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, very vulnerable as he ages. Whether that is attributable to chronic traumatic encephalopathy 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 tell 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 and tie his tie.
"I feel lost," the 14-year NFL veteran told Price in a MMQB story. "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 dementia/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 '72 team who were having cognitive issues but did not name them. Dick Anderson, a safety, added that two require assistance. Ted Hendricks, another Dolphins teammate, has minor memory lapses and, with his partner, Linda, has visited specialists and done neurofeedback.
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 center after his death at the age of 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 high-profile 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. We ask for your continued support as we try to help my father as he wages his courageous battle."
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 evening. "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, where Nick 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," wrote Price.
Last fall, Price says that Buoniconti called and left a voice message. "Nick, his words slightly halting, asked me to call him back," Price writes, "and recited his number. 'Okay,' 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?'"