One yard, one crumb of a yard was all that was at stake in the opening minutes of a football game on an autumn Saturday. Running back Herman Jacobs of East Tennessee State wanted to obtain it. Linebacker Marc Buoniconti of the Citadel wanted to stop him.
Two players with little in common except their passion for football intersected. Buoniconti’s neck was dislocated. Jacob’s heart was broken.
Both were paralyzed by their violent collision, although the toll took different forms. Buoniconti left the stadium in an ambulance and a doctor confirmed what Buoniconti knew as he lay numb on the field after the tackle: He was a quadriplegic. Jacobs finished the game and the season, but something disconnected inside him.
Buoniconti was confined to a wheelchair, walking only in his dreams. Jacobs was shackled by guilt, sleepwalking through life.
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Thirty years later, Buoniconti and Jacobs recall the third-down play from Oct. 26, 1985, in crystalline detail. Ultimately, it made them best friends.
“The quarterback pitched me the ball,” Jacobs said. “I could see Marc coming. First I got hit low by another player and flipped through the air. Then Marc hit me in my lower back. It was the hardest hit I’ve ever taken.”
Buoniconti fought off one block, sprinted toward the somersaulting Jacobs and dove helmet-first into the 20 on Jacob’s jersey.
“Next thing I knew, bam!” Buoniconti said. “My body rolled over and my arm flopped to my side and I thought, ‘Whose arm is that? Oh, that’s my arm. OK, I am hurt bad. I am paralyzed. Don’t panic. Don’t freak out.’”
Buoniconti feels pride to this day that he stopped Jacobs for no gain. The Citadel won the game. The two remain avid football fans. They talked a lot about college, pro and high school football Friday during lunch in Coconut Grove, after greeting each other with a gentle head butt.
They could be bitter about the devastating play that linked them forever. Instead, they believe they were transformed.
Eight years ago, Buoniconti reached down and rescued Jacobs, persuaded him to move to Miami, enroll in culinary school, pursue a career as a chef and leave behind his lonely existence in Tennessee, where he worked at dead-end fast-food jobs.
Jacobs, in turn, fueled a new source of energy in Buoniconti, president of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which has charted a recent series of breakthroughs in research and clinical trials, in pioneering transplantation of Schwann and stem cells into the spinal cord, in brain stimulation and in hypothermia treatment. Buoniconti’s dream of walking again doesn’t seem fanciful or far-fetched anymore. The Miami Project, co-founded by Buoniconti’s father, former Dolphin linebacker Nick, and Dr. Barth Green, has raised $450 million in three decades and plans to build a new rehabilitation center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“People called us crazy and it’s been a long and grueling journey but at last we’re seeing the fruits of the game plan,” Nick Buoniconti said. “Marc is the face of the Project. All the advances may not help him, but that doesn’t matter. What propels him is helping others.”
Buoniconti, 49, who sips or puffs on a tube to move his wheelchair and relies on 24-hour nursing care, is a missionary of hope for patients with spinal cord injuries. Whether he is dealing with U.S. presidents, corporate titans, scientists or friends who need his counsel, he transmits optimism. Paralysis gave Buoniconti a purpose.
“My injury saved me because I was going in the wrong direction,” Buoniconti said, remembering his days as a carouser at Columbus High, including the time he and two friends streaked through the halls of all-girls Lourdes Academy, wearing only ski masks and sneakers, laughing uproariously as the nuns yelled at them in disgust. His parents sent him to the Citadel to drum discipline into him. “I was a semester or two from flunking out of college. I had no plan or future outside of football. My mom says I probably would have wound up in jail or dead. I’d flown through life with reckless abandon and that’s how I played the game. I dove into Herman and the impact changed everything.”
