When Marc Buoniconti talks about his teenage years in Miami in the 1980s, his eyes widen and his smile turns into a smirk.
It was the cocaine cowboy days, when bodies were stuffed into car trunks at Dadeland Mall and bales of marijuana fell from the sky.
Buoniconti, a party boy with a famous father and friends who passed around joints and more, loved every moment. So much so that his mother had to sidle up to a teacher the night before his high school graduation, whispering to find out whether her son would get a diploma the next day.
“Barely,” Terry Buoniconti remembers Brother Angelo, Marc’s English teacher at Christopher Columbus High, telling her. “Just barely.”
Those wayward ways are why Buoniconti, who dislocated two bones at the top of his spinal column as a 19-year-old linebacker playing for The Citadel — a tackle that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down — says that moment on the field was probably the best thing to happen to him.
“That injury saved my life,” Buoniconti says 32 years later, tethered to his wheelchair, puffing through a tube to move it, as he can’t use his arms, hands or fingers. “I most likely would have failed out of college, probably that semester. Who knows where I would have wound up? Probably back to Miami, where I would have gotten in a lot more trouble.
“It’s almost like God plucked me out of the air and said, ‘All right, we’re going to change the trajectory of your life. I’m not going to let you go down that path, and I’m going to offer you another opportunity to reveal the real you.’ ”
Today, Buoniconti, 51, is president of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, the public face for thousands who have suffered catastrophic spinal or brain injuries. He keeps up on the latest research. He inspires people with his talks. He has just co-written a book, “Undefeated: From Tragedy To Triumph.” (He’ll appear at Books & Books on Oct. 25 and the Miami Book Fair in November.)
And as president of The Buoniconti Fund, started by his father, Nick, the famed co-captain of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, he, his family and friends have raised millions to fund The Miami Project’s basic mission: to make people walk again.
“There are very few people I know who could live under Marc’s conditions,” said Dr. Barth Green, co-founder and chairman of The Miami Project. “And he made the decision not only to live under those conditions, but to become successful and become a role model for others.
“They see this kid who can’t move anything, and who’s giving speeches in front of thousands of people and writing books. A regular person couldn’t do that, but he has those Super Bowl, Hall of Fame genetics.”
The give and take
Nick Buoniconti, Marc’s father, was one of the pivotal players on the ’72 Dolphins, a team that went 17-0, the only team in NFL history to complete a perfect season. The former linebacker was later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Marc introduced him.
“One of the sayings we always said is football has given the Buonicontis the greatest joy,” Marc said.
And its greatest sorrow.
Marc has read the research about the connection between football and concussions and CTE, a neurodegenerative disease characterized by headaches, memory loss and confusion. Especially alarming to him are children who play tackle football, as their brains are still developing.
“I honestly believe that Little League and high school football won’t be around that much longer,” he says. “The reason I say that is because research has demonstrated that continuous hits to the head cause brain damage. And there is a link between football players hitting their head and brain injury.
“How do you field a team of kids under 18 years old, knowing there is a liability out there, and not feel responsible?”
On a personal note, he has witnessed what the hits have done to his 76-year-old father, who can’t remember basic things like how to hang up a phone or knot a tie, according to a report earlier this year in Sports Illustrated.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Marc, his voice breaking. “I mean, it’s really heartbreaking.”
Marc also saw the game’s effects on his older brother, Nick III, captain of the Duke University football team in his senior year. After Marc was injured, he didn’t play another down. Now an Orlando attorney, Nick III can barely lift his arm above his head — fallout from the game.
“And so now when people ask me about football, and whether their child should play, I say absolutely not!” Marc declares, in a complete turnaround. “I would never recommend anyone to play football, let alone a small child.”
And so now when people ask me about football, and whether their child should play, I say absolutely not!
Marc Buoniconti, president, Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, after witnessing what football has done to his father and studying the link between blows to the head and brain damage
A similar transformation has occurred in Marc’s relationship with The Citadel, the military college in Charleston, South Carolina, that he attended on a football scholarship.
In the book, he details what happened on the football field on Oct. 26, 1985, a third-and-one play where Marc hurled himself helmet-first into the chest of East Tennessee running back Herman Jacobs, who was upside down, feet in the air, reaching for the first down. In a split-second, Marc crumpled to the ground, wondering whose arm was lying on the field, seemingly not belonging to anybody. It was his.
The injury was so severe that the team doctor warned his father in a phone call, “Your son is dying. Get here as soon as you can.”
The Buonicontis would later sue The Citadel, its trainer and team doctor. They contended that the school neglected a neck injury Marc had suffered weeks before in a game and that he shouldn’t have been playing.
The Citadel settled with the family for $800,000. A jury dismissed the $22.5 million suit against the team doctor, whose defense was that Marc had speared the runner with his helmet, an illegal hit.
The lawsuit led to a 20-year standoff between the Buonicontis and The Citadel.
As the 20th anniversary of his injury approached in 2005, Marc got a call from a former teammate and fellow linebacker, Joel Thompson, who dove at Jacobs during that fateful play. He asked Marc about reconciling with The Citadel.
Marc said OK, but the school had to approach him first.
