Historical essay
On Football, War, and Trauma

On Football, War, and Trauma

Sarah Handley-Cousins

There are few things more precious to Buffalonians than their football team. Not only do we love football, but we very specifically – and very fiercely – love the individuals who make up the current roster of the Buffalo Bills. So when safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during a Monday Night Football game in January, many of my friends and neighbors here in Buffalo were terrified. But one particular thing seemed to horrify us most, coming up over and over again in my conversations with fellow fans: the stricken looks on the faces of our beloved team. Josh Allen’s thousand-yard stare. Stefon Diggs’ tear-streaked cheeks.

In the tense days after Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, the team made clear they took the emotional toll of the event on the Bills players very seriously. Never did they express shame for shedding tears or needing help, nor did they play down the trauma the event had inflicted on this group of men. In a press conference, neither quarterback Josh Allen nor coach Sean McDermott tried to hide their emotions. Over and over, they emphasized the steps the players had taken to support one another, having group counseling sessions, talking, and hugging. “It sounds weird,” Allen said, “but [we’ve had] unbelievable embraces as men, just hugging somebody and actually leaning into them. There’s been a lot of that going around.”

Football is an inherently violent sport that has garnered comparisons to warfare from its earliest days in the late-nineteenth century. The game’s parallels to the Civil War served an important cultural function, helping to reassure Americans that the nation’s boys still had a way to harden and hone their masculinity. The sport, Century Magazine declared in 1887, “is doing for our college-bred men, in a more peaceful way, what the experiences of war did for so many of their predecessors in 1861-1865.” The parallels between war and football were regularly invoked – University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler described the game as “rampart lines” through which a “missile” is launched. Football required leadership, teamwork, and physicality, and also introduced young men to violence. (The parallel is still used – see, for example, the dogfight football scene in Top Gun: Maverick.) Not only did the game make young men stronger, wounded Union veteran Francis Walker argued that it honed their character, even helping them develop “something akin to patriotism and public spirit.” The violence of the scrum – like the violence of the battlefield – turned boys into men.

Drawing of a soldier being carried on a stretcher in front of a group of Civil War soldiers surrounding a table
Civil War wounded being carried off field. (Elbridge/Flickr | Public Domain)

But when I saw the anguished looks on those players’ faces and heard about how they turned to one another to process their trauma, I thought about the Civil War in a different way. Civil War combat may have sharpened some aspects of masculinity, but it also helped to broaden it. Men watched as comrades were blown to pieces and friends slowly died from diseases, as the bodies were stacked up like cordwood. The trauma these scenes inflicted by necessity made men emotional. Regardless of what society found acceptable masculine behavior, as Drew Gilpin Faust has written, “men wept.” She recounts the words of Virginian soldier John Casler, who admitted: “it does not look well for a soldier to cry, but I could not help it.” Another soldier, recalling the sights of the Gettysburg battlefield, wrote, “I found my head reeling, the tears flowing and my stomach sick at the sight.” Like us, nineteenth-century Americans had strict codes for masculine behavior – but trauma took no notice. Men wept.

While there have been some debates among Civil War historians about the extent to which the conflict was traumatizing for those who fought, all agree that it left deep emotional scars. I’ve written about soldiers and veterans who could not cope with that trauma. But many, many other soldiers turned to one another to manage the lasting impact of their shared traumatic experiences. No one could understand what they had been through but each other. Former military units had reunions, and groups of veterans not infrequently marked the anniversary of battles together on the former fields of battle. Veterans associations like the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) made regular local meetings as well as annual national encampments.

When veterans gathered, they were open about the power of their comradeship and the emotion that went along with it. The shared experience allowed men to connect emotionally in ways otherwise restricted by gender codes. Veterans of Colonel Dan McCook’s brigade traveled from Chicago to Kennesaw Mountain. When they arrived at their former battleground, they stood together and wept.[1] When Harvey Trimble was honored for his service to the GAR with speeches and a silver tea set, his acceptance speech was openly emotional with his brothers-in-arms: “My eyes are dazzled, my thoughts are whirling in circles like a cyclone, a volcano of emotion is vainly struggling to find words adequate to tell my thanks and express my high appreciation of your loving comradeship.” In 1949, at one of the final gatherings of aged Union veterans, “memories, like the tears, flowed freely,” as historian Brian Jordan described it. James Hard, then 107 years old, declared to his comrades: “I love the Grand Army. I love all of you, my comrades.”[2] His comrades were the only ones who could understand him, and soon, they would all be gone.

While veterans could turn to each other for support, we know mental health care for traumatized Civil War soldiers was virtually nonexistent. And while we know that the players on the field are in the capable hands of dozens of skilled doctors and counselors, we also must reckon with the NFL’s problem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other injuries, as well as the poor health outcomes of its players in the long term.

Despite the very serious problems inherent in the game, I still think there’s a glimmer of hope. Football is not war; war is not football. But in response to the sudden and shocking near-death of a comrade, teammates responded not unlike soldiers – turning to each other and sharing their pain with the ones who could understand it best. In a society poisoned by toxic masculinity and in a sport known for hyper-manhood, in this instance, instead of “manning up,” the Buffalo Bills have normalized men weeping openly, seeking therapy, and turning to each other for solace.


  1. Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright, 2015), 102.
  2. Jordan, Marching Home, 200.

Featured image caption: Buffalo Bills. (Courtesy All Pro Reels on Flickr)

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.

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