Gloria Estefan had never watched sports before 1972.
But as an eighth-grader in Miami, it was difficult not to be glued to the TV. That year the Miami Dolphins made history as the first and only undefeated team in NFL history. She recalled sitting on the hood of her mother’s Monte Carlo after her team raised the Vince Lombardi trophy, feeling one with the city as the car horns blared in celebration.
Like most of the world, football was Estefan’s first introduction to Nick Buoniconti. His tenacity and determination as the leader of the Dolphins’ unrelenting defense made him her hero. Football, however, was only the vehicle that would eventually make Buoniconti the hero of everybody whose life was affected by paralysis.
This was among the many stories told Friday evening at a memorial service for Buoniconti, the Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame linebacker whose philanthropic and fundraising efforts have contributed nearly half a billion dollars to neuroscience research. Buoniconti passed away July 30, 2019, at the age of 78.
Hosted at the Lois Pope Life Center, the event allowed family, friends and fans to remember the life of a man whose greatest accomplishment had nothing to do with football.
“The vision he had and then to come through and raise the money he has.... It’s mind-boggling,” said Hall of Fame quarterback and fellow Dolphins alum Dan Marino. “But at the same time, that’s Nick. That’s what he was going to do.”
Buoniconti was already a success before October 1985. Once called too small for professional football, the former Dolphin turned those slights to an NFL career. This drive fueled his exploration into other fields: law, television, business — but one tackle changed everything.
On Oct. 26, 1985, his youngest son Marc was paralyzed after lunging for a tackle in a college football game. That same day Buoniconti founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a division of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, making it his life mission to see his son walk again.
“There is no one who had more passion, drive or determination to find a cure for paralysis or really to accomplish any goal,” said Stephanie Sayfie-Aagaard, who worked with Buoniconti on the Miami Project. “He wanted to get millions worldwide out of their wheelchairs, not just his son.”
Through tears, Marc recounted his father’s contributions.
“A legend leaves the world a better place,” Marc said to the audience. “I know that everyone here would agree with me that that defines Nick Buoniconti.”
Football might have given Buoniconti the platform but his intangibles defined his legacy.
“Nick stands tall not because of what he achieved but because of the opposition he had to overcome to achieve his victories,” Leo Armbrust, the former Dolphins chaplain, said to the crowd.