Miami Dolphins

Dolphins legend Buoniconti struggles to even put on a shirt due to brain disorder

Nick Buoniconti, linebacker with the Miami Dolphins, 1973.
Nick Buoniconti, linebacker with the Miami Dolphins, 1973. AP

In what has become all too familiar of a story, a core member of the Dolphins’ perfect season has something “really wrong with his brain,” Sports Illustrated is reporting.

And football, with the 14 years he spent as a human battering ram, might be to blame.

For the past four years, famed Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti has suffered falls, memory loss, confusion and often has trouble putting on his own shirt, according a preview of a report set to come out Tuesday.

“I feel lost,” the Hall of Famer who had a remarkable a second act in life as a lawyer and founder of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis told Sports Illustrated. “I feel like a child.”

He’s not the only member of the 1972 team to feel that way. Sports Illustrated on Wednesday will tell the story of Dolphins running back Jim Kiick, who “lived in squalor until he was put in an assisted care facility last summer with dementia/early onset Alzheimer’s.”

There’s more.

Backup quarterback Earl Morrall died in 2014; he had the most-advanced stage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE.

Bill Stanfill, the Dolphins’ original sack artist, suffered dementia before passing at age 69.

Before his death in 2016, Stanfill told the Miami Herald that he has been diagnosed with frontal lobe damage in his 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 an autopsy, but efforts are being made to diagnose it in the living.

Former Dolphins defensive lineman Manny Fernandez said last year that four members of 1972 Dolphins had cognitive issues but understandably declined to identify them. Former star safety Dick Anderson said two of those four require assistance, though Anderson and Fernandez note it’s impossible to know whether those four have CTE, Alzheimer’s Disease or advanced dementia.

Fernandez relayed a story from 2015 of when he left his home north of Albany, Georgia, to drive to South Florida for a funeral. Two and half hours later, he realized he had left his suit and garment bag at home.

Whether Buonticonti, 76, has CTE remains unclear.

But the signs are there.

He struggles to knot a tie or towel his back, according to the report. Last fall, he injured himself when falling down a staircase, shouting to his wife afterward, “I should just kill myself! It doesn’t matter!”

“I did the article precisely for all the guys who don’t have a voice and are suffering like I’m suffering,” Buoniconti told the Miami Herald on Monday evening. “It’s not getting any better. I’d love to talk to you more, but at this point and time I’m exhausted. I went to physical therapy and occupational therapy today, and it leaves me drained.”

Buoniconti played seven years for the Dolphins, winning two Super Bowls and earning a place on the team’s all-time team. But he might be just as well known for his very public crusade to cure paralysis. His son, Marc, is a quadriplegic, suffering a spinal cord injury while making a tackle in college.

The elder Buoniconti is also a member of the Bar in both Florida and Massachusetts and was a co-host of the weekly TV program “Inside the NFL” for more than two decades.

“This has been my dad’s reality for a while now, and it’s been a frustrating and heartbreaking journey,” Marc Buoniconti said in a written statement. “To see him like this after all he’s done to help others breaks my heart and makes me want to do everything I can to find some answers for him and the countless other athletes dealing with these issues. We ask for your continued support as we try to help my father as he wages his courageous battle.”

Miami Herald sportswriter Barry Jackson contributed to this report.

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley