Football left Marc Buoniconti paralyzed from the shoulders down in 1985, but it was not until the past several years that he came to believe football might simply be too dangerous for human beings to play.
It has nothing to do with his injury, and everything to do with the evolving research on the sport’s relationship to brain injuries, including the effect it has had on his father, Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti.
“In the book, I don’t go easy on football,” Marc said Tuesday during an interview in Manhattan to promote his new book, “Undefeated: From Tragedy to Triumph.” “I basically say that I don’t recommend football to anybody.”
As recently as five years ago, he would answer that question with the usual stuff about the benefits of the sport, such as camaraderie, teamwork and the like, despite what it did to his body.
“But I don’t feel that way anymore,” he said. “Seeing the evidence of what’s going on and dealing with my father, seeing it firsthand, I don’t recommend football to anybody, let alone a child.
“We know smoking causes cancer. Tackling in football causes brain injuries. There’s a causal effect, especially for children, whose brains are in a very important type of development. Someone has to step between them and the field.”
He said he would favor youth football being eliminated, perhaps the high school level, too.
That is tough stuff from the son of a football family, someone who even now cannot help watching at times as a fan of the Dolphins and the University of Miami. He watched the Giants’ loss to the Lions on Monday night.
But Marc, 50, has watched Nick, 76, suffer from severe cognitive impairment in recent years, a situation that went public with a feature on his struggles in Sports Illustrated in May.
“He’s fighting through it,” Marc said of Nick, who has a summer home in the Hamptons. “My dad is still the strongest man I know. So it’s a day-to-day fight. That’s pretty much what we’re dealing with.”
As for Marc, he continues to do what he always has done in trying to make something of a life that changed when he made a tackle for The Citadel against East Tennessee State on Oct. 26, 1985. The book, five years in the making, is part of the process.
“The clock is always ticking, and you want to at least try to leave some type of message for your work within your lifetime,” he said. “I had gone through some medical issues and I wanted to make sure to put down on pen and paper my life story.”
Buoniconti will sign copies at the Book Revue in Huntington on Wednesday night, after speaking earlier in the day to the Stony Brook football team. “It’s kind of an ironic message from me, who doesn’t believe in football, to go and talk to a football team,” he said.
But the message is about more than football. It is about growing up in what he described as “a family of leaders and really Type A personalities, and straying from that pack a little bit.” He called himself a reckless youth headed “down some dark paths” before a crisis redirected him.
“I really didn’t know which way my life was going to end up, but that next path was chosen for me and it was at that time when life is at its most difficult and giving up seemed really easy that I was faced with paralysis,” he said.
“But embracing the moment and engaging in the opportunity, I was able to save my life. You would think the total opposite, that this would crush my life. But in a way, paralysis saved me and cured my inner demons and opened up a door for a path for me to move forward with myself and God.”
One result: The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami and its fundraising arm, the Buoniconti Fund, which has raised $450 million for research into the treatment of spinal cord and brain injuries. The Fund’s 32nd annual Great Sports Legends Dinner is Monday in Manhattan.
Could Marc have imagined all that when he first was injured?
“I like to think that we’re going to find a cure, that’s what I think,” he said. “Part of me is extremely proud — proud of the researchers, proud of the donors, proud of everything. But the other part of me is still pushing, still hungry to keep moving forward.”
That’s what Buonicontis do, he said.
“Everyone’s had a dark point in their life at some point and they’re always trying to find a way to see the light,” he said. “My light just happened to be an odd motivator, but I guess that’s part of how Buonicontis are. Stubborn.
“When you’re pushed against the wall and you don’t believe there’s another way forward, we crawl and fight and find a way out.”