Nick Buoniconti’s Champagne glass was still in the air when the phone rang.
Lounging on a New Jersey terrace beneath a bright October sun in 1985, Buoniconti and a college roommate had more than enough reasons to hold their glasses high.
“Two Italian kids from very poor backgrounds who did pretty well in life,” Buoniconti said.
A rugged middle linebacker with the Dolphins who anchored the team’s no-name defense in the early 1970’s, Buoniconti led Miami to a pair of Super Bowl victories and one undefeated, unforgettable season in 1972. He left football after a Hall of Fame career to become a lawyer and a broadcaster, and, like his roommate from Notre Dame, had done well in business.
Buoniconti also had two sons trying to follow his path to the N.F.L.: Nick, a 21-year-old middle linebacker and senior captain at Duke, and Marc, a 19-year-old sophomore playing the same position at the Citadel.
For Buoniconti and his former roommate, life was beautiful. But then the phone rang, and the sun stopped shining.
“Nick,” a business associate called to say, “Marc’s been injured.”
Buoniconti learned that Marc, in making a tackle at East Tennessee State that day, had broken his neck and severed his spinal cord. Marc Buoniconti, who reminded so many people of his father by racing around football fields with a giant heart thumping inside a small frame, was suddenly a quadriplegic.
“I just fell to the ground; I literally collapsed,” Nick Buoniconti said. “And then I had to do the hardest thing in the world: I had to tell his mother.”
At Johnson City Hospital in Tennessee, Marc lay sedated, breathing with a respirator, tubes attached to his nose and throat.
“By the time I got there, he was dying,” Buoniconti said. “I looked into his eyes and all I could see was ‘Dad, please help me.’ ”
Nick Buoniconti, rich and famous, leaned over and gave his son all he could offer at that moment, a kiss. He then made a promise, one he has been keeping every day for nearly two decades. “Marc,” he said, “I’m going to do everything in my power to get you better again, to see you walk again.”
Buoniconti began a frenzied worldwide search to find the best treatment for his son. That search led him to familiar turf, Miami. “I met a neurosurgeon by the name of Barth Green,” he said. “Dr. Green told me that if Marc can make it home, he’ll save his life.”
Three days later, Marc was resting at the University of Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital, under the care of Dr. Barth A. Green, who had made a career of researching spinal cord injuries.
In the ensuing weeks, he and Nick Buoniconti huddled time and again by Marc’s bedside. Each day, the young Buoniconti grew stronger, and so too did a relationship between unlikely teammates.
“We started talking, and Dr. Green told me that he was tired of having to walk down to waiting rooms and tell parents that their kids would never walk again,” Nick Buoniconti said. “This type of injury not only affects the people injured, but it throws entire families into disarray, into a state of confusion.
“My other son, Nick, he lived for football. But when Marc got hurt, Nick immediately walked away from the game.”
By then, Green had grown frustrated with the lack of financing, attention and progress in his area of expertise.
“I was about to say, ‘The heck with it; I’ll just go on and be a good doctor,’ ” he said. “After 20 years of research in this area, I had reached the point of ultimate frustration.”
With the help of Buoniconti and other businesspeople trying to cope with relatives who could no longer walk, Green organized the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. At the University of Miami School of Medicine, the project brings together top neurosurgeons, researchers, clinicians and therapists to help those with spinal cord injuries.
Twenty years later, Buoniconti’s commitment has helped the Miami Project raise more than $150 million and influenced thousands of lives. Green and his staff are working to reconnect and regenerate damaged cells to restore spinal cord function.
“If our momentum continues, especially in the area of cellular transplantation,” Green said, “I think we could be about five years away from a cure.”
Though Marc Buoniconti, now 38, spends a lot of his time in a wheelchair, he is now able to walk three times a week with the help of a mechanical walker.
“From my perspective, these past 20 years have been a medical revolution,” he said. “When I first got hurt, all I had to cling to was a promise from my father. And that promise became a miracle.”
Marc Buoniconti says he is not sure when he will be able to rise from his wheelchair for good. He is sure, however, of the first thing he would do.
“I’m going to walk over to my father, and give him a hug, because I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for his love and dedication,” he said. “My father kept his promise, and gave me and so many others the gift of a second life.”
By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI