Dolphins Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti was recently diagnosed by doctors at UCLA with a disease that is often paired with a condition that has an average life expectancy of six to seven years, according to a story published Tuesday by Sports Illustrated.
Buoniconti, 76, has corticobasal syndrome (CBS), an umbrella term that can include Alzheimer’s and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Sufferers often also have similar-sounding corticobasal degeneration (CBD), which has no treatment and no cure and an average life expectancy of six to seven years.
Buoniconti is suffering from forgetfulness and struggles to complete simple tasks such as putting on a T-shirt or hanging up a telephone.
Buoniconti was a linebacker and leader of the Dolphins’ championship No-Name Defense in 1972 and ’73. But he told SI he was knocked unconscious during the Dallas Cowboys’ 24-3 Super Bowl victory over the Dolphins following the 1971-72 season. Buoniconti said he does not remember playing the final quarter of that game and was knocked out three or four other times in his 14-year career.
“I didn’t have any idea the price would be this debilitating,” Buoniconti says. “Had I known, would I have played? I had no alternative; there was no other way for me to get a college education. Football kept rewarding me — I can’t deny that. But I’m paying the price.
“Everybody pays the piper.”
The price Buoniconti is paying is too great, said his son, Marc, who despite being paralyzed while playing for The Citadel 32 years ago had been a defender of the sport — until now.
“If someone asked if their child should play organized contact football, I could not in good conscience recommend it,” Marc told SI. “I don’t think it’s safe. It’s pretty evident that something significant is happening to the brain as far as disrupted development over time. I cannot recommend football for, really, anybody. I was 50-50 on this already but, then, watching my dad — that sealed it for me.”
Buoniconti said he chose to go public with his condition to support fellow ex-players who also are suffering and aren’t receiving sufficient benefits to cover health care. The league’s settlement with former players limits Buoniconti’s benefits to $132,000.
“The NFL should be volunteering to pay for this,” Buoniconti is quoted as saying. “I’m so f—— pissed off at them!
“We’re the players who built the game, but have been forgotten. The settlement is a joke; the way it was structured is a joke. They are waiting for us to die. They’re going to play the clock out until everybody dies.”
Marv Fleming, a tight end on the title teams who helps organize reunions of the 1972 Dolphins, also criticized the league’s handling of retired players.
“The league knows they haven’t done enough for us,” said Fleming, 75, who said he’s in relatively good health.
At one point, Buoniconti tried a treatment recommended by New York Jets Hall of Famer Joe Namath involving pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber, but it brought only temporary relief.
Nick’s condition has at times caused tension among the family and even University of Miami doctors, with whom Nick has closely worked to raise hundreds of millions to launch and support The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
At one point, Marc thought that Nick’s wife, Lynn, was triggering a self-fulfilling prophecy by addressing Nick’s difficulties so often. Complicating matters, Nick was diagnosed with prostate cancer and Lynn with breast cancer last year.
Nick’s situation caused Dr. Barth Green — with whom Nick launched The Miami Project — to wrestle with how forthcoming he should be to Nick.
“I don’t think it does any damn good to tell him, ‘Your whole brain is going to be full of tau. You’re dying and people aren’t caring about you, and you’re just going to keep getting worse and you need to be taken care of,’ ” Green said. “What did that accomplish then, and what does it accomplish now? That’s not the way I fly, and it’s not because I’m stupid. It’s not because I don’t love him. It’s just a different strategy.”
Buoniconti was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and remains one of the most-respected players in Dolphins history.
“Nick Buoniconti is the greatest overachiever that I can remember ever playing with,” said Bob Kuechenberg, a Pro Bowl guard on the championship teams who introduced Buoniconti to Green. “He should not have been in the league. What is he, 5-10? Some guys are 5-10 and have been in the weight room all their life. They’re strong and can hit hard. Not Nick. Nick not only was 5-10, but he was skinny. But he was a smart SOB.”
Kuechenberg said it wasn’t uncommon for his offense to line up to run a play in practice and for Buoniconti to read the formation, figure out which play was coming, and yell it out just before the snap.
“Invaluable,” Kuechenberg said. “He was the heart of our defense. He and (Hall of Fame quarterback Bob) Griese were not unlike each other in some respects. Neither of them was the most outstanding physical specimen, but both did their homework well.”
Get Dolphins stories right to your Facebook by liking this page