Nick Buoniconti was the biggest name on the Dolphins’ “No-Name Defense,” and that was only one chapter in a busy professional life that included stints as a television host, agent, lawyer, activist and business executive.
But Buoniconti, who died late Tuesday at age 78, paid a heavy personal price for his family’s involvement in football.
In 1985, his son Marc was rendered a quadriplegic upon being injured playing for The Citadel. Later, Buoniconti himself suffered severe physical and cognitive deterioration, which he believed was tied to his playing career.
He spent much of his later years living in Bridgehampton, where HBO cameras visited him for a documentary in early 2019 that illustrated his diminished health. Bruce Bobbins, a spokesman for the family, told the Associated Press that Buoniconti died in Bridgehampton.
Sports Illustrated first revealed the problems he was having in 2017, in a story in which he said, “I feel lost. I feel like a child.”
But his condition still came as a shock to many HBO viewers in 2019, not only for those who recalled a career that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, but for others who knew him primarily for his long term as co-host of HBO’s “Inside the NFL.”
Buoniconti and Len Dawson were the faces of that pioneering weekly highlights show in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Nick Buoniconti lived an extraordinary life," HBO Sports executive producer Rick Bernstein said in a statement Wednesday. "He accomplished virtually everything he set his sights on in life. He was a trailblazer. Pairing him with Len Dawson on 'Inside the NFL' for 23 years is an unforgettable part of football television history. And then having the blessing of Nick and his wife, Lynn, to chronicle his lifelong journey and produce a documentary earlier this year is an important part of our heritage at HBO Sports. It was vintage Nick Buoniconti: honest, raw and to the point. Everybody at HBO Sports is grateful to have had Nick as a friend, colleague and part of our family. We send our condolences to the Buoniconti family."
It was a dizzying ride for a kid from a heavily Italian-American neighborhood in Springfield, Mass., where he was born on Dec. 15, 1940, and his family owned a bakery.
He played at Notre Dame, then for the AFL’s Boston Patriots, who drafted him in the 13th round in 1962. After seven years with his home-state team, the Patriots traded him to Miami, where he spent seven more seasons at middle linebacker, becoming a two-time Super Bowl champion, including for the undefeated team of 1972.
Overall, he played in 183 regular-season games in an era when there were only 14 played each season.
Buoniconti had gone to law school at night while playing and was well positioned for life after football. For a time he was an agent, during which he represented the Yankees’ Bucky Dent and caused owner George Steinbrenner to label him one of the toughest negotiators he ever had faced.
Another of Buoniconti’s roles was a tobacco company executive, during which time he served as a spokesman in expressing skepticism about the product’s health risks.
The injury that changed the life of his son, Marc, changed his, too. After it happened, he co-founded The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars for research into and treatment of spinal cord injuries.
As devastating as the injury was, Marc accepted it as a risk associated with football that he willingly took, and for many years he touted its benefits and did not discourage young people from taking up the sport.
That changed as he observed the deterioration of his father.
“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,” Marc said in a 2017 interview with Newsday.
“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.”
Just as Marc learned to live with his injury, Nick Buoniconti did, too, and sought to make a difference for Marc and others suffering similarly. Living with his own injuries was a longer, more complicated process.
“I’m positive that football caused this,’’ Nick said in the HBO documentary. “I always loved [football]. I still do. But I’m paying the price.’’
New York sports legends Mariano Rivera, Willis Reed and Curtis Martin attended the 31st Annual Great Sports Legends Dinner to benefit The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis at The Waldorf Astoria on September 12, 2016 in New York City.Notable sports deaths in 2019A look at those athletes, coaches and sports personalities we've lost in 2019.