Whom do you turn to if Superman dies?
Marc Buoniconti doesn’t have the comic-book feel of a superhero: He has been a quadriplegic since fall 1985, when his spinal cord snapped while he was making a tackle playing football at The Citadel. He needs 24-hour care from a private nurse. He moves with the aid of a breath-activated wheelchair.
But he is a fortunate son in more ways than one. He inherited the Buoniconti tenacity from a father who was an undersized dynamo middle linebacker with the Miami Dolphins dynasty in the 1970s.
Father and son bonded in ways unimaginable the day of the accident, when Marc — clinging to life on a Ventilator — looked at his father with eyes begging for help. Nick Buoniconti, tears flowing down his cheeks, kissed his son on the forehead and promised him they would take on the challenge together.
Nearly 22 years later, they remain united. They co-founded The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in 1985. It has evolved into the world’s largest comprehensive spinal-cord-injury research center, running on an annual budget of $18 million. Most importantly, it fuels hope for an estimated 250,000 people in the U.S. that they will someday rise up and be whole again.
“I’ve never been more optimistic in our quest,” Marc Buoniconti said. “I’m as motivated now about our ability to find a cure.”
That challenge remains daunting, despite the progress in clinical work. Christopher Reeve died in 2004, leaving a greater legacy than his Superman film resume. He had become an advocate for spinal-cord-injury research since breaking his neck while riding a horse in 1995.
His voice of advocacy is still missed.
And the political will of the Bush administration goes against the flow of stem-cell research. Consider this week’s news that President Bush plans to veto a bill that would remove restrictions on stem-cell research.
As he continues to travel around the country, building support for the cause, Buoniconti isn’t going to play nice just to get a check.
“I’m in a wheelchair, and if I have to tell someone that they’re making a terrible political decision and have made moves I don’t agree with, I will let people know that loud and clear.”
That’s the Buoniconti tenacity seeping through again. It resonated decades ago while Marc was a frenetic linebacker (sound familiar?) playing for Columbus High in Miami. He had followed his older brother Nick Jr. at that school. And although Nick Jr. understood his lack of size wouldn’t allow him to play in the NFL, Marc had the Buoniconti pro blueprint until the accident.
That drive and energy are now focused in a more poignant career goal.
“Part of me knows that I was born with the Buoniconti gene,” Marc said. “I just don’t know how to give up.”
The thing is, they are all teammates now. Nick, a local attorney, sponsors a number of fundraisers for the project. The next one is Saturday night in Winter Park at the Farmer’s Market. The event is called “Escape to the Islands,” featuring music and a sampling of dishes from local restaurants.
It is among dozens of events that Marc, now 40, participates in and travels to, despite his physical limitations.
“It’s not, ‘Feel bad for us; make a donation,’ ” Nick Buoniconti Jr. said. “We’re going to get everybody out of their wheelchairs. It’s just a matter of time and money. So let’s dance all night and raise a bunch of money.”
The hope is that one day Marc joins that dance, on his own terms.
by George Diaz