‘I feel lost … I feel like a child’

Line­backer from hal­lowed ’72 Dol­phins tells the sad story of his men­tal de­cline

Edmonton Journal - - SPORTS - CINDY BOREN

Some­thing is very wrong with Nick Buon­i­conti, one of the best-known players on the vaunted 1972 Mi­ami Dol­phins, the only NFL team to go un­de­feated and win a Su­per Bowl.

Buon­i­conti, like some of his for­mer team­mates and other for­mer NFL players, is be­com­ing very vul­ner­a­ble as he ages. Whether that is at­trib­ut­able to chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy, or CTE, is un­known be­cause it is de­tectable only at au­topsy. But Buon­i­conti, like so many other for­mer NFL players, knows this much: Some­thing is not right.

For Buon­i­conti and his wife Lynn, the last four years have been in­creas­ingly ter­ri­fy­ing, as they told Sports Il­lus­trated’s S.L. Price. Buon­i­conti, a hall of fame line­backer, has fallen, ex­pe­ri­enced mem­ory loss and strug­gles to do things such as pull on a shirt or put on a neck­tie.

“I feel lost,” the 14-year NFL vet­eran told Price.

“I feel like a child.”

The story also de­scribes the de­cline of Dol­phins run­ning back Jim Ki­ick, who “lived in squalor un­til he was put in an as­sisted care fa­cil­ity last sum­mer with … early on­set Alzheimer’s.”

Manny Fer­nan­dez, a de­fen­sive line­man on the team, told the Mi­ami Her­ald last year that he knew of four players from the 1972 team who were hav­ing cog­ni­tive is­sues, but did not name them. Dick An­der­son, a safety, added that two re­quire as­sis­tance.

Quar­ter­back Earl Mor­rall was 79 and suf­fer­ing from Parkin­son’s when he died in 2014. His brain showed Stage 4 CTE, which oc­curs af­ter re­peated or trau­matic hits to the head. The brain and spine of de­fen­sive end Bill Stan­fill were sent to Bos­ton Univer­sity’s CTE cen­tre af­ter his death at age 69 last fall.

Price re­lates the har­row­ing story of how Buon­i­conti, 76, fell down a flight of stairs and in frus­tra­tion shouted to his wife, “I should just kill my­self! It doesn’t mat­ter!”

All too many for­mer NFL players, such as Ju­nior Seau, have done just that, and per­haps the will­ing­ness of Buon­i­conti to put a high­pro­file face on their strug­gles and de­cline will help, as it did when he co-founded the Mi­ami Project to Cure Paral­y­sis af­ter his son, Marc, was in­jured play­ing foot­ball 30 years ago.

“This has been my dad’s re­al­ity for a while now, and it’s been a frus­trat­ing and heart­break­ing jour­ney,” Marc Buon­i­conti said in a state­ment to the Mi­ami Her­ald.

“To see him like this af­ter all he’s done to help oth­ers breaks my heart and makes me want to do ev­ery­thing I can to find some an­swers for him and the count­less other ath­letes deal­ing with these is­sues.”

The Buon­i­con­tis are seek­ing an­swers for them­selves and oth­ers.

“I did the ar­ti­cle pre­cisely for all the guys who don’t have a voice and are suf­fer­ing like I’m suf­fer­ing,” Buon­i­conti told the Her­ald on Mon­day. “It’s not get­ting any bet­ter. I’d love to talk to you more, but at this point and time I’m ex­hausted. I went to phys­i­cal ther­apy and oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy to­day, and it leaves me drained.”

Price also de­scribes how dif­fi­cult com­mon tasks have be­come, writ­ing of how Buon­i­conti teetered as he left the stage of the Leg­ends In­vi­ta­tional din­ner last Novem­ber in Peb­ble Beach, Calif., where Buon­i­conti was re­united with many of his for­mer team­mates.

Few saw it and “fewer no­ticed Nick mo­tion­ing for Lynn as he bolted from the ball­room, per­haps be­cause of his neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive de­men­tia — or the yet-un­spo­ken opin­ion that his con­di­tion could ac­tu­ally be cor­ti­cobasal syn­drome, com­pli­cated by an atyp­i­cal Parkin­so­nian syn­drome or CTE or Alzheimer’s. He had to pee. And Lynn had to stand by to un­but­ton and un­zip him and en­sure that he’d emerge from the men’s room dry and un­ex­posed,” Price wrote.

Last fall, Price said, Buon­i­conti called and left a voice mes­sage. “Nick, his words slightly halt­ing, asked me to call him back,” Price writes, “and re­cited his num­ber. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘Good­bye.’ Then came a long pause. You could hear him turn away from the phone. Fi­nally Buon­i­conti asked, ‘How do you hang up, Lynn?’ ”

This has been my dad’s re­al­ity for a while now, and it’s been a frus­trat­ing and heart­break­ing jour­ney.

STEPHEN LOVEKIN/GETTY IMAGES/FILES

For­mer NFLer Nick Buon­i­conti, seen speak­ing at a ben­e­fit in 2014 in New York, says he has spo­ken out about de­men­tia “for all the guys who don’t have a voice.”

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