One player’s pain paying off for fallen Bill

MIAMI: This is a story about good karma, with a tough beginning, a ton of tears, but a happy ending.

On Oct. 26, 1985, a 19-year-old middle linebacker for Citadel, Marc Buoniconti, suffered a dislocation of the third and fourth Cervical Vertebrae and a severe spinal cord injury while making a routine tackle. Now 40, Buoniconti has spent more than half his life in a wheelchair. Two weeks ago, Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett injured the same two cervical vertebrae while making a routine tackle. Doctors say Everett will walk soon. And he can thank Buoniconti.

When Buoniconti was hurt, his father, Nick Buoniconti, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker for the Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins, was in New Jersey sipping champagne with his Notre Dame college roommate when the phone rang. He rushed to his son’s bedside.

Marc was on a Ventilator and could not speak.

“I’ll never forget the look in his eyes,” Nick Buoniconti said. “His big brown eyes read, ‘Dad, help me.’ It was the first time in my life I couldn’t help my son.”

Oh, but he would help – in a major way. Nick Buoniconti, the centerpiece of the famed No-Name Defense that was instrumental in the Dolphins’ perfect season in 1972, went on the offense.

Buoniconti found a University of Miami neurosurgeon, Dr. Barth Green, who was tired of telling parents their child would never walk again.

Green told him, “Get your son to Miami and I’ll save his life.”

Buoniconti did more than that. He decided to use his fame to raise money for a cure. He and Green founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the world’s largest comprehensive spinal cord injury research center, at the University of Miami.

In 1985, nobody was talking about finding a cure for spinal cord injuries. The trio worked tirelessly, and to date they have raised more than $200 million for research. There are now 200 scientists, doctors, and researchers working under one roof.

“Dr. Green laid out his vision, the best scientifics under one roof,” said Marc. “It was very gutsy. They called him a quack, they called him a wishful thinker, a glory seeker. He was spreading false hope.”

Green acknowledges he was nearly defeated.

“I was pretty beat up back then,” he said.

Instead, the researchers and doctors worked on a Hypothermia cooling technique that if administered quickly after the trauma could limit the damage. They also worked on finding a way to create healthy cells to offer a cure.

On Sept. 9, Everett stopped moving after making a helmet-first tackle in the season opener against Denver. His teammates prayed. Initial reports were that Everett suffered a catastrophic, life-threatening injury. He would be paralyzed. Forever.

Here’s where the karma comes in.

The Bills’ team neurosurgeon, Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, had attended a hypothermia treatment seminar this year given by the scientific director of the Miami Project, Dr. W. Dalton Dietrich. The idea is to quickly lower the body temperature to 92 degrees Fahrenheit, or 33 degrees Celsius, by using an ice-cold saline solution that prevents swelling and further damage, giving drugs a better chance to work.

Dietrich was watching the Bills game. The Bills’ owner, Ralph Wilson, is a Miami Project fan. He has donated millions to the Buoniconti Fund, and he is close friends with Green. Everett is a former University of Miami player.

Cappuccino ordered paramedics in the ambulance to immediately start running an IV with cold saline.

“It was less than 15 minutes after Everett hit the turf,” Green said. “It was a bold decision, the first time a paralyzed patient or any patient following any kind of a brain or spinal cord injury has received this therapy within 15 minutes of a catastrophic injury. The results are amazing. And because of it, Everett will walk again.”

Within 90 minutes, Everett was in the operating room, where doctors repaired the dislocation of the spine and took pressure off the spinal cord.

Green talked to Cappuccino and helped him locate a Cool Gard, an intravascular cooling device that was inserted by a Catheter into Everett’s femoral vein near his groin.

Everett eventually started to move his limbs and experience feeling in his hands. He was transferred to a Houston hospital Friday to be closer to his family and friends.

“It’s medical history,” said Green. “He’s out of the woods and on his way to walking soon. The best-case scenario is he’ll walk and be very independent. He’ll be able to work but not as a football player, probably.”

By Stan Grossfield
The Boston Globe

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