All my life, I’ve been carried by grace.

Don’t ask me how ’cause I can’t explain.

It’s nothing short of a miracle I’m here.

I’ve got some blessings that I don’t deserve.

I’ve got some scars, but that’s how you learn.

It’s nothing short of a miracle I’m here.

I think it over and it doesn’t add up.

I know it comes from above.

You held me steady so I wouldn’t give up.

You opened doors that nobody could shut.

I hope I never get over what You’ve done.

I’ve got miracles on miracles.

A million little miracles.

Miracles on miracles.

Count your miracles.

One, two, three, four, I can’t even count ’em all.

          Million Little Miracles, Maverick City

The day after the Cardinals Aug. 21 preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens started out as just another normal one for cornerback Antonio Hamilton, his wife Tiara and daughters Aubrey (5) and Olivia (2).

It wouldn’t end that way. As he prepared to cook some shrimp, something he’s done “hundreds and hundreds of times,” everything changed. It took only “30 seconds, just a blink of an eye,” Hamilton said.

That’s usually how sudden tragedy hits. For Hamilton, who has mostly recovered from the burns he suffered on his leg and feet, the ultimate tragedy was averted. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t numerous dark moments along the way.

The ‘elephant’ (in the room)

That’s how Hamilton described the incident when he opened up to the media Monday about what happened in those fateful 30 seconds.

There was a small flame from grease in the pot he was using, but when the lid was taken off, it erupted in more flame. His kids were crying, he was trying to find a fire extinguisher and the smoke detector was blaring. At that point, he attempted to walk to the door, but some flame hit his face causing him to drop the pot.

That’s when his shorts caught fire, not noticing at first that his feet were burned. Realizing that a grease fire can’t go out by throwing water on it, he said, “But I do recall as I dropped the pot, I felt a gush of wind blow on me. It was nobody but God. In my mind, I had to go through this for something. I met some people and had conversations with people that I wouldn’t have had, had I not burned my feet or sustained any of these injuries.”

After being treated at the renowned Arizona Burn Center, what ensued were days of reflection, questioning and being in a “dark hole and dark space” that he credits his wife for pushing him through. A wife that was six months pregnant at the time with a baby boy, who they hope will be born during the Cardinals’ bye the week after Thanksgiving.

Tiara the rock

“My wife was there from the time that it happened all the way up until this point,” Hamilton said. “She had to take a lot on helping me change my wounds and clean them and she went through hell because I went in that dark space and it wasn’t fine. The first week, the first picture that I posted, it didn’t look too gruesome. But if you go back to a more recent post, you can see where I went. I went to a very, very dark place. It was times where I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t get out of the bed and pee, and she had to essentially lift me up out of the bed and get me to the bathroom. I had to be totally dependent on her.

Antonio Hamilton’s first tweet with photo of the burns

“There were times where the doctors were telling me, ‘Take these meds, it’ll help take the pain away to clean your wounds,’ but it wasn’t helping and my wife had to clean that for me and she caught a little bit of the flack of just what it is to go through pain. She endured a lot and I just want to thank her and just tell her I love her. And I’m extremely appreciative because I wouldn’t have made it through that situation without her because she was, as bluntly as I can put it, she was on my ass. There were times where I didn’t want to clean my feet because it hurt to touch it. And she was like, ‘Come on, we got to go through this.’”

Hamilton’s doctors at first said it might take two or three months to heal. He said, “For me to hear that after coming off the offseason that I was having, it was a lot. But my wife, she kept encouraging me every day. Like, ‘We’re gonna get through this.’ Just a little bit of encouraging words here and there just continued to help get me over the curve. And I’m here today, I’m back playing. I’m feeling good. And I’m just thankful. So I have a lot of gratitude for anybody that has ever gone through something like this, and getting another opportunity to reestablish themselves and what it is that they’re doing. And so I’m thankful just to be back in the game.”

Hamilton admitted it was difficult to ask for help, but he had a revelation that it’s “a part of marriage. And that helped me in my marriage to know that we are one; we work together. That’s my partner in everything that we do. And so for me to have to legitimately rely on her for everything, literally everything, it just helped us. I grew in a better way and I’m a better person from this situation.”

‘My princesses, my queens’

That’s how Hamilton referred to his daughters, while understanding what they experienced at such a young age.

