Marc Buoniconti calls the last few years of his father’s life “a cruel ending,” a stretch of time in which Nick Buoniconti, the Hall of Fame Miami Dolphins linebacker, was in a wheelchair, his body in physical decline and his mental faculties having deteriorated to the point that a phone conversation with Marc became too difficult a task to complete.
“Think about it, football is the ultimate irony in his life,” Marc Buoniconti said of his father. “Football gave everything to him, opened every door, gave him his career, his life. But then in the end, look what happened.”
For decades before he died in July at age 78 in Bridgehampton, Nick Buoniconti was the driving force behind the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a spinal cord research facility he cofounded in 1985. Earlier that year, Marc was paralyzed from the neck down after suffering a spinal cord injury while playing football for The Citadel. Marc, 53, has been in a wheelchair ever since.
Because of the toll the sport exacted on father and son, together they took a firm stance against youth football in the last few years, stating they would discourage parents from allowing their sons to play tackle football before high school.
Marc reiterated his concerns Monday night when the 34th annual “Great Sports Legends” dinner to benefit the Buoniconti Fund (the fundraising arm of the Miami Project) was held at the New York Hilton Midtown.
“If you’d asked me that 10 years ago, I would have told you the opposite. Everything I learned in life as a child, I learned through sports — winning, losing, camaraderie, friendship, teamwork,” Marc Buoniconti said. “All that still obviously plays a huge role in my life. But I think what’s being shown now, through all the research, the benefits don’t outweigh the risks. In particular, for young kids, when their brains are at that early development stage, I just don’t think it’s a smart idea to be hitting their heads like that.”
Nick Buoniconti echoed those sentiments in early 2018 when he advocated for youth athletes to play flag football only. “I beg you as parents — don’t let your child play football before high school,” Nick said then.
Marc said his father had dementia and became “depressed and upset” often as his health worsened. The once-vibrant and charismatic two-time Super Bowl champion, who had an accomplished professional life after his football career ended, chose to spend his final years on Long Island.
“I literally saw him maybe five or six times a year. He’d be stuck up there all winter and we never understood why he did that,” Marc said. “The disease really started affecting his mental acuity. He started to become very depressed. After his last game, he literally bent down on his knees and kissed the turf at the Orange Bowl and said a prayer about how lucky he felt that he played  years of football really unscathed. Who knew the cruelty that would occur years later?”
A steady stream of sports celebrities sidled up next to Marc’s wheelchair last Monday night for the “Great Sports Legends” gala, including Mets nemesis Chase Utley and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. One guest, Herman Jacobs, though, went mostly unnoticed despite his tragic connection to Marc.
Jacobs was the East Tennessee State player who collided with Marc in 1985, resulting in Buoniconti’s crippling injury.
For years after, Jacobs said his life was a “disaster” because of the guilt he carried with him.
“I was going down a black hole until I talked with Marc,” said Jacobs, 55. The two reconnected by phone in 2007, more than 20 years after the collision. Jacobs said Marc convinced him to go to culinary school, which Jacobs did. He now manages a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lives with his wife.
Although Nick Buoniconti never lived to see his son rise from his wheelchair and walk again, Marc said he is not giving up on fulfilling his dad’s dream. Marc said he’s buoyed by the advances in spinal cord research at the Miami Project, which he serves as president.
“We’re the only center in the U.S. that can medically retrieve cells from someone’s body and auto transplant them back into the spinal cord as a way to replace cells that have been damaged,” Marc said. “My dad wanted to deliver on his promise and that’s the one unfortunate thing, that he’s not going to be here to see it. I would have liked to have us finish it together.
“But his spirit is still in us. That day we find a cure, his spirit will finally be able to rest.”