Nick Buoniconti, a Hall of Fame football star who anchored the Miami Dolphins’ dominant defense on their undefeated 1972 team and later raised half a billion dollars for research to cure paralysis while becoming one of the most distinguished and accomplished alumni in franchise history, died on Tuesday night after a bout with pneumonia.
Buoniconti, who was 78, had been in declining health, physically and mentally, in recent years and blamed his diminishment on the impact of a football career that spanned 14 seasons.
“He’s a guy who was more than just a football player, was larger than life to a lot of us,” said Nat Moore, the Dolphins’ director of alumni relations and former teammate who once hired Buoniconti as his agent. “We’re going to miss him. He was a guy that thought outside the box and made things happen, ... a guy who lived a full life.”
Dick Anderson, Buoniconti’s close friend and former teammate, said Wednesday: “We did a lot of things together, and when you go through the list of things Nick did in his life, it’s remarkable. He was a very special individual that kept succeeding in whatever he did. When he decided to do something, it was done the right way and you knew it was going to get done.”
A Boston University physician who examined Buoniconti in 2017 said “the way Nick appeared, his history and MRI, everything was consistent with CTE,” though the degenerative brain disease cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death.
“He struggled the last couple of years,” Moore said. “Thank God he’s in a better place now. His suffering is over, and he will always be remembered not only as the first Dolphins defensive player to go into the Hall of Fame but also one of the greatest Dolphins ever.”
On the field, Buoniconti was one of the most productive middle linebackers in pro football history, earning induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001 after seven seasons with the Boston Patriots of the American Football League and then seven with the Dolphins, a career that included two Super Bowl victories.
But he left an even greater legacy off the field as the co-founder (with Dr. Barth Green) of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, an organization that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Buoniconti devoted much of his time to that cause after his son Marc was paralyzed by a collision in a 1985 college football game in Johnson City, Tennessee.
“I was told Marc would be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life,” Nick said in an HBO documentary about his life that aired this past February. “I fell to my knees. I couldn’t believe it. It was so traumatic. After the phone call, I went out and told his mother Marc was paralyzed. And of course, she cried. The doctor said ‘please get here as soon as you can; he’s dying.’ I cried and I cried and I cried.”
Anderson and Buoniconti had a special bond; Anderson was the first chairman of the board of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis after the foundation was started.
Anderson estimated they got together at least 10 times to pop champagne after it was assured that the 1972 Dolphins, at least for another season, would remain the only undefeated team in NFL history.
“We were the ones that started the champagne toast because we lived four doors from each other in Coral Gables — [and quarterback] Bob Griese across the street” from 1985 to 2000, Anderson said Wednesday. “The first time I got the bottle and walked up to his house. Even when we were in a different city, we would call each other and say time to celebrate.”
Anderson said he last spoke with Buoniconti a month or two ago.
“The conversations would get shorter because of his diminished health,” Anderson said. “But he knew who I was all the time.”
Nick Buoniconti was born Dec. 15, 1940, in Springfield, Massachusetts, grew up in an Italian neighborhood of the city where his parents owned a bakery, starred on the high school football team and went on to become an All American football player for Notre Dame in 1961.
Some scouts considered the 5-11 Buoniconti to be too small to be a professional player, but after being selected by the Boston Patriots with the 102nd overall pick — 13th round — of the 1962 AFL draft, Buoniconti immediately made an impact, earning the team’s rookie of the year award.
He intercepted 24 passes and made five appearances in the AFL All-Star Game during his seven seasons and earned a spot on the AFL’s all-time team. While he wasn’t excelling on the field, Buoniconti was studying at night to earn a law degree, which proved fruitful after his playing career ended.
He was traded to the Dolphins in 1969 and initially wasn’t pleased. Buoniconti said he briefly considered retiring before warming up to the idea of uprooting and playing for a new team.
Don Shula, who became Dolphins coach the season after Buoniconti was acquired, said: “Before I took the [Dolphins] job, I really didn’t know a lot about Nick. When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe a guy that small was able to accomplish as much as he could accomplish as a player. I said ‘This is the guy? I’ve got to work with him?!’ ”
During his seven seasons with the Dolphins, Buoniconti made two Pro Bowl appearances, set a franchise record for tackles in a season (161 in 1973) and was a linchpin on a team that made three consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
On his HBO special, Buoniconti spoke of one incident when Shula “was getting angry at Dick Anderson and I intervened and told Shula to go [expletive] himself. I thought he was out of line. He took me aside and said, ‘Don’t ever tell me to go [expletive] myself again.’ And I didn’t. He was the boss and I was the player.”
Moore recalled Tuesday how “whenever something needed to happen with coach Shula, he was the guy who went back in the back and talked to coach Shula and worked things out that was better for the team.”
Moore noted how Buoniconti would “stand behind the offense on days he wasn’t practicing and by just looking at the offensive line, looking at the backs, could tell you what play we were running already. It showed why he was such a great player. He was a smallish linebacker but extremely smart. He always got to the hole before the guard or tackle could get to him and he could blow up a play.”
Shula said “the best quality he had is he was a ferocious competitor. Very intelligent. The more I got to know him, the more I knew I had something very special on my hands.”