“They had never seen me cry,” he said. “But they heard me scream when I burned myself, so that messed them up.”

Of course, it was Olivia that spilled the beans and led to Hamilton going on social media and telling the world what happened.

Hamilton’s wife Tiara and daughter Aubrey

He said, “She was the one that got everybody to know what happened to me because every day she went to school, she was like, ‘My Daddy got burned. My daddy got burned. He’s OK, but my daddy got burned.’ So they would go out and ask my wife, ‘Is your husband OK? Because Olivia keeps saying that he got burned.’ Finally, we had to address it and we just put it out there to let everybody know.”

Hamilton also said he hid his feet from Aubrey and Olivia because “I didn’t like them to see me in that dark place. So we did our best as far as keeping (them covered) and keeping the doors closed and stuff like whenever I had to go through that time because it took an hour for me to take a shower and to clean my garments and to put cream on and to wrap and do all of that. And so I didn’t let them see it at first.

“But after about three weeks, I got to the point where I was walking good. So then I understood my purpose. I opened my mind and said, ‘OK, it’s a teachable moment. Let me show them. Look, this is what happened to daddy’s feet. This is why you don’t play around in the kitchen. And this is why when you see x, y and z you stay away from it.’ And so it became a teachable moment.”

Overall, he realizes, “It could have been worse, and my family could have got hurt from that situation. For me to just sustain these little bit of injuries; I call it a little bit now because I went through it, made it through it. But just that little bit, it could have been way worse. I could have lost one of my kids; I could have lost my wife.

“And I definitely wouldn’t have been playing football. I wouldn’t care anything about football. Just for Him to allow me to take this home and get through it, I’m thankful for it. Because if it had been my wife or kids, I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know; how would you know how that would have impacted me?”

The timeline

The first words from Hamilton’s doctors were honest and made him wonder what would happen.

“I was naïve, very ignorant,” he said. “They were telling me that the grease just stays hot for a long period of time. So even though it doesn’t look like it’s doing anything, the grease will continue to burn up to two to three days.”

That could have turned his second-degree burns into third degree, which would have necessitated skin grafting and losing all feeling in the feet. He did have some spots that were third-degree, but as the other burns healed, the third degree ones “fell in line.”

While the first week wasn’t bad, he said, “The second week was total hell. I couldn’t eat, I lost so much weight. I have a picture of my leg that you would think that I was in a third-world country where I hadn’t had any food to eat for a while because I just lost so much muscle density that fast from not being able to walk and use my toes.”

Hamilton was barefoot when he spoke to the media and said it was “just having gratitude having my feet on the ground. A lot of people don’t get to put their feet on the ground. Some people had to have their stuff amputated. So, it’s just like, ‘Man, I get to do it again.’ And so those small things of being able to just wash my feet, just to rub my feet and put lotion on; that’s a big win to me because I could barely touch my feet without feeling like I needed to tear down the house because of the place that I was in.”

He credits how hard he worked in the offseason for his quick recovery.

“My body being in shape and having some type of health about yourself is very beneficial to recovering from burns,” he said. “Because it just allows your body to heal. It’s amazing what the body can do. When the doctors would see my feet, week by week by week, it was like, ‘Man, your feet are just healing like so, so fast.’ And that was encouraging to me. So I was trying to do everything that I could as far as taking different vitamins, and having more of a sense of urgency and sense of being deliberate. And what it was that I was putting in my body, because I wanted everything to heal properly. And I’m here now six weeks removed from what had happened, and I’m just as healthy now as I was before I had this incident.”

While the healing is mostly over, there are residual effects with the skin “very new and really soft.” Hamilton added, “I blister a little bit (when shoes) rub up against your heel; you get that little water bump. Over time, that’ll go away just because the skin is thickening and the pigment it’s already started coming back as well. So I don’t even care if it doesn’t; I don’t care as long as my feet are healed. That’s all I care about. I don’t care about the look, but (jokingly said) I might try to get into foot modeling.

“I have no problems muscular or anything like that, just a little bit with the nerve endings. Sitting up here, if you notice me moving a little bit it’s because if I sit in this area for a long time, the nerves are still sensitive on my feet. So I feel like my feet are tingling just a little bit. So once I stand up and walk around, it goes away instantly.”

