Greg Cote

Nick Buoniconti’s impact on the field was great, but what he did off it was even greater | Opinion

Marc Buoniconti: ‘Despite all of this, I feel lucky’

Marc Buoniconti credits the injury on the football field that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down when he was 19 with giving him a new purpose in life.
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Marc Buoniconti credits the injury on the football field that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down when he was 19 with giving him a new purpose in life.

Nick Buoniconti, the first big, established star in Miami Dolphins franchise history, has died at 78 after a life so much bigger than football.

Buoniconti passed away Tuesday night in hospice care after a years-long struggle with dementia that his family believes was brought on by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain injury that can result from football-related trauma. Details on a funeral or public service had not been made as of Wednesday.

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Buoniconti was a middle linebacker first with the Boston Patriots and from 1969 to 1976 with the Dolphins.

He was a five-time AFL all-star for Boston — along the way earning his law degree — and also earned Pro Bowl honors his first season in Miami, later playing a key role as the captain and driving force of the famed “No-Name Defense” in the Dolphins’ historic 1972 Perfect Season and in the repeat Super Bowl championship in 1973.

Miami had other future stars on that pre-Don Shula 1969 roster, including Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Larry Little, Bill Stanfill and Dick Anderson, but Buoniconti was a more established star than any of them when he arrived via trade in ‘69.

Buoniconti was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. He was the first and only Dolphins defensive player in Canton until Jason Taylor joined him in 2017.

His impact on the field was great, but his impact off the field was even greater. He was a champion both ways.

He founded the the Buoniconti Fund and Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a division of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, after his son, Marc, had been paralyzed while playing college football for The Citadel in 1985.

Impact in football is always finite. Nick’s impact on countless lives goes on.

“With a heavy heart we mourn the loss of a man who was truly larger than life, my father,” Marc Buoniconti said Wednesday. “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.”

Miami Dolphins legend Nat Moore reflects on the passing of teammate and friend Nick Buoniconti, July 31, 2019.

Said Shula on Wednesday: “I am sad to hear of Nick’s passing. Nick was special to me in every way. He was someone I greatly admired. I am thankful to have had Nick in my life. I will miss him.”

Csonka called Buoniconti “the heartbeat of our team.” Said Little: “A really sad day for me.”

Buoniconti, who also is survived by wife Lynn, another son Nick and daughter Gina, hosted HBO’s acclaimed “Inside the NFL” show for 23 years. Last year, the same network would feature him in a poignant 75-minute documentary, “The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti,” about his multifaceted life and how in his latter years he struggled physically and mentally to perform even the simplest tasks, such as pulling a T-shirt over his head.

Buoniconti endured some criticism for serving as president of U.S. Tobacco in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and especially for trying to refute studies that showed smokeless tobacco caused cancer.

For me, though, he certainly atoned by later championing the fight to cure paralysis and helping raise some $500 million for the Miami Project, and, right to the end, for going public about his own dementia in an effort to bring attention to CTE and its link to football-related brain trauma.

Hall of Fame player. Champion. Notre Dame graduate. Attorney. Businessman. Philanthropist. An erudite man in what can be a Neanderthal sport. Buoniconti in many ways was a Renaissance man even apart from his passion to help find a cure for paralysis and his late-life activism related to football and CTE.

I last spoke with Buoniconti in December 2015 when the franchise’s all-time greats were a part of the club’s 50th anniversary celebration banquet at the Diplomat hotel in Hollywood. He cut a dapper figure that night in a dark suit, holding a glass of white wine. I recall thinking he looked more like a U.S. senator than a former linebacker.

Signs of the dementia that led to his sharp decline would begin to show just months later.

Nick Buoniconti
Dolphins great Nick Buoniconti (left) shares a laugh with another Hall of Famer, former coach Don Shula, at a Dolphins game. Buonconti passed away this week at 78 after a years-long battle with dementia.

Many of Buoniconti’s Dolphins glory-days contemporaries also have left us.

Earl Morrall died at 79 after being diagnosed with CTE. Bill Stanfill died at 69 after suffering from dementia. Bob Kuechenberg and Garo Yepremian also have passed away.

Buoniconti was asked in that documentary if football had caused his condition.

“I’m positive of that,” he said.

Upon his wishes, Buoniconti’s brain will be donated to the CTE. Center of Boston University.

In life his mission after football was to help find a cure for paralysis.

Even in death, he will play a part now in helping learn more about the brain trauma that haunts so many who have given their lives to football.

For those things, said Miami Project executive director John Fox, of Buoniconti: “He will live on forever.”

His memory certainly will in South Florida.

Nick Buoniconti was nothing less than the essential, literal centerpiece of the mighty defense that made the Miami Dolphins what they haven’t been since: Champions.

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