Family spokesman Bruce Bobbins said Buoniconti died in Bridgehampton, New York. A cause of death was not released but he had been diagnosed with dementia. The cause of Buoniconti’s dementia could have been chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by repeated head injuries that has been diagnosed in increasing numbers among former football players.
Buoniconti’s son, Marc, issued a statement via the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and Buoniconti Fund website.
“Today, with a heavy heart and profound sorrow, my family and the entire Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and Buoniconti Fund community mourn the loss of a man who was truly larger than life, my father, NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti,” Marc Buoniconti said in the statement. “My dad has been my hero and represents what I have always aspired: a leader, a mentor, and a champion.”
CTE can only be diagnosed after death. Buoniconti announced he would donate his brain to research in 2017. The research is part of a collaboration between the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Boston University CTE Center, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I don’t do this for myself. I do it for the thousands of others who will follow me,” Buoniconti said.
Nicholas Anthony Buoniconti was born Dec. 15, 1940 in Springfield, Mass. He grew up in Springfield’s predominately Italian South End, where his parents owned a bakery. Despite being 5 feet, 11 inches in height and weighing just 220 pounds, he played both guard on offense and linebacker on defense for Joe Kuharich’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish. As a senior (1961), Buoniconti led the team in tackles and its sole All-American.
NFL teams shied away from Buoniconti because of his height. However, he got his chance to play professional football in the upstart American Football League. He was selected in the 13th round (102nd overall) of the 1962 AFL Draft by his home state Boston Patriots. Buoniconti spent seven seasons with the Patriots (1962-68), helping the team to the AFL Eastern Division title in 1963. He made the AFL All-Star Game five times (1963-67) and his 24 career interceptions are tied for eighth in Patriots franchise history.
Buoniconti was traded to the Miami Dolphins before the 1969 season, the fourth of the Dolphins’ existence and final AFL season before merging with the NFL. As the anchor of the Dolphins’ famed No Name Defense, Buoniconti helped lead the Dolphins to consecutive appearances in Super Bowls VI, VII, and VIII and the franchise’s only Lombardi Trophies (VII, VIII).
The 1972 season, which culminated with a win in Super Bowl VII, remains the NFL’s only perfect undefeated season (17-0). In 1973, Buoniconti led the Dolphins with a team record 162 combined tackles (91 solo).
Buoniconti spent the final seven seasons of his NFL career (1969-74, 1976) with the Dolphins. He was named to the 1972 and 1973 Pro Bowls and voted the team’s Most Valuable Player three times (1969, 1970, 1973).
Buoniconti played in 183 games in his professional career with 106 starts. He had 32 interceptions for his career, six fumbles recovered, and two defensive touchdowns. He was unofficially credited with 24 sacks. Sacks didn’t become an official stat until 1982, six years after Buoniconti’s retirement.
Buoniconti was a six-time AFL All-Star (1964-67, 1969), a five-time First-team All-AFL selection (1963-67, 1969) and a three-time Second-team All-AFL selection (1962, 1963, 1968). He was a Second-team All-Pro in each of the Dolphins’ championship seasons (1972, 1973) and named to the American Football League All-Time Team, New England Patriots Hall of Fame, and Miami Dolphins Honor Roll.
Buoniconti was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Buoniconti received his law degree while playing for the Patriots. After his retirement, he became a practicing attorney. He also had a career as an agent where he represented (among others) Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Andre Dawson and former New York Yankees shortshop/manager Bucky Dent. The late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner referred to Buoniconti as “the meanest guy I ever negotiated with”.
Buoniconti served as president of the United States Tobacco Company, where he was critical of studies showing the health risks associated with tobacco use.
Outside of his playing career, Buoniconti was perhaps most famous for his broadcast work. In 1980, he was paired with Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson as hosts of HBO’s “Inside the NFL”, the longest running show in the history of cable television. The Buoniconti/Dawson duo hosted the program for 22 seasons (1980-2001). Both Buoniconti and Dawson departed the show after the 2001 season.
Buoniconti was known for his sense of humor. In a 1990 Comedy Central interview, he was asked about his feelings when the league’s last undefeated teams suffered losses on the same day.
“You know, I think this smile might just stay permanently on my face,” Buoniconti said cheerfully.
He was also part of Miller Life’s “Do You Know Me” campaign. In his commercial, Buoniconti talked about the No Name Defense while telling the viewer everybody knows him. A passerby sees him but has difficulty remembering his name. When Buoniconti told the passerby his name, it was met with a skeptical “No, that’s not it”.
Despite his success on the football field and beyond it, Buoniconti suffered personal tragedy that would forever alter the course of his life.
His son, Marc, was paralyzed from the shoulders down while making a tackle as a linebacker at the Citadel in 1985. This inspired him to establish the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the world’s largest center for spinal cord injury and paralysis research, and the Buoniconti Fund, the Miami Project’s fundraising arm. To date, the Buoniconti Fund has raised more than $1 billion.
Buoniconti suffered neurological problems he attributed to CTE. The late Mike Webster, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau experienced extreme depression in their 30s and 40s. Buoniconti’s brain issues didn’t begin until his 70s, a time when even individuals who didn’t play professional football sometimes experience cognitive decline.
In a 2017 interview with S.L. Price of MMQB, Buoniconti summed up his struggles to perform even simple tasks like getting himself dressed.
“At 55 I was very normal. I’m not normal anymore,” Buoniconti said in the interview. “…I feel lost. I feel like a child.”
Buoniconti also struggled with the emotions in the wake of Marc’s paralysis despite never publicly blaming himself or the game of football. At the same time, he cried outside of the ICU where Marc was first brought and said, “God is punishing me. God is punishing me.” He also once threatened to never wear his Perfect Season Super Bowl ring again.
Marc was definitely on his mind at the end of his Hall of Fame induction speech.
“I would trade this ring in and all my individual accomplishments if one thing could happen in my lifetime. My son Marc dreams that he walks. And, as a father, I would like nothing more than to walk by his side,” Buoniconti said.
A $22.5 million lawsuit filed against the Citadel’s team doctor was dismissed in 1988. The family later settled with the school and the team’s trainer for $800,000.
In 2018, Buoniconti joined former NFL linebackers Harry Carson and Phil Villapiano in supporting a parent initiative called Flag Football Under 14, which advises tackle football should not be played until at least the age of 14.
“I beg of you, all parents, to please don’t let your children play football until high school,” Buoniconti said. “I made the mistake of starting tackle football when I was nine years old. Now, CTE has taken my life away. Youth tackle football is all risk with no reward.”
Earlier this year, HBO filmed a documentary highlighting Buoniconti’s diminished health.
The Patriots and Pro Football Hall of Fame issued statements in the wake of Buoniconti’s death.
“Today is a sad day for Patriots and Dolphins fans alike as we mourn the loss of Nick Buoniconti,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “He was a Hall of Fame player on the field and a Hall of Fame person off it.”
The Hall of Fame statement reads:
“Nick Buoniconti was a true hero of the game. His inspiring Hall of Fame journey that started as a 13th round draft choice to leading the Dolphins’ No Name Defense is one filled with grit, determination, courage and compassion. Nick’s contributions off the field were even greater than what he did on it. He lived a life of honor and nobility and his legacy will live forever through his Bronzed Bust in Canton, Ohio. The entire Hall of Fame family mourns Nick’s passing and we will keep his wife Lynn and his entire family in our thoughts and prayers.”
Buoniconti is survived by his current wife, Lynn; daughter Gina; and sons Marc and Nick III. He divorced his first wife, Terry, in 1997 after 35 years of marriage.