The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti, an HBO documentary debuting at 10 p.m. Tuesday, offers an absorbing glimpse into a remarkable life packed with enormous professional success but devastating personal loss.
It was appropriate that HBO produced this special, considering Buoniconti opined for 23 years as a commentator on the network’s Inside The NFL. And HBO neatly fits a life with so many layers into a documentary that’s thoroughly worth your time.
There is crisp chronicling of all the successes — his vital role as a defensive stalwart on the great Dolphins teams of the early 1970s and a glorious career culminating in his 2001 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And later, a post-NFL life as a practicing attorney, an agent, a broadcaster and president of US Tobacco Company during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But there’s also the dispiriting, but necessary, detailing of the tragic paralysis of son Marc and the CTE symptoms that have made Nick Buoniconti, in his words, “half the man I used to be.”
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Buoniconti, 78, was healthy enough to conduct the interview from his home and sounds generally cogent throughout, though clearly weakened physically. But he bemoans 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.”
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 disease cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death.
Aging — and the effects of football — also have taken a toll physically. The film begins with a nurse assisting him through his front door and onto his porch.
“I take probably 20 pills a day and that’s not an exaggeration,” he said. “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.”
Some memorable moments from a program that’s narrated by Liev Schreiber and stirs admiration, compassion and sadness:
▪ Buoniconti said he briefly considered retiring when the Boston Patriots, for whom he played the first seven years of his career, traded him to the Dolphins before the 1969 season. Instead, he negotiated his contract — early preparation for a career that included representing Bucky Dent, Andre Dawson and nearly 30 other athletes.
▪ 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?!’”
▪ Buoniconti tells of “one time Shula was getting angry at [teammate] 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.”
▪ 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.”
▪ Nick recalls receiving the call when Marc was paralyzed by a collision in a 1985 football game in Johnson City, Tennessee.
“I was told Marc would be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life,” Nick said. “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.”
HBO chronicles perhaps Buoniconti’s crowning achievement — raising tens of millions of dollars for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. He also has now joined forces with Boston University and The Concussion Legacy Foundation to launch the Nick and Lynn Buoniconti CTE Research Fund.
▪ Nick’s wife, Lynn, said 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.
▪ There are some neat anecdotes — including one from Cris Collinsworth about a near altercation on the HBO set. But the introspective moments from Marc and Nick are the most compelling elements of the documentary.
“When we were growing up, football gave everything to us and then look what it did to me and look what it’s doing to him,” Marc Buoniconti said. “Do I love the game? Do you hate the game? Do you love it and hate it?”
Said Nick: “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.”
This and that
▪ Miami-Fort Lauderdale’s 34.9 rating for the Super Bowl (equal to 34.9 percent of all South Florida homes with TV sets), ranked 55th of 56 major markets metered by Nielsen, ahead of only New Orleans’ 26.1.
▪ ESPN fired anchor Adnan Virk, who had a prominent studio role on college football and baseball coverage, after he was “accused of leaking confidential company information to the media on multiple occasions,” according to The New York Post.