“He had three things going for him. He was the best athlete in the South End, he was one of the smartest kids in the South End, and he was the toughest kid in the South End. So he was just a special kid.”
— Peter Buoniconti on his brother Nick
Nicholas Anthony Buoniconti Jr. was born on December 15, 1940 in Springfield, MA. to Nicholas Sr. and Pasqualina (Mercolino) Buoniconti. They ran an Italian bakery, Mercolino’s, located in Springfield’s South End. Young Nick conceded that were it not for his athletic talents he might have spent the rest of his life working at the bakery making fresh bread every morning as his father and grandfather had.
Not that it wouldn’t have been a great honor to follow in their footsteps.
It’s just not how things worked out.
Nick Buoniconti was a fierce, fearsome and undersized middle linebacker who led with his face. And his head as he made tackle after tackle sideline to sideline and up the gut.
He defined tenacity and became the only member of Miami’s vaunted No-Name Defense (Bill Stanfill, Bob Matheson, Manny Fernandez, Vern Den Herder, Mike Kolen, Dick Anderson, Jake Scott to name a few) to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He was selected by the Boston Patriots in the 13th. round of the American Football League draft out of Notre Dame in 1962 where he was an All-American and spent seven seasons with the Pats before joining the Dolphins in 1969, the year before the AFL-NFL merger.
(He kiddingly lamented then that he had just passed the Massachusetts bar the year before and now he was off to Miami. Fat lot of good that would do for his legal career).
Buoniconti was an All-Pro five times in his storied fourteen-year career.
Well before that he was “Skippy” from the South End Spitfires, a ten-year-old hellion playing organized football in the 10–12 age division.
Billy Kingston remembers.
A dear and lifelong friend, when Kingston learned of Buoniconti’s death on July 30th. at 78, a torrent of memories came flooding back.
Of growing up in Springfield’s South End.
Of being teammates at Cathedral High School.
Walking down State Street to football practice at Emerson Wight playground.
Of enjoying summers together playing junior baseball.
Taking trips to Altoona, PA. with Assunta Society teams to compete in national tournaments.
And later on of being in each other’s wedding party.
They even played against each other.
It happened when they were little kids on a Sunday afternoon at Pynchon Park where Romeo Cyr’s John L. Sullivan Football League was holding its championship games.
The first game featured Ruth Elizabeth playground against the Spitfires in the 10–12s.
“I was the Ruth Elizabeth quarterback,” Kingston recalls, “and Joe Scibelli [a Notre Dame teammate of Buoniconti’s and 15-year NFL player with the Los Angeles Rams, including ten as team captain] was the fullback. Skippy was two years younger than us, but he was playing a lot of defense for the Spitfires.”
Kingston’s team eked out a 7–0 victory on a plunging touchdown by Scibelli.
“Just think,” Kingston ruminated, “two kids from the same neighborhood, the same high school team, [and college team] each playing 15 years in the NFL. Incredible.”
But Kingston’s sports-based memories of his pal were not restricted to Skippy’s heroics on the gridiron.
It seemed that he was a pretty fair baseball player too. He remembers taking Buoniconti’s cannon throws from right field to cut down runners at the plate. “We always compared Nick’s arm to Rocky Colavito, the best arm in the big leagues,” Kingston remarked.
Ed Connors, then a second baseman for Chicopee teams, still talks about seeing Nick hit a ball “out of sight” at Van Horn Park.
For Kingston and others the South End memories of the kid they knew as Skippy in their youth will remain forever vivid.
Life after football was busy for Buoniconti. He was a lawyer, a player agent, a corporate executive and a TV sports personality — a 23-year run as a co-host of HBO’s Inside the NFL — but all that took a back seat to his tireless efforts working on behalf of the foundation he established, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which has raised more than $500 million targeting spinal and brain research and treatment.
In October 1985, his son Marc was a linebacker at the Citadel; on a 3rd-and-one play against East Tennessee State he sustained a spinal injury making a tackle which paralyzed him from the neck down. He is a quadriplegic and his care and the care of others in this unthinkably tragic position became the focus of Buoniconti’s existence for the next thirty years.
Nick’s was the lead voice of the Miami Project, championing medical research.
Commented Dr. Barth Green, a neurosurgeon and longtime chairman of the Miami Project, “People are walking now because of cellular transplants and the latest neuroengineering and bioengineering that has been applied to humans with disability. Nick was a stimulating force in that area, from bench to bedside. And this is someone who probably never took a science course.”
Nick Buoniconti estimated that since his days as a Spitfire, he had absorbed 520,000 hits to his head playing football. After he was diagnosed with dementia in 2016, he was resolute and unwavering in calling out the NFL for its shabby treatment of retired players and their families.
“We’re the players who built the game, but have been forgotten,” Buoniconti said. “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.”
When he decided to donate his brain to Boston University’s renowned CTE study two years ago, he again took the league to task upon learning of the NFL’s decision to renege on a commitment to fund research into football’s relationship to CTE and other brain disorders.
Apparently the league backed out on its pledge after discovering that a BU researcher (Dr. Ann McKee) would be leading the project.
“The fact that the NFL pulled its funding…prompted me to come up here and make a statement that the NFL is only in it for the money, and they don’t care about the guys who preceded me,” Buoniconti told the New York Times. “I’m really angry because they turned their backs on us and it’s not a responsible way to do things.”
Buoniconti was a bigger man than the NFL and its burgeoning $100 billion worth.
He demonstrated this once again when he cringed as he watched a clip of an interview he did with the late Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes in 1986.
At the time Buoniconti was a tobacco company executive and in defending the industry he demanded that Bradley furnish him with hard evidence — scientific proof — that smokeless tobacco caused oral cancer.
Bradley cited numerous studies which did just that but Buoniconti was unmoved and remained staunch in his defense.
Ashamed of his position and knowing that he was wrong, he was remorseful years afterward when he publicly admitted that “it’s hard for me to look at that clip.”
And speaking to his condition he noted, “I’m positive that football caused this. But I’m not mad at the game, I’m mad at the owners…I always loved [football] — still do. But I’m paying the price.”
Few players have taken so much out of football and had so much taken away by football.
But to the end Nick Buoniconti had other things and other people in mind.
When he declared to all that he was suffering from dementia and other ailments and would be donating his brain to science he pronounced, “It’s not hard for me to go public like this because so many others depend on getting out there and not to be ashamed. I never, never, never dreamed it would happen to me. We just hope this will pave the way for thousands of others who are out there and in denial and can come out now.”
A gladiator mentality infused with remarkable compassion which knew no bounds.
From the start to the finish line and beyond.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in August 2019.]