(AP) – Marc Buoniconti didn’t have to say a word for teammate Joel Thompson to know the former Citadel linebacker was ready to reconcile with their old school.
Thompson visited his former roommate in Miami when Buoniconti showed him a closet where Buoniconti’s cadet’s uniform hung crisply along with his football jersey. After more than 20 years of legal fights and bad feelings that followed Buoniconti’s on-field paralysis from a simple tackle at East Tennessee State, Thompson realized the time was right for his old friend to come home.
“He kept those for a reason,” Thompson said. “He showed me those for a reason.”
The efforts of Thompson and others led to the Citadel’s plans to officially honor Buoniconti at a game next season.
This weekend, Buoniconti will attend the school’s birthday celebration, Corps Day, and watch the Bulldogs spring football practice, welcomed back officially for the first time since the accident.
“Maybe I made some mistakes. Maybe they made some mistakes,” Buoniconti said in a phone interview. “But what are you going to do, take that stuff to your grave?”
On Oct. 26, 1985, Buoniconti, was a 19-year-old, 220-pound sophomore in the mold of his father, former Miami Dolphins linebacker and NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti, when his life changed forever.
Buoniconti rushed in to stop a sweep on third-and-1 when the runner’s body hit Buoniconti’s head. Buoniconti knew instantly he was paralyzed.
“We didn’t know this at the time,” Thompson said, “but because of breathing difficulty, Marc almost died on the field.”
Buoniconti survived but he had a broken C-3 vertebra, a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
He spent a year in the hospital. Then Buoniconti filed a negligence suit against the college, including the team doctor and trainer. The Citadel and its trainer reached an $800,000 settlement during the 1988 trial.
The legal battles distanced Buoniconti and the Citadel. However, they did not take away the deep commitment Buoniconti felt for the school in his brief time there.
Students at South Carolina’s military college, all-male until a decade ago, go through a training regimen that bonds them forever. A first-year “knob” goes through an experience not unlike military boot camp, and must take orders from the upperclassmen and professors. It is a term of service designed to mold the “whole person,” according to the school’s Web site.
“You don’t forget something like that,” Buoniconti said.
Buoniconti returned in 1988 for the graduation of his class. He came back a decade later for its 10-year reunion. Both times he came on his own, without an invitation from the school.
Thompson had fallen out of touch with Buoniconti through the years. He was conflicted about the harsh words from both sides. Thompson felt nervous contacting Buoniconti.
“We all have a loyalty to the Citadel and that won’t change,” Thompson said.
As the two continued catching up through phone calls, Thompson asked, “‘Marc, has anybody from the Citadel called you? Have you guys put this to bed?’ It was shocking to me that nothing had been done.”
Last fall, after the 20th anniversary of Buoniconti’s accident, Thompson and other friends contacted Cliff Poole, Citadel’s interim president, about reconciliation. Poole, a business professor, welcomed the idea and asked Thompson to write the school’s board of visitors and athletic department.
The momentum picked up from there.
When Billy Jenkinson, head of the Citadel Board of Visitors, first talked with Thompson, he told him, “It’s strange you should ask that, I was just thinking of Marc.”
Citadel athletic director Les Robinson held the same position at East Tennessee in 1985 and was at the game when Buoniconti was paralyzed. He gladly signed on to Buoniconti’s cause.
In 2002, Robinson had helped repair the fractured relationship between Citadel and writer Pat Conroy, a former Bulldog basketball player who was unwelcome in the eyes of many alums for his unflattering portraits of the military academy in his best-selling novels.
“That’s what life’s all about,” Robinson said. “Most people when they leave this earth would like to be on good terms with everyone.”
Besides repairing long-ago wounds, Jenkinson says the tribute is fitting since Buoniconti has helped The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis raise about $200 million. Buoniconti has worked with such people as the late Dana Reeve and her husband, paralyzed “Superman” star Christopher Reeve, to raise awareness of spinal cord injuries.
“We want to embrace him for everything,” Jenkinson said.
Buoniconti is satisfied the warm welcome from school leaders is genuine. He’s proud he won’t be forgotten at his former school.
“It was always in the back of my mind and in my heart that they would recognize me for the football player I was and the person I am now,” he said. “To recognize the fact the last steps I walked was playing a game, wearing a uniform of the Citadel.”