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Nick Buoniconti, 78, Dies; All-Pro Linebacker Championed Medical Research - The New York Times

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Nick Buoniconti, a tenacious middle linebacker who won two Super Bowls in the 1970s with the Miami Dolphins and in retirement turned his doggedness to finding a cure for his son’s paralysis, died on Tuesday at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y. He was 78.

The son, Marc Buoniconti, the president of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which his father helped found, announced the death. His said his father had been in hospice care.

In 2015 doctors told Nick Buoniconti that he showed symptoms of dementia. Two years later he agreed to donate his brain to researchers at Boston University. They are to determine if his repeated head injuries as a player caused chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.

As of 2017, the university’s C.T.E. Center had found the disease in 110 of the 111 former N.F.L. players’ brains it had examined.

“I’m positive that football caused this,” Buoniconti said in “The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti” (2019), an HBO documentary. In an interview for the film, he showed his frustration with the halting speech that his dementia had caused.

“I’m not mad at the game, I’m mad at the owners,” he said. “I think that we paved the way for the N.F.L. being what it is today. In other words, we, uh, we paved the way for them and they’re, they’re reaping all the benefits.”

He added, “Sorry, I’m not, uh, I’m not, uh, coherent.”

For many years Buoniconti was an intelligent, articulate and tough player for the Boston Patriots (now the New England Patriots) and the Dolphins, winning All-Pro honors five times in a 14-year pro football career. A former All-American at the University of Notre Dame, he anchored the Dolphins’ vaunted “No-Name Defense” under Coach Don Shula.

Afterward he became a lawyer, a player agent, a TV sports personality, a corporate executive and the lead voice of the Miami Project.

Marc Buoniconti severely injured his spinal cord in a college football game in 1985. For more than 30 years afterward, Buoniconti helped raise nearly $500 million for spinal cord and brain research carried out by the organization. He also played a critical role in directing the research and was a charismatic motivator of scientists and researchers.

Dr. Barth Green, a neurosurgeon and longtime chairman of the Miami Project, said in a phone interview: “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.”

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Nicholas Anthony Buoniconti Jr. was born on Dec. 15, 1940, in Springfield, Mass., to Nicholas Sr. and Pasqualina (Mercolino) Buoniconti. They ran an Italian bakery, Mercolino’s, in Springfield’s South End. If not for his athletic skills, Buoniconti said, he might have spent the rest of his life working at the bakery, making fresh bread every morning as his father and grandfather had.

“He had three things going for him,” his brother Peter said in the HBO documentary. “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.”

Nick excelled as an undersized linebacker at Notre Dame. But his coach, Joe Kuharich, did not recommend him to National Football League scouts; Kuharich felt that at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Buoniconti was too small for the N.F.L. Kuharich told him to set his sights on the American Football League, which had started in 1960 as an audacious challenge to the older N.F.L.

Buoniconti did, and was drafted by the Patriots in the 13th round of the 1962 A.F.L. draft. The N.F.L. did not draft him at all.

As a Patriot, he was an All-Pro four times and led the team in tackles and interceptions in his seven seasons with Boston. He distinguished himself off the field by studying at the Suffolk University School of Law in Boston to prepare for his post-playing career, graduating in 1968.

“Once I got my law degree, I was determined not to let football rule me,” he said in the HBO documentary.

He was traded to the Dolphins in 1969 and contemplated retiring. But he agreed to a long-term deal with the team, joining a young roster. Miami went 3-10-1 in his first season, but the team’s fortunes changed the next year, when Shula guided it to a 10-4 record.

It was the start of a memorable run of success for the Dolphins. After the A.F.L.-N.F.L. merger, they were American Football Conference champions in 1971, though they lost to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI. And in 1972 they went undefeated, capping what became a 17-0 season with a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII in January 1973. No team since then has gone undefeated for an entire season (though the Patriots came close in 2008, when their 18-0 run ended with a Super Bowl loss to the Giants.)

Buoniconti became the only member of Miami’s No-Name Defense to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“We were embarrassed by how we played against the Cowboys,” Buoniconti told The New York Times in 2012. “The fact that we were undefeated was accidental. It happened. We also had skills and luck and great coaching. It was more chemistry than ability.”

The Dolphins won the next Super Bowl as well, beating the Minnesota Vikings, 24-7.

Buoniconti finished playing after the 1976 season, pleased to have retired with his health.

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“My last game, I got on my hands and knees and kissed the ground and thanked God that I’d never gotten seriously hurt,” he said in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2017. He estimated that he had absorbed 520,000 hits to his head.

He used his law degree for several years in private practice, where his work included representing athletes, among them the baseball player Andre Dawson, then of the Montreal Expos, in contract negotiations. In 1979, he started a 23-year run as a host of the HBO Sports series “Inside the NFL,” teaming up with Len Dawson, the former quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs.

And in 1983, he joined United States Tobacco as a senior vice president, earning 10 times the salary he had received in his best years in the N.F.L.

Buoniconti famously defended the company’s smokeless tobacco products as safe. In a segment of “60 Minutes” in 1986, he told the correspondent Ed Bradley that there had been no scientific proof that smokeless tobacco had caused oral cancer, though Mr. Bradley pointed to studies that had done just that. Despite the shaky performance — which he later regretted — he was soon promoted to president of the company.

But by then, Marc Buoniconti had been critically injured while playing linebacker for The Citadel, the military college in Charleston, S.C., during a game against East Tennessee State in Johnson City, Tenn., in October 1985. He was left paralyzed from the neck down.

Nick Buoniconti eventually left U.S. Tobacco, saying he could no longer devote himself full-time to the company while focusing on his son’s treatments in Miami.

Buoniconti’s devotion to the Miami Project — organizing fund-raising events like sports legends dinners, cajoling researchers to find therapies and getting involved in grant applications — became his focus. When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio, he reminded the audience that he was wearing the Super Bowl ring that commemorated the Dolphins’ undefeated season.

“I would trade this ring in and all my individual accomplishments if one thing could happen in my lifetime,” he said. “My son Marc dreams that he walks, and as a father I would like nothing more than to be by his side.”

In addition to Marc, Mr. Buoniconti is survived by his wife, Lynn (Weiss) Buoniconti; his daughter, Gina Buoniconti; another son, Nicholas III; a stepson, Justin Weiss; four grandchildren; and his brothers Robert and Peter. His marriage to Terry Salamano ended in divorce.

Buoniconti began showing signs of dementia in 2013. He had trouble with his memory and balance. He fell frequently. Two years later he showed symptoms suggesting dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and C.T.E. Further testing pointed increasingly to the likelihood of C.T.E., which is characterized by elevated amounts of a protein, tau, that slowly kills brain cells. C.T.E. can be definitively diagnosed only in an autopsy.

In Buoniconti’s final years, Marc provided the sort of emotional support that his father had given him after his catastrophic injury.

”Well, I should’ve been dead years ago,” he said in the HBO documentary. “It’s only because of my father that I’m here today. It’s only because of my father that I”m able to live the life that I do.”

Correction: 

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated an achievement of the Dolphins in 1971. They were champions of the American Football Conference, not the American Football League. (The A.F.L. and N.F.L. merged in 1970.)

Ken Belson contributed reporting.

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