The game of football takes its toll on all who play it for any length of time, though the degree to which they are impacted and how varies. For some, the price to pay for years of tackles is knee replacements and constant back pain; for others, it’s depression and memory loss and other brain disorders. For still others, it can be both.
Former linebacker Nick Buoniconti, and eight-time Pro Bowler with the Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins and 2001 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, is no different.
Buoniconti, a key member of the 1971-73 Dolphins who went to three straight Super Bowls, winning two, including their undefeated ’72 season, is a legend in Miami and has spent much of his adult life as a leader in the fight to cure paralysis.
But the 76-year-old Buoniconti is crippled by neurodegenerative diseases, problems that he said recently have him feeling “lost” and “like a child.” He’s been diagnosed with dementia. He’s losing the use of his left hand. His wife has to help him use the bathroom.
Sports Illustrated posted a story on Tuesday by S.L. Price that chronicles Buoniconti’s struggles and those of some of his other former teammates and NFL players. It’s a thorough yet difficult read on one of the game’s revered figures, and serves to underscore – yet again – the hoops the NFL makes former players, the players who made the league into the billion-dollar entertainment machine it is now – jump through to get money and help.
The story begins with Buoniconti and his wife, Lynn, in California for the Legends Invitational gala, and the couple catch up with another Hall of Famer, former Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman. Doleman shares some of his struggles with the Buonicontis, how he’ll wake up in his own bed and wonder if he’s in a hotel room, how even routine things have become problematic.
“And I’m 55,” Doleman says to the Buonicontis. “I don’t know what I’ll be like at 59 or 65.”
“At 55 I was very normal,” Buoniconti replies. “I’m not normal anymore.”
The in-depth profile of Buoniconti, who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for spinal cord and paralysis research through his Miami Project (one of his sons, Marc, was paralyzed while playing football for The Citadel) is worth your time.
He reached out to Price several months ago, wanting to go public with his struggles in part to see some good come of it. His incredibly successful post-playing career means Buoniconti does not have the financial struggles that so many other retired players do, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help them.
In November, during a medical exam at UCLA, Buoniconti gets angry.
“The NFL should be volunteering to pay for this. I’m so [expletive] pissed off at them!,” he shouted.
“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.”
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