“They’re waiting for us to die.”
Five-hundred-twenty thousand hits. To the head. That’s the toll on Nick Buoniconti, estimated by Buoniconti himself, that he sustained over 25 years of playing football.
This is the sad truth of the gladiators of Autumn Weekends. Life takes it toll on everyone in different ways, but for the Men of Autumn, it reeks havoc.
The average career in the National Football League is 3.5 years. That’s why it’s called Not For Long. But, when you count high school, college and Pop Warner (youth) participation, that’s 15 years. If (and that’s a huge if) you manage to have a long career, like the legendary Buoniconti did, add another 10.
Once the cheering stops, most athletes end up broke within five years of retirement. Divorce, bankruptcy, even for the greats like Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Gayle Sayers, Lem Barney, Barry Sanders and other, less-than-Canton-worthy players, is common.
“I feel like a child,” Bunoiconti told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. He has suffered falls, confusion and other symptoms associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
For a man, who over his career, was known for his hits and the intensity he brought to whatever he did, has to be devastating. Doubly so for Nick because since 1985, he has led the Miami Project for Spinal Cord Research after his son, Marc, was paralyzed playing football at The Citadel.
Bunoiconti is part of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ if you will, the men who made pro football the Sunday staple it is today. But he is a dying breed. And they are dying off at a rate that supersedes the rest of their generation. Alex Karras, Frank Gifford, Mel Farr, Ken Stabler and of course, Mike Webster, all dead because the sport they played — football, killed them.
Bunoiconti played 14 years in pro football — eight with the Boston (now New England) Patriots of the upstart American Football League and, most famously, with the Miami Dolphins from 1970–76, turning that expansion team into the only team to go undefeated and win a Super Bowl.
He was celebrated and cherished (and still is) at 76. He co-hosted Inside the NFL, did games for CBS and NBC, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and numerous other accolades over the course of his life. Marc is 50 now and still alive, even though the doctors said he might live five-to-seven years.
There are other sports with concussion problems as well. Rugby, soccer, Australian Rules Football, handball, wheelchair rugby, all have issues. Brandi Chastain-Smith has declared she’s going to donate her brain to Boston University’s CTE Unit when she dies. So does Abby Wambach.
CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is the term that haunts Roger Goodell and every NFL owner, NCAA administrator and school superintendent in the country. It is a term discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu following the death of Mike Webster. It comes from repeated collisions to the head caused by hitting another head.
Recently, BU released findings showing that 99% of former NFL players had CTE https://www.bu.edu/research/articles/cte-former-nfl-players/ — and 91% of college players had it. How do they know? The players were all dead. What’s even more shocking is this: 21% of high school players had CTE. Yes, that’s right. Twenty-one percent. Dead.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nick Bunoicotti is still lucid. He can’t tie a tie or lace up his shoes, but he’s one pissed off ex-football player.
“Some go to North Carolina, some to BU, some to UCLA. And it’s all related. That’s why it’s so unnecessary, what the NFL is putting the players through by making us document the neurological deficiencies. Not everybody can afford to go through that. And they say they’ll pay for it — but do you know what that’s like, actually getting the money?”
Ah, yes, it always comes down to money. That’s where the NFL owners have these guys by the balls. The Retired players “association” filed a class-action suit against the Lords of the League and reached an absurd settlement that a Federal Judge tossed aside, sending both sides to their respective corners.
“We’re the players who built the game, but have been forgotten,” Nick says. “The settlement is a joke. They are waiting for us to die.”
Of that, I have no doubt.
The NFL is a cold, cold business. You are replaceable as yesterday’s newspaper, a paper plate or a Styrofoam cup. Oh, and that bonus or extension you got and signed, you have to pay it back. Chris Borland retired after one season playing for the 49ers and they wrote him a letter asking for some of his signing bonus back. Calvin Johnson retired from the Lions after nine years and had to pay back a reported $1 million. There’s a million stories out there, but they all point to one thing. The 31 owners and the Green Bay Packers Board of Directors don’t give a crap about the people who play the game.
A little trip to the way-back machine: In 1972, the same year Buoniconti would lead his “no-name” defense and the Dolphins to the only undefeated season in NFL history, Major League Baseball players struck for the first time. The reason: For pension benefits. After a twelve day stoppage, they got what they wanted. That’s why today, you hear of very few old time baseball players ending up in bankruptcy court or destitute.
Of course, they had, outside of Walter Ruether, perhaps the best labor negotiator ever in Marvin Miller. The NFLPA, with the exception of Ed Garvey, has had inept leadership for the past 35 years. Gene Upshaw, who played in the same era as Buoniconti was head of the players union from 1985 until his death in 2008 once said of the retired players, “The bottom line is I don’t work for them. They don’t hire me and they can’t fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote.”
Around the same time the Sports Illustrated article came out, Nick Bunoiconti was diagnosed with dementia. Thus begins the long slide to the end. He doesn’t blame football, but others will.
520,000 hits. To the head.
“They’re waiting for us to die.”