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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Life of surprises: Buoniconti

Most of this article was written in June of 1992 – the conclusion, last week.Some people find a little corner in your brain and nestle there forever. They disappear for years at a time, only to reappear unexpectedly when fame, hype or deja vu hauls them back. Nick Buoniconti is one of my mental lodgers. His years at Notre Dame overlapped mine, and he was the brightest light in the darkest era of Notre Dame football - dismal 2-8 and 5-5 seasons in the early 1960s. My most vivid recollection, however, is off the football field. I often hitchhiked to Notre Dame from my home in Pennsylvania. One cold night, while returning to school from winter break, I was dropped off at a rest stop on the turnpike. There was Nick, standing beside the ramp, silhouetted against a snowy hill, also hitching back to Notre Dame. Hands in pockets, facing the wind he looked like a centurion in his black Notre Dame varsity jacket with the Gold “ND.”I needed another ride and I didn't have the cachet of that jacket. My method was to stand at the restaurant door and tell them where I was going. It usually worked. I hit quick that night, and on my way out I saw Nick, still there. I remember thinking, “Well, at least I'm riding.” Although I was aware that Nick had gone on to success in football, he was out of sight and out of mind until the mid-1980s. One Sunday we were sitting at home watching “60 Minutes,” and one of the segments was on snuff. Its focus was pre-teen and teenage boys, mostly athletes who use snuff in imitation of their professional sports heroes. A mother, whose snuff-addicted son had died of lip cancer, was suing the U. S. Tobacco Company for thirty-seven million dollars, claiming the company knew its product was harmful.All of a sudden, there on the screen was Nick, now an Executive Vice President at U. S. Tobacco. He had earned a law degree in the off-season while a linebacker with the Boston Patriots, and had gone on to a successful business career when football was over. Nick was sitting behind a desk looking very official and sweating bullets as he attempted to fend off the accusations and to justify his company’s advertising practices. It was a discouraging performance. It takes guts to sit in front of “60 Minutes” relentless camera; but I was disappointed. What kind of intellectual or moral short circuit brings a bright guy to a situation like that? How do you defend pushing snuff to kids and still sleep peacefully at night? I don't get it. Sometime after the show aired, the federal government mandated warning messages on snuff packaging. Once more, the memory door slammed shut. It opened again sometime later, under equally sober, but more sympathetic circumstances. Nick surfaced as subject of a Parade Magazine article on spinal injuries. His son Marc had grown up to be a college football player like his dad – at the Citadel, in his case. While tackling an opponent, Marc suffered a grievous injury that left him almost completely paralyzed and unable to breathe without the help of a respirator. Nick placed Marc under the care of Dr. Barth Green, founder of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and promptly raised $5 million dollars to support the project’s work. He has set a goal of raising $30 million more.Meanwhile, through strenuous effort, Marc trained himself to breathe by using his shoulder muscles instead of his failed diaphragm. He gets around in a motorized wheel chair by blowing on its controls through a straw. A student at Miami University, he gives speeches for the Miami project.I'm not sure what conclusions are to be drawn here, but I do have a few observations. Life is complicated and fame no insurance against its dangers. The Buonicontis, father and son, are tough as hell and if the dysfunctions of spinal injury can someday be overcome, they will deserve part of the credit. As for Nick, he left U. S. Tobacco, now hosts “Inside the NFL” on HBO Cable, and serves as a board member of The Miami Project. I doubt we've seen the last of him.Sadly, he reappeared last month when, by chance, I encountered his obituary: A 2017 Sports Illustrated article had the back story.I knew that Nick had played professional football, but was unaware of his outsized fame. Despite 20 years of the roughest football, Nick was grateful to have dodged the bullet of a life-altering injury. He had, that is until 2009, when old age and latent CTE – the traumatic brain injury now plaguing so many retired football players - caught up with him. Nick spent the last 10 years of his life dealing with his diminishing capabilities. On the days when he was lucid, he lobbied for greater protections for all football players, and opposed contact football for children under 14.Nick’s story is rife with irony. As reported by Ron Borges of the Boston Herald, “Buoniconti never blamed football for that pain he, his son and their family shouldered, but faced with what he believes the game has done to him he tells [S. L.] Price [of Sports Illustrated] when asked if he knew then what he knew now would he still play, his answer is damning.“‘The answer would be no,’ he said. ‘I would not play football.’”

John F. Cowan

class of 1964

Sept. 1

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.