photo by Francesco Gasparetti
When I watch a National Football League game, I sometimes think of coal miners – very large, fast, agile coal miners – performing their labors deep beneath the Appalachian hills.
Like the coal miners of yesteryear, NFL players knowingly sacrifice their bodies because they see it as the best way to provide for their futures and for their families. Increasingly, they know that they may very well be sacrificing their minds, too. Nick Buoniconti, the Hall of Fame linebacker who died July 30, was one of them.
Buoniconti had plenty to be proud of for his athletic accomplishments alone. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and won two Super Bowls. He also led the Miami Dolphins’ famed “No-Name Defense” as the team played the NFL’s only perfect season in 1972. Despite early speculation that he was too small to play professional football, he was the AFL Boston Patriots’ Rookie of the Year in 1962.
But besides his distinguished performance on the field, Buoniconti made significant contributions elsewhere. After retiring from football, Buoniconti went on to a successful second act in business and broadcasting. But perhaps he will be best remembered for his philanthropic contributions. Buoniconti’s son became paralyzed in 1985, at age 19, while playing college football. This led Buoniconti to found The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis with Dr. Barth Green. Over several decades, Buoniconti raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the organization to fund research into a paralysis cure. The Miami Project has grown into one of the largest neurological research centers in the country.
Buoniconti was an accomplished and respected man on, and later off, the football field. Yet he wasn’t a saint. There are probably some in the cancer community who have not forgotten his work as the president of U.S. Tobacco, and particularly his pushback against emerging evidence that “smokeless” or chewing tobacco caused oral cancer and a host of other ailments. That Buoniconti’s corporate career spanned both the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries is another reminder that human beings are complicated, contradictory creatures. We do all sorts of things, like sacrificing our bodies, for all sorts of reasons that seem compelling – at least at the time.
Like most players of his generation, Buoniconti probably gave little thought to the long-term consequences to his brain of the helmet-to-helmet and helmet-to-turf smashing through which he earned his paycheck. He would have been much more immediately concerned about an injury to his legs or his spine, which would have robbed him of his ability to blitz a quarterback or intercept a pass. Even well into middle age, Buoniconti’s mental faculties seemed unaffected by his football career. When decline eventually set in, he went public about the details. Characteristically, he announced that he would donate his brain for chronic traumatic encephalopathy studies; the delayed onset of his symptoms may provide more clues to the genesis of such dementia and the steps that might prevent or mitigate it.
In a statement following the announcement of his father’s death, Marc Buoniconti said, “He selflessly gave all to football, to his family and to those who are less fortunate.” He continues to give, even posthumously.
When I think of players like Buoniconti and his teammates, I sometimes wonder whether they would have chosen to play football if they had known exactly how it would affect them later in life. My guess is that most of them would have played anyway, just as generations of men descended into coal mines knowing exactly what it was likely to cost them when they finally emerged into the sunlight.
Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, often called “black lung,” was a real and untreatable potential consequence of extended time in a coal mine. But many miners continued to find the trade-off worthwhile, even after the disease began to be better understood in the mid-20th century. The United Mine Workers of America under John L. Lewis even resisted identifying the diseases from which they suffered, for fear it would impair their livelihoods and retirement benefits.
Miners and their union leaders were men, not saints. If they made choices that seem questionable to us in retrospect, I try to keep in mind that they seemed perfectly reasonable in their own time and circumstances. Many of them might make most of those same choices all over again, and I suspect many professional football players would, too.
We will not know if CTE shortened Nick Buoniconti’s life until his brain can be examined. Nor will we know how his decision to allow examination may move understanding of the phenomenon forward. But we do know that Buoniconti was an undersized pro football player who left a big legacy on and off the field, and who was willing to give of himself until the very end.