Health and Medicine People and Community

Nick Buoniconti, co-founder of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, passes away

Following a devastating spinal cord injury to his son, Marc, in 1985, Buoniconti, a longtime UM trustee, became a driving force dedicated to finding a cure to spinal cord injuries.
Nick Buoniconti, co-founder of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, passes away

Mark and Nick Buoniconti outside The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. 

As the anchor of the Miami Dolphins’ famed “No-Name Defense,” Nick Buoniconti led his teammates to two Super Bowl titles in the early 1970s, the first of those coming on a squad that still stands today as the NFL’s only undefeated and untied team.

But this was the biggest tackle of his life—a challenge much larger than any championship game in which he had ever played: Buoniconti’s beloved son Marc, a linebacker at The Citadel, became a quadriplegic after suffering a spinal cord injury while playing in a college football game. It was 1985, and Buoniconti, now a successful attorney after a brilliant professional football career, flew to Marc’s hospital bedside, promising his son that he would do everything to help him walk again. So he helped establish The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, focusing his attention on raising awareness of and funds for spinal cord injury research. 

Nicholas A. Buoniconti, a longtime University of Miami trustee, Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker, two-time Super Bowl champion, and arguably the greatest Miami Dolphin of them all, whose impact off the gridiron was as stellar as it was on it, passed away Tuesday in Bridgehampton, New York. He was 78. 

“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,” Marc Buoniconti, a University of Miami trustee, said in a statement. “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.” 

Buoniconti became a member of UM’s Board of Trustees in 1992, and during his 27 years on the board served on several of its committees. He was a member of the University’s Iron Arrow Honor Society and received the Man of the Year “Helping Hands Award” from the Miller School of Medicine. 

University of Miami President Julio Frenk said Buoniconti leaves “a remarkable legacy of visionary leadership in support of spinal cord injury research.”

“His compassion and commitment made a positive impact on people’s lives and he will be sorely missed by the entire University of Miami community,” Frenk said. “Our hearts are with his family and especially his son Marc at this difficult time.” 

In recent years, Buoniconti struggled with symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated head injuries. 

Coming out of Notre Dame, where he played guard on offense and linebacker on defense, the 5-foot-11 and 220-pound Buoniconti was considered too small to play professional football. But the son of an Italian baker proved the critics wrong, going on to a 15-year pro career highlighted by his stint with the Dolphins. He was captain of the Dolphins’ back-to-back Super Bowl champions, including the 1972 team that finished 17-0. 

The Boston Patriots drafted Buoniconti in the 1962 American Football League college draft, and he made an immediate impact, being named the team’s rookie of the year. The following year, he helped Boston capture the 1963 AFL Eastern Division title. During his career with Boston, Buoniconti appeared in five AFL All-Star Games and recorded 24 interceptions. He was named second team All-AFL in 1963 and the following season began a run of five consensus All-AFL seasons in the following six seasons, missing only 1968 when he was named second-team All-AFL.

He was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 1969, playing for that venerable franchise from 1969 to 1974 and in 1976. Buoniconti was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. 

At his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Buoniconti said, “I wear the Super Bowl ring, which is the only Super Bowl ring produced that says ‘Undefeated’ and ‘Perfect’ for the 1972 Dolphin season. I’d trade this ring and all my individual accomplishments if one thing could happen in this lifetime. My son dreams that he walks. And, as a father, I would like nothing more than to walk by his side.”

In 1985, following the paralyzing injury to Marc, Buoniconti and renowned UM neurological surgeon Dr. Barth A. Green co-founded The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which today is considered the premier investigative research program conducting cutting-edge discovery, translational, and clinical investigations targeting spinal cord and brain injuries. 

Buoniconti and his family also founded The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis to help The Miami Project achieve its goal of finding a cure for spinal cord injuries. To that end, through the direct involvement of the Buoniconti family, more than $500 million has been raised in support of The Miami Project’s research programs. 

Green, chairman of The Miami Project, said he is humbled and honored to have been Buoniconti’s teammate in the fight to find a cure for paralysis. 

“Nick has always placed Marc, his family, and The Miami Project first, above all other things in his life,” said Green. “Nick was the prototypical father and leader of what has now become an international effort to find a cure for paralysis and a renaissance in neuroscience. Marc, the Miami Project Team and I are committed to carry Nick’s banner and legacy forward to the goal line.”

Dalton Dietrich, scientific director of The Miami Project, worked with Buoniconti for more than 20 years as the center’s scientists investigated new treatments for people living with spinal cord injury.

“Nick was an inspiration to me and our Miami Project community and pushed us all to accomplish this goal. His leadership and critical contributions to raising millions of dollars for paralysis research has led to increased knowledge on the science of SCI and new reparative treatments that are already making a difference in the clinic,” said Dietrich. 

“A man of honor, intelligence and humanity” is how Miami Project executive director John P. Fox described Buoniconti. 

“If men are judged by what they leave behind, then Nick’s statue in the Football Hall of Fame pales in comparison with his accomplishments off the field,” said Fox. “It is well documented that Nick was not just a retired football player; he became a lawyer, sports agent and executive and excelled at them all.  For many others, however, he will be forever remembered as the driving force behind The Miami Project and The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis.  With the same intensity he used to sack opposing quarterbacks and by the sheer force of his will, he helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for spinal cord injury research. For those of us touched by his greatest mission, he will live on forever.” 

Buoniconti balanced multiple careers over the years. As a young football player, he juggled the rigors of a sports career and law school, then a law practice. He graduated from Suffolk University Law School and was a member of the Bar in both Florida and Massachusetts. 

For 23 seasons he was co-host of HBO’s critically acclaimed, weekly television sports show Inside the NFL. He served as president and chief operating officer of UST, a Fortune 500 company, served on the UST Board of Directors, and was chief operating officer and vice chairman of Columbia Laboratories, an AMEX listed pharmaceutical research and development company. 

He also served as an outside director for The Sports Authority, American Bankers Insurance Company, and Nine West Group, Inc. He is a former member of the Board of Governors of the United Service Organization. 

He was the recipient of numerous awards for career achievement and philanthropy including: the Distinguished Citizenship Award-2013 from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society; Man of the Year by the Walter Camp Football Foundation; the Ernie Davis Award by the Leukemia Society of America; Career Achievement Award by the Leukemia Society of America; Career Achievement Award by the NFL Alumni; and the Thurman Munson Award by the Association for the Help of Retarded Children, just to name a few. 

He pledged to donate his brain to the CTE Center of Boston University, where scientists are studying the long-term effects of the degenerative disease.