MIAMI — Marc Buoniconti’s spinal cord was crushed on a college football field nearly 21 years ago. His relationship with the Citadel was severed for almost as long. If asked years ago which would be mended first, he says he would have guessed wrong.
“I thought we’d cure paralysis first,” he says. “Not because I didn’t want to” restore school ties. “I just never saw it happening.”
Buoniconti, son of a Hall of Fame linebacker, made a tackle for the Citadel at East Tennessee State in 1985. He fell limply to the turf and knew immediately he was paralyzed. Three years later, Buoniconti sued the Citadel and its trainer and team doctor. Attorneys on both sides said harsh things about who was to blame. Buoniconti and the military school in Charleston, S.C., remained uncomfortably estranged. He rarely returned over the years.
Joel Thompson, Buoniconti’s fellow linebacker on that fateful play, stepped into the breach a year ago and mediated detente. He encouraged the school he loves and the former teammate he loves to love one another again.
The Citadel will retire Buoniconti’s No. 59 on Sept. 30 at halftime of a home game against Chattanooga. Buoniconti, who turns 40 a day earlier, often holds his emotions in check. He knows that won’t be possible in front of family, friends and teammates.
“It’s like a dam has opened up” after all these years, he says, head tilted forward for emphasis. “My emotions are going to flow. A void in my heart has been filled. Time heals.”
Time does not heal Quadriplegia, but the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis hopes to. Buoniconti is its public face. Tonight he will be honored at the 21st Great Sports Legends Dinner in New York, emceed by Tom Brokaw. The dinner benefits the Buoniconti Fund, fundraising arm of the Miami Project, which was born in the days after Buoniconti was paralyzed.
Buoniconti’s father, Nick, the former Miami Dolphins star, promised his son he would walk again. The mainstream medical community said that wasn’t possible.
Barth Green, chair of neurological surgery at the University of Miami medical school, said it could be — with single-minded scientists and money for their research. The Miami Project, with Marc as its ambassador, has raised more than $200 million, according to its communications director, Scott Roy.
“The Citadel is very proud of what Marc has done,” says Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, Citadel president.
“It’s amazing the amount of money he’s raised. It’s exactly the kind of leadership we’re trying to teach our young people.”
Buoniconti, 19 when he was injured, almost died on that field in Johnson City, Tenn. He couldn’t breathe; medical personnel ripped open his jersey to save him. The Citadel kept the sundered, white road jersey all these years. Last week it was framed for the retirement ceremony.
The Citadel wasn’t the only one saving jerseys. Thompson noticed on a visit to Buoniconti’s condo last year that he kept his baby-blue home jersey crisply hung in the closet.
“I think that really surprised him,” Buoniconti says. “He figured I hated them. ‘Why would I want anything from that school in my house?’ I also had a garrison cap and a full dress hat, the one with the plume on top. And I still had my helmet. For me personally, I never thought of throwing it away.”
That’s what put the thought in Thompson’s head that rapprochement was possible.
“Sometimes if you’re in a relationship and you break up with your girlfriend, you tear those pictures up,” Thompson says. “In other cases, you can’t throw them away — there’s that feeling that something good is still there.
“For the Citadel and Marc, there was always something good still there.”
Filling the void a long time coming
Buoniconti lives with his Siamese cat Smokey in a condo in Coral Gables overlooking Biscayne Bay. He has 24-hour care and works out three times a week in a robotic walking system at the Miami Project.
Buoniconti’s former teammates were not frequently in touch over the years. That was partly because the bitterness between their friend and their school made it difficult for them to face him.
Thompson lives in Atlanta and runs a company that sells game room equipment with collegiate logos. He called Buoniconti about three years ago, and they rekindled their friendship. Thompson began to think about trying to broker peace a couple of years later after seeing the old uniform in the closet.
“I was a little hesitant and nervous about going forward,” Thompson says.
“Like my teammates, I had put this in storage. No one wanted to face it again, with loyalties to the Citadel and the Buoniconti family.”
