Complications from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries – claims the life of Miami Dolphins’ NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti at 78.
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
MIAMI – 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.
A Boston University physician who examined Buoniconti in 2017 said “the way Nick appeared, his history and MRI, everything was consistent with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), though the degenerative brain disease cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death.
On the field, Buoniconti earned 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 for dollars.
Buoniconti devoted much of his time to that cause after his son when Marc was paralyzed by a collision in a 1985 football 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.’”
High school star
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 Notre Dame’s only All-American football player 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, 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. Buoniconti also studied at night to earn a law degree.
He was traded to the Dolphins in 1969. During his seven seasons with the Dolphins, Buoniconti made two Pro Bowl appearances, set a franchise record for tackles in a season, and was a lynchpin on a team that made three consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
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, an AMEX- listed 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 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, who remains wheelchair-bound.
Marc 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.”
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.
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.”
Losing his freedom
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.”
Brain harvested, studied
According to Buoniconti’s own wishes before his death, the Boston University CTE Research Center will be studying his brain.
Half of Buoniconti’s brain will be frozen and the other half will be placed in a formalin solution to be prepared for studies, said Dr. Chris Nowinski, Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder and CEO. A team at the Boston University CTE research center will study the brain for abnormalities, interview family members and analyze his medical history.
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.”
Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald / TNS contributed to this report.