By Sports Collectors Digest Staff
Nick Buoniconti, an undersized yet tenacious middle linebacker who won two Super Bowls in the 1970s with the Miami Dolphins and in retirement was dedicated to finding a cure for his son’s paralysis, died July 30. He was 78.
Doctors told Buoniconti in 2015 he showed symptoms of dementia. Two years later, he agreed to donate his brain to researchers at Boston University, who will determine if his repeated blows to the head as a player caused chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.
As of 2017, the university’s C.T.E. Center had found the disease in 110 of the 111 former NFL players’ brains it had examined.
“I’m positive that football caused this,” Buoniconti said in “The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti,” a 2019 HBO documentary. “I’m not mad at the game, I’m mad at the owners. I think that we paved the way for the NFL being what it is today. In other words, we, uh, we paved the way for them and they’re, they’re reaping all the benefits.”
Buoniconti was a smart, articulate and relentless player for the AFL Boston Patriots (now the New England Patriots) and the Dolphins. Despite playing at 5’11” and 220 pounds – too small to play the position, many believed – Buoniconti was named first-team All-AFL/AFC eight times and voted to the All-Time AFL Team during his 14-year pro football career. A former All-American at the University of Notre Dame, he anchored the Dolphins’ vaunted “No-Name Defense” under Coach Don Shula. Buoniconti is the only member of that famed defense to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2001).
“I could ask for no better player to lead that defense,” Shula would say years later.
Buoniconti retired from football after the 1976 season, pleased to be healthy. “My last game, I got on my hands and knees and kissed the ground and thanked God that I’d never gotten seriously hurt,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2017. Buoniconti estimated he had absorbed hundreds of thousands hits to his head
After football, he became a lawyer, a player agent, a TV sports personality, a corporate executive and the lead voice of the Miami Project, a cutting-edge research program targeting and investigating spinal cord and brain injuries.
Buoniconti’s son, Marc, severely injured his spinal cord while playing for The Citadel in a college football game in 1985. For more than 30 years afterward, the senior Buoniconti helped raise nearly $500 million for spinal cord and brain research carried out by the organization. He also played a critical role in directing the research and was a charismatic motivator of scientists and researchers.
Roles reversed for father and son in later years, with Marc providing the sort of emotional support that his father had given him after his catastrophic injury. “Well, I should’ve been dead years ago,” Marc said in the HBO documentary. “It’s only because of my father that I’m here today. It’s only because of my father that I’m able to live the life that I do.”
Buoniconti had Marc introduce him at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Marc’s speech concluded with, “Whatever it is you’ve got inside you, we see it. We feel it. And it gives each one of us a little more reason to believe. Ladies and gentlemen, my hero, my friend, my dad, Nick Buoniconti.”
Buoniconti was born Dec. 15, 1940, in Springfield, Mass. His parents ran an Italian bakery in Springfield’s South End. If not for his athletic skills, Buoniconti once said, he might have spent the rest of his life working at the bakery, making bread every morning as his father and grandfather had.
After a decorated career at Notre Dame, Buoniconti was drafted by the Patriots in the 13th round of the 1962 AFL draft. Because of his size, the NFL passed on drafting him, much to the league’s embarrassment. Buoniconti led the Patriots in tackles and interceptions in his seven seasons with Boston. He distinguished himself off the field as well by studying at the Suffolk University School of Law in Boston, graduating in 1968.
Buoniconti considered retirement hen he was traded to the Dolphins in 1969. Instead, he and the team began a remarkable run under Shula. After the AFL-NFL merger, the Dolphins were AFL champs in 1971, losing to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI. The Dolphins went undefeated in 1972, finishing 17-0 with a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII in January 1973. No NFL team has gone undefeated since. The Dolphins also won the next Super Bowl, beating the Minnesota Vikings, 24-7.
Buoniconti is survived by his wife, Lynn, his daughter, Gina, and his sons, Marc and Nick.