Faith and belief

The sincerity of Hamilton talking about his faith is real. He truly believes this happened so he could help others, while openly admitting he was very questioning in the early days.

“I think that I was meant to go through that situation for somebody else to see me and see how I can handle an adverse situation and see how I respond,” he said. “Because it’s not to say that what I went through, I didn’t have my doubts or my faith didn’t shrink. Oh, I did question God. A lot of just ‘why?’ just ‘why?’ Just give me the signs and allow me to see what it is that you want me to see from the situation. Like, what am I supposed to learn from this, and through that, I think that’s what it was.

“God works in mysterious ways. I will say I was supposed to be just a beacon of light just to continue to show people like what it is to stand strong in your faith no matter what the situation looks like, because in the blink of an eye, everything could be gone. Like that (snaps fingers). And, you know, it’s up to you how you choose to handle it. You can choose to go in that dark hole and stay there, or you can choose to climb up out of it. And yes, I did go through that dark hole. I just thank God that I relied on what I always rely on. And that’s my faith.

“Literally, I think it was meant to happen because I had to be used. God uses people in mysterious ways. You never know how he wants to use you. You just have to be humble enough to be able to stand firm on what it is that you believe in and just try to open your eyes and be able to be used.”

Hamilton was sent the song Million Little Miracles by a friend and said, “Every day, from the time that it happened, until now, I play that song almost exclusively and it’s just a million little miracles and ‘1-2-3-4, I can’t even count them all.’ You go through so much little stuff, and you don’t notice how short of a time things can change. I couldn’t play with my kids the way that I want to. I’m a dad. I’m not just a football player. No, I’m a dad, and I go home, I play with my kids. I leave here and I’m dad and I couldn’t play with my kids.”

He also gives people books, specifically “More Than a Carpenter” and “Purpose Driven Life.” He said he gave out copies of “More Than a Carpenter” to 20 teammates during training camp.

An emotional 72 hours

It began with his return to play Sunday, continued Monday with his 23-minute media session and then featured his giving back Tuesday with a visit to the burn center with teammates Byron Murphy Jr., Jalen Thompson, Charles Washington and Christian Matthew, all defensive backs.

Hamilton kneeled when he went on the field prior to the game.

“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I was going through a lot of emotions, just trying to stay under control and trying not to get too high. But as soon as I stepped out on that field, it just all just oozed out. I’m just thankful, I just have a lot of gratitude. I was in a very, very, very dark place.”

When asked when he was able to start working out to get back in football shape, Hamilton said, “About two weeks ago. I’ve only been able to work out three days a week for like 20 minutes outside. So this Sunday was my first real workout type of action for the last six weeks. And I mean, you go back to check the tape, you wouldn’t necessarily have thought that I missed six weeks. But inside and when I hit that sideline (on a punt), I felt like I was dying.

“Poured water all over my face, all over my body. It was like, ‘Ham, you all right?’ ‘Yeah, I’m all right.’ I’m behind right now, struggling, but I made it through. It was a great test. And it felt good. It felt so good just to get back out there. And do it all over again. And just taking every play, every rep, every second, being thankful for it.”

Tuesday, the players first mingled outside with younger people that had been through burn recovery and then visited inside with several kids being treated in the hospital. Some that have recovered were in the burn center for many months.

Hamilton spoke off-the-cuff to about 10 recovered patients and their families and when asked how the accident happened, he went through it as he did Monday and took off his shoes and socks.

He said, “It’s just a blessing to able to come here and be with you all because we all share the same type of scars. We have it in various places. I’m still kind of healing from mine. Be proud of our scars. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just something we happened to go through. I hate that we had to go through it, but I’m glad to get to go through it with you guys.

“You are no different than anybody else. We just have a different story to tell.”

He then thanked those that were there for showing up.

He said afterward, “I show my burns because it sends the message that it doesn’t make you weird. You have your unique look. It’s OK to show it off. You don’t have to be ashamed of it. Be true to who you are. It’s part of your story.

“To know that you’re not alone. That you may be scared, but there’s others that are also scared. It’s OK. I might not get my pigment back, but it’s OK. Show us, don’t run away from it. I can relate to the pains and the frustrations and the entire healing process and what it is to go through it. What it looks like to get out on the other side and just be a beacon of light to these kids.”

