Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, leader of undefeated 1972 Dolphins team, dead at 78

Shalise Manza Young
Yahoo Sports Contributor

Nick Buoniconti, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2001, has died. He was 78.

Buoniconti struggled with dementia for years; Hal Habib of the Palm Beach Post reports that he had been admitted to a hospice facility this week.

Star middle linebacker

Born in Springfield, Mass., Buoniconti was a 13th-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, by his home-state Boston Patriots in 1962. Though undersized, he was a star middle linebacker with the Patriots, named to five straight AFL All-Star games from 1963-67, and a first-team All-Pro for four straight years, 1964-67.

But the Patriots traded Buoniconti to the Miami Dolphins in 1969. Just before his Hall of Fame induction, Buoniconti revealed that he was so upset by the trade that he turned in retirement papers.

But he changed his mind, and became a key part of the Dolphins’ defense, going to three more Pro Bowls before he did retire at age 36, and winning two Super Bowl rings, including as a member of the famed undefeated 1972 team.

After his last game in 1976, when he was 36 and had played 183 games, Buoniconti dropped to his knees and kissed the ground, thankful he’d been able to play for 14 years without a major injury.

‘CTE has taken my life away’

But after decades of playing football, Buoniconti learned the true toll football had taken on him, with the onset of dementia, and likely CTE, which can’t be confirmed while a person is alive.

But convinced that “CTE has taken my life away,” Buoniconti has pledged his brain to science.

Buoniconti’s son, Marc, is a quadriplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair for years, after suffering a spinal cord injury while playing for The Citadel. Nick co-founded the Miami Center to Cure Paralysis after his son’s injury, and the group has raised tens of millions for research.

As his own battle revealed itself, Buoniconti agreed to a deeply personal HBO documentary, which showed his struggles with even the simplest day-to-day tasks.

Years ago, Buoniconti wouldn’t blame football for his son’s condition. But he came to realize what football had done to both of them: “I’m positive of that ... football caused this,” he said.

“We’re both, in a way, paralyzed,” Buoniconti said in “The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti,” which debuted earlier this year. “I’m paralyzed because I can’t do the basic things in life. It’s not pleasant to think about where my life is going to take me.”

“When we were growing up, football gave everything to us,” Marc told HBO. “And then look at what it did to me. And now look at what it’s doing to him.

“I mean, do you love the game? Hate the game? Do you love it and hate it?”

‘My dad has been my hero’

Buoniconti’s life included time as a sports agent and 23 years on HBO’s “Inside the NFL.”

He had been married to his second wife, Lynn, since 2000, and is also survived by sons Nick III and Marc.

In a statement, Marc said, “Today, with a heavy heart and profound sorrow, my family and the entire Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and Buoniconti Fund community mourn the loss of a man who was truly larger than life, my father, NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti.

“My dad has been my hero and represents what I have always aspired to be; a leader, a mentor and a champion. He selflessly gave all to football, to his family and to those who are less fortunate. He made a promise to me that turned into a revolution in paralysis research. We can best honor his dedication and endless commitment by continuing with our work until that promise is fulfilled and a cure is found.”

“Nick Buoniconti was a true hero of the game,” Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker said in a statement. “His inspiring Hall of Fame journey that started as a 13th round draft choice to leading the Dolphins ‘No Name’ defense is one filled with grit, determination, courage and compassion. Nick’s contributions off the field were even greater than what he did on it. He lived a life of honor and nobility and his legacy will live forever through his Bronzed Bust in Canton, Ohio.

“The entire Hall of Fame family mourns Nick’s passing and we will keep his wife Lynn and his entire family in our thoughts and prayers.”

The Dolphins and Patriots both posted remembrances to Buoniconti on social media.

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