Monday, 19 August 2019


Nick Buoniconti was unique in being a player from the era before free agency who is remembered a being crucial and beloved by fans of two teams. Nowadays we are used to players who move from team to team, often at their peaks, often collecting rings along the way. Previously, talented players were moved only when their original teams either thought they were on the decline or suffered a personality clash. Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams to the Eagles and a title. Sonny Jurgensen from the Eagles to the Redskins, and beloved by both sets of fans. Some moved toward the ends of their careers (coaches like George Allen specialised in picking them up) but their peak at their new clubs was short (think Sam Huff, NY Football Giants to Washington). Buoniconti went to from the Patriots to the Dolphins when he was still at his peak, and stayed there for another six seasons that brought two Super Bowl titles and of course the only undefeated, untied season in NFL history.

He went to Notre Dame, who recruited him out of Springfield (Mass) Cathedral High, which had produced Angelo Bertelli, the Irish’s first Heisman winner. He played both ways, at guard and linebacker/middle guard, but was overshadowed on the line by big tackle Myron Pottios. He was considered undersized for the NFL. Which wasn’t an exaggeration; he basically played at 5-11 220. He wasn’t much smaller than someone like Lee Roy Jordan, but southern players had the reputation of being faster harder hitters.

He wasn’t picked in the NFL draft, and went to the Boston Patriots in round 13 of the AFL draft (pick 102 overall). The Pats might have taken a flyer on him because as a former all-stat player from Massachusetts, he was relatively local. Mike Holovak was the head coach and Marion Campbell might have been the guy to see the potential for him at linebacker. Remember the original 4-3 defenses often had middle guards simply step back and play off the line; Bill George is sometimes called the first, Huff was another. In an odd front, the nose guard basically played a read and react game; if you watch Buoniconti you’ll see how that transitioned into playing MLB.

Buoniconti;s instincts were perfect, his pursuit relentless, but he also had ball skills; he intercepted 32 passes over his career. Dolphin fans might compare him to someone like Zach Thomas, especially if he hadn’t been pumped up to carry more weight, smoother in his drops and better with his hands. London Fletcher might be another good modern comparison.

In 1963 he played in the AFL All-Star game; the next four seasons he was also first-team all-AFL. In 68 he played only 8 games (second team all-AFL), but someone on the Pats , probably owner Billy Sullivan, felt he was on the decline, and he was traded to the Dolphins in 1969, for LB John Bramlett and Q, B Kim Hammond. Bramlett was a decent player but Hammond, the key to the deal, never made it. Nick, meanwhile, was again first-team all AFL.

The Dolphins were acquiring some of the core of their great teams: they traded for Larry Little in 69, and in 1970 for Paul Warfield and of course head coach Don Shula, each of whom cost them a first-round pick (they were fined for ‘tampering’ with Shula before his Colts’ contract had expired). With Bill Arnsparger as the defensive coordinator, Buoniconti became the perfect middle linebacker in what became the 53 D: with an outside backer used as a rush end. When I consider one of the starting OLBs on that team was Doug Swift, against whom I played when he was dominant at D3 Amherst, but who had previously been cut by the CFL’s Alouettes, it gives me huge respect for the quality of the coaching and the smarts of that D, and Buoniconti was its core. Don Shula once said that after their 1972 season, when he and Arnsbarger reviewed the film of the season, they found only 11 mental errors all season. That was 11 from the whole defense.

It was also finally his chance to play on a winner. His three varsity years at Notre Dame under Joe Kuharich had all been losing seasons—Kuharich never was able to recreate his success at San Francisco, about which I wrote a few months ago, anywhere else. The Pats went to the AFL championship in 1963, where they were smashed by the Chargers, then lapsed into mediocrity.

Buoniconti had gone to law school while he played for the Patriots, and after retiring he was for a time a lawyer. He acted as an agent for baseball players (Boston fans needed to think twice about his representing the Yankees’ Bucky Dent) and he was for a time president of the US Tobacco Company—who secialised in the smokeless tobacco which caused mouth cancers; he was a leading figure in trying to dismiss such studies.

But the fulcrum of his later life came in 1985 when his son Marc, playing linebacker at The Citadel, suffered a spinal cord injury and was left a quadriplegic. He set up a charity, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and became a public spokesman. Later in his career he would turn to media and present Inside The NFL, where his analysis of games was just as sharp as it had been as a linebacker.

Buoniconti himself began showing signs of CTE in his later years, and he joined the campaign to limit youngsters to playing flag football. He donated his brain to CTE research at Boston University. HBO made a documentary, The Many Lives Of Nick Buoniconti, which aired this year. His life is a catalogue of the high and lows of the sport,
just as his career was. And he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the team halls of both the Patriots and the Dolphins.

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