When asked what Hamilton’s teammates knew in the aftermath of the injury, Murphy told, “At first, we didn’t know how bad it was. And we didn’t know the full story behind it. Kinda asking questions, but didn’t want to bother him. Let him have his time with his family, but still reaching out and making sure he was good. It was a blessing just having him come back to the locker room.”

He was glad to be part of the visit with Hamilton.

“I just like the way he’s approached it,” Murphy added. “Coming here, talk to the kids. Put that confidence back in their heads. Showed them they’re no different than us. We all go through our battles, our scars. But those scars are going to help you keep your head in a different position. Keep your mind straight. When you get through something like that, you feel you’ve accomplished something. That’s what we’re here for today.”

While games are important and many lose their minds over a loss that might include turnovers, a dropped pass or a missed kick, seeing real life can put things in perspective.

Said Murphy, “Situations happen. Obviously, you’re putting your body on the line every single Sunday. Even outside of that, anything can happen. Just being blessed every single day. Don’t take a day for granted.”

The burn center

Hamilton couldn’t say enough about the treatment he received at the Arizona Burn Center within Valleywise Health Medical Center.

He said, “Valleywise is amazing. Their burn unit is second to none. I was blessed and fortunate to be in an area that has one of the top burn units in the country.”

Two of the recovered burn victims present Tuesday were Isabella McCune and Isla Clare Cook, both now 11-years-old.

Isabella spent a record 276 days in the hospital and underwent 109 surgeries and procedures after a March, 2018, incident when a fire pit exploded. She suffered second- and third-degree burns over 65 percent of her body.

Isla also had second- and third-degree burns over 45 percent of her body after a June, 2021, accident when a leaking propane tank caught fire. In some areas, she had first-degree burns.

Hamilton said, “It gives me a different type of perspective to see that they had more significant burns than me. I understand their pain.

“You can’t be a weak-minded person to go through something like this. Let them know there are better days ahead. That you were able to sustain something as gruesome and painful as this and you were able to come out of it. It just shows how big of a person and a hero that you are.”

This past summer, Isabella and Isla were part of a 47-person group led by Dr. Kevin Foster, the director of the burn center, that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (19,314 feet) in Tanzania, Africa. There were six other burn survivors that participated.

Byron Murphy Jr. with Isabella (right) and Isla (left)

Organized by K2 Adventure Travel, the group dubbed themselves Team Courage Rising, and took seven days to scale the mountain. They also have helped raise nearly $400,000 for the new Diane & Bruce Halle Arizona Burn Center that is scheduled to open in October, 2023. It will have state-of-the-art equipment, separate places for affected adults and children and improved rehabilitation areas.

When Foster spoke to the Arizona Republic at the burn center after returning from the climb, he noted that all eight burn survivors were able to summit.

He said simply, “It’s a perfect metaphor for this place,” and then headed back to work.

Antonio Hamilton can certainly empathize with that.

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Howard Balzer is in his 47th year covering professional football as a writer, editor and broadcaster and has covered 41 Super Bowls. His connection with pro football began in 1976 with College and Pro Football Newsweekly, and since then he has been a featured columnist for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today Sports Weekly and The Sports Xchange. Balzer moved to St. Louis in 1978 to work for The Sporting News, where he became Pro Football Editor in 1979. He was an analyst on ESPN's initial broadcast of the NFL Draft in 1980 and continued in that role through 1988. He has won seven writing awards in the Professional Football Writers of America competition, won an Emmy for commentaries on KPLR-TV in St. Louis in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 and 1990. He was named the 2016 winner of the Bob Broeg Media Award presented by the St. Louis/Tom Lombardo Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The award is for enthusiasm, integrity, professionalism and devotion to the game of football and is reserved for individuals whose contributions to football in the St. Louis area have made a significant difference. Balzer was an officer (secretary and secretary/treasurer) for the Professional Football Writers of America for 33 years and was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Balzer relocated to the Phoenix area in 2020 as the publisher of the FanNation AllCardinals site and is now the Cardinals reporter for PHNX. He is entering his 19th year as one of 49 voting members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is also on the Hall's Seniors Committee. He is the co-host of the weekly Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show on SiriusXM NFL Radio and is a part-time host at ArizonaSports 98.7 FM.