Now 76 and believed to be struggling with the three most feared letters in sports – CTE, not NFL – Hall-of-Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti is broken in ways that cannot be repaired. The public airing of his struggles this week in Sports Illustrated is another reminder that this sport, like a pack of cigarettes, should come with a warning label: Playing football can be hazardous to your health.’’
We all know this now if we’ve been paying any attention to the concussion crisis that remains a threat to the long-term popularity of the game. But is a fairly recent occurrence -- and most certainly not something the players of Buoniconti’s era, the ones upon whose backs the success of today’s game was built, understood.
Buoniconti was selected to the Hall of Fame in 2001 after a 14-year career in which vicious aggressiveness was his calling card. Always undersized, he went undrafted by the NFL after an All-America career at Notre Dame because, as his college coach Joe Kuharich once put it, “He’ll run through a brick wall for you, but he’ll leave a small hole.’’
Fortunately for pro football, the Boston Patriots decided to take a flyer on a local kid who grew up in Springfield, Mass., in the western part of the state. What did they have to lose? If he didn’t make it, they would have gotten good publicity out of it over the summer of 1962.
And, in those days, the AFL could use it.
If he did make it, they’d have a local draw on the cheap. As things turned out, they didn’t pay much of a price to acquire someone who would become one of the game’s best middle linebackers at a time when that was still a glamour position. In the end, however, the price would be paid by Buoniconti.
He was never, it seems, totally in love with the game. In fact, baseball was his first choice, and he went to Notre Dame partly because it promised he could play both sports.
“Notre Dame lied to me,’’ he tells Sports Illustrated.
Once he got there he found out he was a football player, period. Maybe he should have known then and there that there were more hidden dangers and dark shadows to this game than he thought.
But he was young and strong and, well, says now it was the only way he was going to college. So what choice did he have? Isn’t that why so many of these kids play today? To escape from a life of limited opportunities? But when you think about that, if you’re honest with yourself, you have to wonder about the idea that they’re all volunteers and must accept the risks inherent in the sport.
But are they really? Was Nick Buoniconti really just a kid who wanted to play football and so has no legitimate grievance over one day ending up unable to tie his tie ... or lace his shoes ... or figure out how to put on a t-shirt ... or remember a simple thing like how to hang up a telephone?
No, he wasn’t, which is why he went to law school at night when playing for the Patriots and nearly retired when he was traded to the Dolphins in 1969 to stick with his law practice. In the end, he didn’t. Maybe it was the allure of the game or the notion we all have at 28 that we’re bullet proof. Or maybe, most likely, he had no idea what playing football and taking over 500,000 hits to the head (his estimate) can do to your brain.
Whatever the reason, Nick Buoniconti went on to play seven more years, win two Super Bowls and become the one percent of all players to reach the Hall of Fame. Later he became a successful agent, lawyer, TV personality on HBO’s "Inside the NFL" and a millionaire head of U.S. Tobacco. He had it all…and then his world began to go dark.
Today he is only the latest, and surely not the last, to suffer the ravages of a life in pro football. His public acknowledgment of his afflictions this week and his firm belief that “CTE is something the NFL doesn’t recognize until you die,’’ is another reminder that playing pro football often comes with a price few understand until it is too late.