In the nine years since Marc Buoniconti sustained a spinal cord injury during a college football game, his father, Nick, has dedicated much of his life to his son’s rehabilitation.
“I made a commitment to Marc when he got hurt,” said Nick Buoniconti, a former All-Pro and Pro Bowl linebacker with the Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins. “I said money would not stand in the way.
“Now, every night, Marc dreams that he will walk again. And he will.”
Marc Buoniconti, who was a sophomore middle linebacker at the Citadel when he was injured in the game against East Tennessee State on Oct. 26, 1985, was left a quadriplegic.
To help his son reach his “impossible dream,” Buoniconti co-founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, an organization dedicated to spinal cord research.
“At the time, there was nothing in the country for people with spinal cord injuries,” Buoniconti said. “When Marc got hurt, the Project was born out of necessity. Now, it’s a labor of love.”
To fulfill the Project’s mission of treating as many spinal cord injuries as possible, Buoniconti has launched a $30 million campaign to build a huge research facility.
Assisting Buoniconti are some of the biggest names in business, sports and entertainment: NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue; former football star O.J. Simpson; former tennis star Chris Evert; Wayne Huizenga, chairman and CEO of Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. and owner of the Florida Marlins, Florida Panthers and Miami Dolphins; Frank Biondi Jr., president and CEO of Viacom International Inc.; Phil Knight, chairman and CEO of Nike, Inc.; and singer Gloria Estefan.
“The people on the board are friends,” Buoniconti said. “I told them what we need to accomplish, and they’re going to help us do it.”
One of the most enthusiastic supporters is Estefan.
“When she heard about it, she immediately wanted to be a part of it,” Buoniconti said. “When she had her bus accident (in 1991) and was paralyzed for more than a month, she thought she would never walk again.”
Marc Buoniconti, 27, is not the only football player taking advantage of the Miami Project. Another is Mike Utley, the former Detroit Lions lineman.
“He will be at the Project for about the next four months,” the elder Buoniconti said. “He’s still a paraplegic, but I think he eventually will get on his feet.”
Another NFL player who sustained a paralyzing injury was former Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley, who was injured when hit by the Oakland Raiders’ Jack Tatum in an exhibition game.
“Darryl never has reached out,” Buoniconti said. “He’s never gone very public with his injury. Some people become introverted, unresponsive, bitter. They climb into themselves. Everybody deals with it differently.
“Marc has been just the opposite. He’s dealt with it publicly. He’s taken spinal cord injuries out of the closet.”
Huizenga has been impressed with Marc’s attitude and fortitude.
“Marc Buoniconti has inspired and given hope to people the world over with his courage, his spirit and his dedication,” Huizenga said. “And he has inspired us as well -- inspired us to do our utmost to help the Miami Project transform that dream into reality.”
Of the $30 million, approximately $16 million is being earmarked for construction of a six-story, 83,000-square-foot facility, and $4 million will be used for equipment. The balance will be used to endow research programs.
Groundbreaking will be Oct. 26, 1995, the 10th anniversary of Marc Buoniconti’s injury.
Nick Buoniconti and his wife, Terry, contributed the first $1 million.
“All of us are very mindful of the enormous costs of spinal cord injuries -- emotionally, physically and economically,” Buoniconti said. “Spinal cord injury is a major national health concern, and this is why we are working diligently to develop a state-of-the-art facility that will speed the day when the Miami Project gives our country a cure for paralysis.”
“To realize a cure, we must sustain the momentum achieved since 1985,” said Dr. Barth Green, who co-founded the Miami Project. “A dedicated building will remove our current space constraints, and enable us to meet our emerging needs.”
Marc Buoniconti’s progress has been slow but encouraging. He goes to the Project three times a week and works on a shoulder machine.
“He’s doing something he thought he would never have to do: rebuild his upper body,” his father said. “It takes him about an hour and a half for a normal 10-minute workout.
“The only way he’ll have full function is if we can find a cure for paralysis. I feel positive that will happen.
“Ninety to 95% of spinal cord injuries happen to males under 25, and they are in wheelchairs for a long time. The cost to their families is astronomical. Something has to be done.”