Nick Buoniconti shines light on CTE

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Nick Buoniconti, left, Larry Little, center, and Don Shula chat before a halftime Hall of Fame ring presentation in November 2005.
Nick Buoniconti, left, Larry Little, center, and Don Shula chat before a halftime Hall of Fame ring presentation in November 2005. MIAMI HERALD FILE

The personal toll of having been a team member of the Miami Dolphins during the 1972 “Perfect Season” is proving to be a heavy one — that is, if the cognitive problems some players are suffering in later life is to blame on the tackles and the concussions sustained on the field.

Lifting the veil on this sad reality is Miami-Dade resident Nick Buoniconti, a member of that iconic team, who recently revealed to Sports Illustrated that he is likely suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE — the scourge that has plagued veteran football players who made a living as human battering rams, and who received the blows as we watched and cheered.

Buoniconti was a linebacker in the NFL for 14 years, half of those years with the Dolphins. He appeared in three straight Super Bowls, and during that time, he estimates that he absorbed a whopping 520,000 hits. Of course, that’s hard on the brain.

Many scientists attribute CTE to repetitive brain injuries and consider it a cause of dementia and memory loss. A definitive diagnosis is possible only after a player dies with an autopsy. Today, at 76, Buoniconti’s family says his cognitive abilities have left him unable to remember how to dress.

What a shame.

Buoniconti’s case is especially poignant because football has obviously been a double-edged sword in his life: The game gave him a privileged life but also left his son paralyzed. At 19, Marc Buoniconti, a Citadel football player, sustained a spinal-cord injury making a tackle. Now, the senior Buoniconti says he is facing mental deterioration for similar acts committed in the name of football.

As tragic as it seems, Nick Buoniconti would be a convincing spokesman for CTE. He’s been there before. When son Marc was severely injured, Buoniconti vowed to find a cure for paralysis. In 1985, he co-founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a spinal-cord injury research center, and set out to use everything in his power to help people walk again.

In the process, Buoniconti and his son became the faces of hope for thousands with devastating spinal injuries. Today, the Miami Project continues its work with more than 250 scientists, researchers and clinicians.

The Buoniconti Foundation has collected millions of dollars for research. The center has made great strides but has not found a cure. Still, Buoniconti’s determination helped move the needle far more than might otherwise have happened, for which he is owed a great debt of gratitude.

Can he do the same for CTE and compel the NFL into doing more for the affected players? Let’s hope so.

Buoniconti expressed anger at the NFL, which reached a $1 billion concussion settlement to cover the cost of CTE and other brain issues with about 20,000 former football players. Buoniconti says that’s not enough and accuses the NFL of letting him and the others with cognitive issues down.

There is indication that other players who shared in the Perfect Season struggled, or continue to struggle with dementia, brain trauma or cognitive problems. The roll call is impressive. It includes Jim Kiick and the late Earl Morrall and Bill Stanfill.

Buoniconti is right: The NFL needs to do more for these players if their athletic endeavors on its behalf are responsible. And it’s imperative that it help current talent avoid a similar fate.