After retiring following the 1976 season, Buoniconti worked for a time as a sports agent, representing baseball stars Bucky Dent and Andre Dawson and nearly 30 other athletes. He also worked as an attorney and was chief operating officer of Columbia Laboratories, a pharmaceutical research and development company.
He was also president of the U.S. Tobacco Company during the late 1970s and early 1980s and became familiar to a new generation of football fans in his role as a commentator on the HBO program “Inside The NFL.” His 23-year run on the program ended in 2001.
But a large chunk of Buoniconti’s time was spent spearheading efforts to raise money to cure the disease that has left his son Marc wheelchair bound.
“When we came in the league in 1970s, guys would have back injuries or injuries to their spine and their career was over with,” Moore said. “Because of Nick raising the money, he and Marc, what they’ve been able to do at the Miami Project, guys are getting up and walking again.”
Said Anderson: “When [Dr.] Barth Green said I need to find a way to cure paralysis, Nick said money isn’t going to stand in the way. He was committed to get Marc out of a wheelchair.”
Marc, who remains wheelchair bound, said in 2017: “He could have been sitting on the beach sipping champagne for the rest of his life. But what did he do? He went around and gave the rest of his life to help his son.”
Marc released a statement after his father’s death, saying “today, with a heavy heart and profound sorrow, my family and the entire Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and Buoniconti Fund community mourn the loss of a man who was truly larger than life, my father, NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti. My dad has been my hero and represents what I have always aspired to be; a leader, a mentor and a champion. He made a promise to me that turned into a revolution in paralysis research. We can best honor his dedication and endless commitment by continuing with our work until that promise is fulfilled and a cure is found.”
“He was in no small part a catalyst for a renaissance in neuroscience research,” said Green, chairman of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. “Nick never lost sight of his family or his commitment to his son. ... Everyone is there at the beginning and then they disappear, and Nick never disappeared.”
Green said Buoniconti’s philanthropy and his work to raise awareness on paralysis research helped fund transplantation of cells, bioengineering and other therapies to improve the quality of life of people reliant on wheelchairs.
“Our basic goal is what Nick wanted, to replace the nervous system,” Green said. “Ironically, we weren’t fast enough to replace the brain.”
Buoniconti’s health began diminishing seven years ago. In recent years, he spoke of the frustration of his inability to consistently perform simple tasks such as knotting a tie.
“I am sad to hear of Nick’s passing. Nick was special to me in every way,” Shula said. “He was someone I greatly admired. His love for his wife, Lynn, his children, grandchildren, friends, teammates, family and the community was evident. His groundbreaking work with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis has made a huge difference in the lives of so many people. I am thankful to have had Nick in my life. I will miss him.”
Nick’s wife, Lynn, told the HBO documentary the “first signs” of a decline in her husband “were around 2013, when I first start noticed changes. His impatience, attention span, driving. I became more highly aware something wasn’t right. He would come home from a golf course and be covered in bandages.
“He said, ‘I fell over a wall. I don’t think the wall was there before.’ He wouldn’t remember a conversation, where he was that morning, who he played golf with that day.”
For years, doctors told him he had dementia. But the visit to Boston University confirmed the great likelihood of CTE.
During his 2018 interview for the HBO documentary, he bemoaned losing his train of thought at least once during the interview and said: “Everything is jumbled for me. It’s just not possible for me to do it without stumbling.”
He said he ended up taking “probably 20 pills a day and that’s not an exaggeration. I have a caregiver 24 hours a day and it’s difficult when you have all of your freedoms stripped from you. Marc is amazing being able to put up being paralyzed so many years. We’re both in a way paralyzed. I’m paralyzed because I can’t do the basic things in life. It’s not pleasant to think about where my life is going to take me.”
He spoke publicly and openly about his diagnosis along with Lynn, both of whom believed the consistent brain injuries ultimately led to his condition. The family created the Nick & Lynn Buoniconti CTE Research Fund through the Boston Medical Center to advance this field of research. According to Buoniconti’s own wishes before his death, the Boston University CTE Research Center will be studying his brain.
“Multiple people mentioned to me when Nick went public with his diagnosis, they said, ‘I didn’t necessarily buy into it until it happened to Nick,’ ” said Dr. Chris Nowinski, Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder and CEO. “He traveled the country to try to understand what was happening and they determined that CTE was the most likely diagnosis.
“Nick was Undefeated Nick. He was untouchable,” Nowinski said.
Half of Buoniconti’s brain will be frozen and the other half will be placed in a formalin solution to be prepared for studies, Nowinski said. A team at the Boston University CTE research center will study the brain for abnormalities, interview family members and analyze his medical history — a process that could take months.
The research portion could be delayed by what Nowinski said was a backlog of donated brains to the center, which has doubled in the past two years. The spike in donations, Nowinski said, is partly thanks to the awareness that Buoniconti helped to raise.
Buoniconti was reflective in the HBO documentary, noting: “Without football, I probably would have joined my dad in the bakery business. I loved it, always loved it, still do. But I am paying the price.
“I was looking forward to my golden years, which was playing golf every day and traveling around the world. I can’t do that anymore because my brain won’t let me.”
Buoniconti is survived by his second wife, Lynn, and three children from a previous marriage to Terry — Marc, Nick and Gina. Service arrangements have not been announced, but Anderson said there are expected to be services in Long Island and Miami.
Miami Herald staff writers David Wilson and Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.