed the field, it hit me.

I was taken back to my teenage years in Green Bay when I worked part-time at Zeppelin’s Sub Shop and I heard the unmistakable crash of two vehicles—head-on—on University Avenue.  Cell phones were not even a thought back then, but I quickly called the police to report the crash and was the first person on the scene.

I can’t unsee what I saw that night.  Suffice it to say I’d never seen anyone injured that badly and several were literally fighting for their lives. 

Hamlin has done the same in a week that the National Football League and its fans won’t forget.  Players on that field will be changed for life.  The NFL has handled this unprecedented situation well and put Hamlin and the players first.  With prayers and well-wishes from the United States and abroad and an amazing medical team, Hamlin appears well on the way to a remarkable recovery.

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On my drive to the Packers-Vikings game Sunday, I spoke briefly via cell with Bud Grant, Minnesota’s former head coach.

After a holiday week of family, friends, and food, the 96-year-old Grant was preparing for a quiet afternoon of watching the game.

He shared his perspective on the Green Bay-Minnesota rivalry.

“Oh, I’ll watch the game on television and I’ll enjoy it,” said Grant, noting he had plenty of leftovers to enjoy at his Bloomington home.  “I not going to live or die (over the result).  It’s entertainment.”

I joked with the coach that Vikings and Packers fans on this day might disagree, and asked him his favorite about facing the Packers in Green Bay.

It didn’t come as the Vikings head coach, but as a player with the Philadelphia Eagles in the early 1950s.  The Eagles played the Packers, but their plane was delayed leaving the city and Grant, a native of Superior, Wis., got to eat dinner with his parents who had driven 250+ miles to see their son play in his home state.

“I can’t tell you what the score of the game was, I can’t tell you if I played good or bad,” Grant said.  “I remember spending about four hours with my folks who came from Superior.  Which was a big deal in those days. . .  to drive from Superior, stay overnight.  That was the most memorable game I remember playing the Packers.”

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The Green Bay Packers, after they lost to the Lions in early November, had playoff chances in the single digits.

With an amazing late-season run, the team has won four straight games and benefitted from the good fortune with other playoff contenders’ losses down the stretch to now control its playoff destiny.

Win Sunday night against Detroit and they’re in as the NFC’s No. 7 seed.

It won’t come easy against the 8-8 Lions, who will know if they have a chance at the playoffs as they need the Seattle Seahawks to lose to the reeling Los Angeles Rams in a 3:25 p.m. game.

Aaron Rodgers had one of the worst games of his illustrious career with three interceptions in a 15-9 loss at Ford Field two months ago.  Rodgers now has more weapons with the emergence of rookie receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, the defense is playing well the past month forcing 12 turnovers, and Keisean Nixon has provided a spark as the league’s top kickoff returner.

Detroit and Jared Goff are also on a roll and this should be a competitive game with stakes rarely seen between these NFC North rivals.

Week 18 Prediction

Packers 27, Lions 21