Then exactly a year ago, Thompson attended the 20th Sports Legends Dinner in New York. “That was a moving experience,” Thompson says. “I put my reservations and hesitations aside.”
Thompson called former teammates. They helped him contact authorities at the Citadel. Thompson and others made phone calls and went to meetings and spoke to the school’s interim president and its board of visitors.
“I guess Joel could sense there was something empty in my life, incomplete,” Buoniconti says. “He told me, ‘Marc, I love the Citadel. And I love you. Is there a way we can get you guys back together?’
“And I said, ‘Joel, that’s fine. You can reach out. I don’t think it’s me that should be reaching out.’
“Joel became the conduit between me and the school. He performed miracles. I’m just one person, but there’s a chain of command over there. If you want to mow the lawn a different pattern, it takes an act of Congress.”
School authorities were eager to bring Buoniconti back into the fold. Thompson says the final decision was left to incoming president Rosa, former superintendent of the Air Force Academy and Citadel quarterback of the early 1970s. He took office last January and was strongly in favor. The board of visitors unanimously voted to retire the jersey.
“I’m sorry it took us this long,” Rosa says. “It’s a time to celebrate and let bygones be bygones.
“It teaches our young people here that whatever differences you may have in the past, you ought to be able to sit down, if you’re really a family, and come back together. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Feeling the warmth
The Citadel is a 164-year-old, state-supported military school with traditions of loyalty and brotherhood forged in the cadets’ first year.
“It’s boot camp on steroids, man,” Buoniconti says. “But making it through with my classmates, even though you hate it at the time, you learn to love it. … You pour so much of your heart and soul into a place that it’s hard to take it out of you.”
Buoniconti says he told Thompson he could accept an offer from the Citadel only if it were genuine: “It can’t be for any reason other than what it should be for. That’s to invite me back and to honor me for the athlete and cadet that I was. I think they have. They’ve done it really honorably.”
Buoniconti was officially invited to campus last March for Corps Day, when the Citadel celebrates its roots. “Welcome home,” said Billy Jenkinson, chairman of the board of visitors.
“I felt very warm,” Buoniconti says. “They rolled out the red carpet for me.”
He had been back to campus twice previously since his injury — in 1988 to see his classmates graduate and in 1998 for a 10-year reunion — but those visits were different. He says he felt as if he were sneaking in, like trying to creep back to campus unnoticed after going AWOL for a night.
But that day in March, he says, felt more like returning with his unit in the old days: “When you’re in formation, coming back, there was a saying that everyone used to sing: ‘Open the gates and open them wide, the boys of F Troop are coming inside.’
“I don’t have to stealth it anymore. They’re opening the gates for me — and opening them wide.”
Forgiveness and going forward
The number retirement will be a day of healing for Buoniconti, his family and his school. Only recently did he discover it will also help heal his former teammates.
“I never knew how much my injury affected them,” he says. “I was the one injured, put in an ambulance and driven away. … There’s their friend, right there ready to die on the football field, and they were stuck with that for weeks that turned into months that turned into a year that turned into a trial against their school and some of them were caught in that.
“Some of them told me they’ve been carrying that emotion with them their entire lives. Feeling awkward to call me because it’s been a long time and uncomfortable about it and wanting to know how I am. … This has turned into a big reunion, and a lot of my teammates are coming, tons of them.”
A caravan from Miami is coming, too, including his whole family. “The Citadel reached out to Marc,” Buoniconti’s father says. “You can hold a grudge or go forward. They made a gesture, and Marc magnanimously accepted.”
Buoniconti says he has forgiven his old school. He doubts Citadel officials were seeking that, but he sees it as an important part of spiritual healing.
“I think it’s harder not to forgive,” he says. “By forgiving, you’re not avoiding it anymore. I could have avoided this whole situation by telling Joel I wasn’t interested. But I think that would have been the wrong choice.
“If I have to take it on the chin, get exposed to a little more emotion, that’s OK. It’s going to be good for me. It already has. … It’s a great forgiveness.”
By Erik Brady, USA TODAY