Jacobs, 51, grew up in the projects of Tampa’s Riverview Terrace. When he was 5 years old, he stood in his front yard and witnessed his father’s death, when the boyfriend of an older sister shot him during an argument. When he was a 14-year-old linebacker, he sacked a quarterback who suffered a serious neck injury on the play, and Jacobs asked to switch to offense so he wouldn’t have to tackle anybody again. When he was 21, he convinced his troubled twin brother Herbert to leave Tampa and move in with him in Johnson City, Tennessee, where he was on a football scholarship. The night before Herbert was to depart, he was shot to death during a drug-related dispute.
When Jacobs went to the sideline after he was hit by Buoniconti and heard from a trainer that Buoniconti was paralyzed, any reservoir of resiliency within him was sucked dry.
“I don’t remember the rest of the game,” said Jacobs, who visited Buoniconti at the hospital, where Buoniconti’s brother confirmed the grim prognosis. “I was caught in a downward spiral from that moment onward.”
Jacobs speaks more in the manner of a poet than an ex-football star. Like Buoniconti, he was undersized but had NFL aspirations. After Buoniconti’s injury, Jacobs said he never played with the same intensity. Scouts tested him and invited him to the league combine, but he didn’t go, instead sinking into an anonymous, mechanized routine, emotionally numb.
While Buoniconti overcame his initial struggle with depression, Jacobs could not.
“For 20 years I punished myself,” he said. “I felt like I was to blame. I felt like everybody hated me, especially Marc and his family.”
He didn’t finish his degree. He tried playing semi-pro football but when he had to make a tackle on an interception he realized he had no desire for contact. He worked for Johnson City's parks and recreation, Wendy’s, Waffle House, Pal’s.
“I stopped smiling, lost my friends, went through a failed marriage,” he said. “I just pushed people away, couldn’t seem to do anything right. It’s like I was searching in the dark.”
By 2007, Buoniconti had reconciled with the Citadel, years after he had sued the school. Buoniconti’s jersey was retired and he received a graduation ring. But he hadn’t forgotten about Jacobs, and sought him out, and invited him to a Citadel football reunion.
When they met in Charleston, S.C., they cried. Buoniconti realized the depth of Jacobs’ sorrow.
“I told Herman flat out, ‘This is not your fault, you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time,’” Buoniconti said.
Buoniconti asked Jacobs what he wanted to do with his life.
“No one had ever asked me that question,” Jacobs said. “My mother and grandmother taught me to love cooking. I told him I wanted to be a chef.”
Buoniconti, who is described as “a man in constant motion” by Miami Project spokesman Scott Roy, pulled Jacobs out of his rut, helped him enroll at Johnson and Wales University in North Miami and invited him to be his roommate at his Grove condo.
“Marc allowed me to heal and start over at age 44,” Jacobs said. “If not for him, I might be living on the street.”
When Buoniconti’s nurse had a heart attack, Jacobs took over the tasks of lifting, feeding and cleaning Buoniconti.
“Unless you see a quadriplegic’s life first-hand, you can’t understand how difficult it is,” Jacobs said. “It takes three hours just to get Marc up and going in the morning. Living with Marc, living by his example, watching him interact with patients — he motivated me.”
The two enjoyed going to football games, attending Miami Project events, eating out, hanging out with Buoniconti’s family members. Jacobs worked at Norman’s 180, Epicure, the Westin Colonnade, Red Fish Grill and Jaguar before moving back to Tampa to take care of his mother. He’s manager of a PDQ restaurant and remarried in March.
Jacobs’ reawakening affirmed Buoniconti’s faith in his role, even amid his own tribulations. Last year, after complications from gall bladder surgery, he was in intensive care for 40 days.
“Sometimes I say, ‘Wow, it’s been 30 years of a remarkable evolution,’ and sometimes I say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s been 30 years in a wheelchair,’” Buoniconti said. “I try to focus on the difference I’ve made in people’s lives, which is the greatest gift you can give.”
Jacobs was one he inspired to rise up and move forward.
“I keep my mind on that date,” Jacobs said. “Love and friendship grew out of something that could have killed us both.”