Nick Buoniconti was an undersized NFL linebacker, but he left a larger-than-life impression on the game he loved.
Buoniconti, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker later afflicted by a degenerative disease caused by repetitive brain trauma, died Tuesday in Bridgehampton, N.Y. He was 78.
A leader of the Miami Dolphins’ “No-Name Defense,” Buoniconti was a fixture on teams that won back-to-back Super Bowls, including the only franchise that finished with an unblemished 17-0 record.
In retirement, he and his son, Marc, worked tirelessly in pursuit of a cure for paralysis, helping raise more than a half-billion dollars in that pursuit. They helped to found the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the world’s largest spinal cord injury research center.
In 1985, Marc suffered a catastrophic football injury. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down after making a tackle for the Citadel. After that, his father dedicated his life to finding a cure for paralysis.
At the end of his Hall of Fame speech in 2001, Nick Buoniconti said: “I would trade this [Super Bowl] ring in, and all my individual accomplishments, if one thing could happen in my lifetime. My son Marc dreams that he walks. And as a father, I would like nothing more than to walk by his side.”
“My dad has been my hero and represents what I have always aspired to be: a leader, a mentor and a champion,” the younger Buoniconti said in a statement.
After his playing career, Nick Buoniconti was known to millions as co-host of HBO’s “Inside the NFL,” where he worked alongside former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson. Buoniconti, an attorney, also worked as president of U.S. Tobacco and as a player agent.
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Buoniconti played on both sides of the ball at Notre Dame, as a linebacker and offensive guard, despite his stocky stature. He went unselected in the NFL draft but was taken in the 13th round of the AFL draft by the Boston Patriots, where he played from 1962-68. He was traded to Miami and went on to play for the Dolphins from 1969-74, and a final season in 1976. In 1973, he set a Dolphins franchise record with 162 tackles.
Recalled teammate Larry Little, who was traded to the Dolphins the same year: “He came from Boston and I was with San Diego. We had a great relationship and always kidded each other. We were both captains of the 1972 team and he would always call the coin toss and got it right every time. One time I asked to do it and I got it wrong. He never let me forget that. He was a great guy and a great person.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Buoniconti “a champion on and off the field.”
“He was the leader of one of the most dominant NFL teams in history,” Goodell said, “and earned his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with his grit, fearlessness and skill while playing with the Patriots and Dolphins.”
That apparently came at a cost. Late in life, Buoniconti battled a devastating and untreatable neurodegenerative disease that was most likely CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). He pledged to donate his brain to the Boston University CTE Center upon his death.
“Nick was special to me in every way,” Hall of Fame coach Don Shula said. “He was someone I greatly admired. His love for his wife, Lynn, his children, grandchildren, friends, teammates, family and the community was evident. His groundbreaking work with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis has made a huge difference in the lives of so many people. I am thankful to have had Nick in my life. I will miss him.”
Buoniconti is survived by his wife, Lynn, sons Marc, Nick Jr. and Justin, and daughter Gina.