One yard, one crumb of a yard was all that was at stake in the opening moments of a football game on an autumn Saturday. Running back Herman Jacobs of East Tennessee State wanted to obtain it. Linebacker Marc Buoniconti of The Citadel wanted to stop him.
Two players with little in common except their passion for football intersected. Buoniconti's neck was dislocated. Jacob's heart was broken.
Both were paralyzed by their violent collision, although the toll took different forms. Buoniconti left the stadium in an ambulance and a doctor confirmed what Buoniconti knew as he lay numb on the field after the tackle: He was a quadriplegic. Jacobs finished the game and the season, but something disconnected inside him.
Buoniconti was confined to a wheelchair, walking only in his dreams. Jacobs was shackled by guilt, sleepwalking through life.
Thirty years later, Buoniconti and Jacobs recall the third-down play from Oct. 26, 1985, in crystalline detail. Ultimately, it made them best friends.
"The quarterback pitched me the ball," Jacobs said. "I could see Marc coming. First I got hit low by another player and flipped through the air. Then Marc hit me in my lower back. It was the hardest hit I've ever taken."
Buoniconti fought off one block, sprinted toward the somersaulting Jacobs and dove helmet-first into the No. 20 on Jacob's jersey.
"Next thing I knew, bam!" he said. "My body rolled over and my arm flopped to my side and I thought, 'Whose arm is that? Oh, that's my arm. Okay, I am hurt bad. I am paralyzed. Don't panic. Don't freak out.' "
Buoniconti feels pride to this day that he stopped Jacobs for no gain. The Citadel won the game. The two remain avid football fans. They talked a lot about college, pro and high school football recently during lunch.
They could be bitter about the devastating play that linked them forever. Instead, they believe they were transformed. Eight years ago, Buoniconti reached down and rescued Jacobs, persuaded him to move to Miami, enroll in culinary school, pursue a career as a chef and leave behind his lonely existence in Tennessee, where he worked at dead-end fast-food jobs.
Jacobs, in turn, fueled new energy in Buoniconti, president of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which has charted a recent series of breakthroughs in research and clinical trials. The Miami Project, co-founded by Buoniconti's father, former Dolphin linebacker Nick, and Dr. Barth Green, has raised $450 million in three decades and plans to build a rehabilitation center at the University of Miami.
Buoniconti, 49, who sips or puffs on a tube to move his wheelchair and relies on 24-hour care, is a missionary of hope for patients with spinal-cord injuries. Whether he's dealing with U.S. presidents or a friend down on his luck, he transmits optimism.
"My injury saved me because I was going in the wrong direction," Buoniconti said. His parents sent him to The Citadel to drum discipline into him. "I was a semester or two from flunking out of college. I had no plan or future outside of football. My mom says I probably would have wound up in jail or dead. I'd flown through life with reckless abandon and that's how I played the game. I dove into Herman and the impact changed everything."
Jacobs, 51, grew up in the projects of Tampa's Riverview Terrace. When he was 5, he stood in his front yard and witnessed his father's death, when the boyfriend of an older sister shot him. When he was a 14-year-old linebacker, he sacked a quarterback who suffered a serious neck injury on the play, and Jacobs asked to switch to offense so he wouldn't have to tackle anybody. When he was 21, he convinced his troubled twin, Herbert, to move in with him in Johnson City, Tenn., where he was on a football scholarship. The night before Herbert was to leave Tampa, he was shot to death.
When Jacobs went to the sideline after he was hit by Buoniconti and heard that Buoniconti was paralyzed, any reservoir of resiliency within him was sucked dry.
"I don't remember the rest of the game," said Jacobs, who visited Buoniconti at the hospital. "I was caught in a downward spiral from that moment onward."
While Buoniconti overcame his initial struggle with depression, Jacobs could not.
"For 20 years I punished myself," he said. "I felt like I was to blame. I felt like everybody hated me, especially Marc and his family."
He didn't finish his degree. He worked for parks and recreation, Wendy's, Waffle House.
"I stopped smiling, lost my friends, went through a failed marriage," he said. "I just pushed people away, couldn't seem to do anything right."
By 2007, Buoniconti had reconciled with The Citadel, years after he'd sued the school. But he hadn't forgotten about Jacobs, and invited him to a Citadel reunion. When they met, they cried. Buoniconti realized the depth of Jacobs' sorrow.
"I told Herman flat out, 'This is not your fault, you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time,' " Buoniconti said.
Buoniconti asked Jacobs what he wanted to do with his life.
"No one had ever asked me that question," Jacobs said. "My mother and grandmother taught me to love cooking. I told him I wanted to be a chef."
Buoniconti helped Jacobs enroll at Johnson and Wales University in North Miami and invited him to be his roommate.
"Marc allowed me to heal and start over at age 44," Jacobs said. "If not for him, I might be living on the street."
When Buoniconti's nurse had a heart attack, Jacobs took over lifting, feeding and cleaning Buoniconti.
"Unless you see a quadriplegic's life first-hand, you can't understand how difficult it is," Jacobs said.
"Living with Marc, living by his example, watching him interact with patients — he motivated me."
Jacobs worked in restaurants before moving back to Tampa to take care of his mother. He's manager of a PDQ and remarried in March.
Jacobs' reawakening affirmed Buoniconti's faith in his role.
"I try to focus on the difference I've made in people's lives, which is the greatest gift you can give," he said.
Jacobs was one he inspired.
"I keep my mind on that date," Jacobs said. "Love and friendship grew out of something that could have killed us both."