Around the same time — the summer of 2005 — Major Gen. Roger Poole had been named interim president of The Citadel. He had a long affiliation with the school, as a graduate and former interim president in the ’90s.
When he took over the top job, Poole said he had two people with whom he wanted The Citadel to make amends.
The first was author Pat Conroy, a Citadel graduate whose 1980 novel “The Lords of Discipline” painted a harrowing tale of hazing and racism at a fictional military school that many assumed Conroy modeled after The Citadel. (In the book, the school is set in Charleston.)
Conroy later attacked The Citadel for not admitting women, a 153-year practice the school ended after a landmark 1996 U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying that all-male, publicly funded military colleges — the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel — either had to admit women or lose public funding.
The second person was Marc.
When Thompson reached out to Poole, Poole told him to work through the Board of Visitors, who would have to vote on the matter, and the athletic department, some of whose members still harbored bad feelings toward the Buonicontis.
“There was a lawsuit involved, and that stuck in some people’s craw,” Poole said.
Thompson wanted three things from The Citadel: to retire Marc’s jersey, award him an honorary degree and bequeath him a Citadel ring.
The first two were easy; the ring was not. The Citadel has a long list of rules regarding who gets a ring, taking into account grades, community service and military training.
“At The Citadel, the ring is as big as it gets,” said Les Robinson, a former athletic director at the school.
On the weekend when the school would retire his jersey — during halftime of the Citadel-Elon game — Marc, his family and close friends attended a reception before the game. His teammates, classmates from F-Troop and Citadel dignitaries were there.
A former teammate pulled out the ring. He put it on Marc’s finger.
“They wanted me to speak, and I was, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” said Marc, who was fighting back tears.
Today, Marc regularly returns to The Citadel, which has established a scholarship in his name for an athlete, funded in part by his former teammates.
“At The Citadel, its sole purpose is to teach you how to overcome unwinnable situations,” Marc says. “They put you in a situation where you have no way out, and you’ve got to figure a way out.”
He has mastered that lesson.
Reasons to be proud
With Marc barely breathing in a hospital room in Johnson City, Tennessee — the game was at East Tennessee State in that town — his dad told him one thing:
“Marc, I promise that I will do everything in my power to help you walk again.”
That led the Buonicontis to Barth Green, the neurosurgeon whom doctors at Duke had recommended to Nick, according to the book.
Barth and Nick co-founded The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, whose founding date is listed as Oct. 26, 1985, the date of Marc’s injury.
Over the next 32 years, The Miami Project and the Buoniconti Fund, which Nick created as the fundraising arm, have raised more than $350 million.
They hold an annual dinner in New York that has honored top athletes — from Joe DiMaggio, Joe Namath and others at the first one in 1986 to last month’s event, which included retired Boston Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat and former Miami Dolphin and Hall of Famer Jason Taylor.
The money goes toward medical research at The Miami Project, whose breakthroughs include treating acute spinal injuries by lowering the body temperature to minimize cell damage, a process called hypothermia. Emergency responders now use hypothermia on cardiac arrest patients, as do doctors treating newborns with brain injuries.
The Miami Project, too, is conducting six clinical trials. One of them involves transplanting Schwann cells, which are essential for repairing nerve damage and long thought by researchers to boost recovery after a spinal-cord injury.
“It’s been an amazing 30-year journey,” Green says. “I’m a third-generation doctor. And the greatest thrill of my life, as a healer and physician, has been being partners with these guys, Nick and Marc.”
For Marc, too, it’s been a journey, one whose steps included returning to college at the University of Miami, from where he graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology in 1993.
The journey, too, has taught him about the rewards of helping others, including Jacobs, the East Tennessee player.
After the first Citadel reunion, his teammates reached out to Jacobs, who attended the reunion the next year. As they were saying goodbye, Marc asked Jacobs a question: “What are your dreams?”
When Jacobs told him he wanted to be a chef, Marc contacted Johnson & Wales University. Jacobs, who was working at a fast-food joint in Johnson City, moved in with Marc to attend the culinary school. He graduated and worked for several high-end spots in South Florida, including Epicure Market in Miami Beach and Norman’s in Coral Gables. (He now works as a chef in Tampa.)
“When I reconnected with Marc, things really turned around,” said Jacobs, 53, who wrestled with guilt after Marc became a quadriplegic. “My thoughts, my energy, my drive. I really started my life at the age of 44.
“I tell people that Marc is my brother from another mother.”
George Abaunza, a former teammate from Columbus who co-wrote the book with Marc, isn’t surprised to hear that.
“What Marc always had in him — maybe misdirected, misguided in mischievous ways — was his heart,” says Abaunza, who earned a doctorate and is now a college dean.
Marc smiles when he talks about Jacobs, Abaunza and his work with the Miami Project.
“In the last line of my book, I say, in the end, be the person who makes you proud,” he says.
He thinks about it for a moment: “It’s finally taken me this long in my life to be proud of who I am.”
If you go
Marc Buoniconti will read from ‘Undefeated: From Tragedy to Triumph,’ a book he co-wrote with George Abaunza and Mark Vancil, at 8 p.m. Oct. 25, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. He will be at the Miami Book Fair, 4 p.m. Nov. 18, in Room 7128, Building 7, at the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College.