He helped turn tragedy into triumph
On a beautiful autumn Saturday in 1985 the former University of Notre Dame football player was paying a visit, as he did every year, to his college roommate’s farm in New Jersey.
They were doing what longtime pals always do at these kind of get togethers, swapping tall tales but mostly reminiscing about their days together on campus and how good life had been to both of them since they graduated.
Then the phone rang.
Notre Dame football fans can be forgiven if they don’t remember a lot about Nick Buoniconti—not just because it was quite some time ago but also because it was a time many fans and Nick himself would like to forget. In his three years on the team (freshmen could not play back then) including 1961 as co-captain, the Irish went a combined 12–18, and a quick check of the records shows that to be the worst three consecutive years of the modern era.
But, if Notre Dame was just another college football factory, Buoniconti would not have been prepared for his great successes in life, including professional football, and for all that has happened and is happening since that phone call in 1985. It is often said that you have to look long and hard for real heroes these days, but Nick Buoniconti has a hero, his son Marc.
On that fall day in 1985, in just an instant, Marc Buoniconti went from being a strapping athlete to a human being who could not move a muscle below his neck. He was doing what he had already done dozens of times while playing defense for The Citadel, diving low to make a tackle in a game against East Tennessee State.
No one will ever know what was different about that hit, other than the fact that Marc, a bit undersized like his dad, always played with a certain fierceness and he dove helmet first into the running back’s backside. And that was that. He broke two vertebrae and suffered a severe spinal cord injury.
In that split second, as it says in Marc’s biography, he joined millions of people worldwide who know the devastation of what is known as spinal cord injury, SCI. Life had changed dramatically and forever for Marc and his family.
Back on the farm in New Jersey after that phone call, Nick Buoniconti said he felt like he had been hit with a sledgehammer that brought him to his knees. The worst part was that he really knew nothing about what he had just been told other than his son, as the caller described it, had suffered a “bad break.”
In a matter of hours Nick made up his mind that he was not going to accept what happened to his son as a “bad break.” He was going to refuse anything that simple and final. Instead, he moved forward with a plan and a new outlook on life, one he claims has made him a better person—less selfish, less arrogant and the kind of person who no longer takes anything for granted.
If you go back to Nick’s years at Notre Dame and the years right after, you will find the genesis of his makeup that decades later drove him to refuse to take his son’s injury a fate accompli. Sure, the football team was lousy—but Notre Dame gave him something else much more important for the future by preaching over and over that he and his teammates were not just players on Saturday afternoons, that they were real student-athletes.
In a funny aside, Nick noted that when he came to South Bend he didn’t even know how to wear clothes that matched. But there he was in a couple of years, majoring in economics and wearing a suit and tie and getting on the train for road games with a camelhair coat, all of which matched. He was a boy when he came to campus from Springfield, Mass., but he was a man ready to face the real world when he left. All of that molding of a Notre Dame man would pay off decades later when he and Marc took on a challenge they could have never known was coming.
Nick was a really good football player at Notre Dame, second in tackles his junior year. As a captain his senior year he led the team with an impressive 74 tackles. Then he ran into his first roadblock when scouts from the National Football League decided he was too small for their brand of football and left him to be drafted by the Boston Patriots of the fledgling American Football League. In 1962 the AFL was considered the place for players who were too small, too slow or too old.
But you don’t tell an Italian boy from a tough neighborhood in Springfield he is not good enough to make the team. He became a superstar on defense in the AFL and in 1969 was traded to the Miami Dolphins. The rest is sports history and it’s why the name Nick Buoniconti will always resonate with knowledgeable football fans. He became a cornerstone of the Dolphins’ defense, led them to three consecutive Super Bowls and in 1972 was on the first and last NFL team to win all its games. As he will tell anyone, don’t you ever forget it.
If you peel back the years you can draw a straight line from his days and formation at Notre Dame to Nick’s refusal to heed the words of NFL scouts to his incredible success as a professional to the moment he got to Marc’s bedside—all the way to today and what he and Marc are accomplishing in Miami.
On the day of the accident Nick knew nothing about SCI, but he did know he was tough, smart and resourceful and that his son was more than tough and “just like me, cut from the same cloth.”
So the elder Buoniconti started calling every SCI research facility in the country, only to find out the science of advancement in treatments had not advanced very far. Then he discovered a fledgling neuroscience research study going on in his backyard at the University of Miami—and before long through the sheer will of Nick and Marc and a handful of doctors they created The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
Father and son also formed The Buoniconti Fund that has raised more than $200 million for The Miami Project. It was only a dream in 1985, but now it is a powerful force in reaching an attainable goal, a cure for injuries thought to be irreversible and irreparable. Today The Miami Project is internationally recognized as the leading research center for spinal cord injuries in the world.
The project’s co-founder and chairman is University of Miami surgeon Barth Green who told Sports Illustrated that without Nick and especially Marc, The Miami Project would still be a small research center that would have been incapable of putting together a team that could pioneer ideas like hypothermia treatments for SCI patients.
While the scientists, researchers and doctors make progress, often in what amounts to baby steps, they also have allowed victims and their families to have hope that there is an achievable goal. Nick is convinced that it is Marc’s presence and achievements that are largely responsible for that.
Father and son even realize they are lucky. Nick could afford to get Marc the medical attention he needed, but he knows that is not the case for most of the 12,000 people in this country who suffer spinal cord injuries every year. For many of them the effects go beyond the physical.
Nick is convinced his son has kept at least a half-dozen victims from committing suicide. They visit other patients all the time and walk and talk a fine line by never making promises that can’t be kept but convincing them there is an obtainable goal because progress is being made.
Today Marc Buoniconti is president of both The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and president of the Buoniconti Fund. For his part Nick says he is “just” a spokesman and fundraiser. Of course, he is far more than that and always has been.
Sure, those Notre Dame football teams he was on didn’t win a lot of games. But captain Nick Buoniconti was a winner then and a winner in life ever since.
There is just one more goal line that needs to be crossed.