Nick Buoniconti, 1940–2019
The linebacker who fought to make the paralyzed walk again
Small for a football player, Nick Buoniconti still made a big impact on the gridiron. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound linebacker anchored the Miami Dolphins’ defense during the team’s glory years in the 1970s. Toppling quarterbacks like a bowling ball, he helped lead the team to Super Bowl wins in 1972 and ’73. The Dolphins’ Super Bowl victory in January 1973 capped a 17–0 campaign, the only undefeated season in NFL history. Buoniconti’s legacy off the field was even greater. After his son Marc was paralyzed from the neck down in a 1985 college football game, Buoniconti co-founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Over 30 years, he raised some $500 million for spinal cord and brain research. “I should’ve been dead years ago,” said Marc, now 52. “It’s only because of my father that I’m here today.”
Born in Springfield, Mass., Buoniconti was a high school football star and became “an All-America football player for Notre Dame in 1961,” said the Miami Herald. Some scouts thought Buoniconti too small to go pro, but after being drafted by the Boston Patriots in the 13th round of the AFL draft in 1962 he proved his worth, “earning the team’s rookie of the year award.” He joined the Dolphins in 1969 and finished playing after the 1976 season.
Buoniconti was “pleased to have retired with his health,” said The New York Times, and afterward worked as a player agent, corporate executive, and TV sports personality. But in 2013 he began showing signs of dementia—likely a result of brain trauma he suffered on the field. Buoniconti donated his brain to medical research. “I loved [football], always loved it, still do,” he said earlier this year. “But I am paying the price.” ■