Nick Buoniconti, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the all-time great Patriots, said from his wheelchair Friday that his life has been irreparably damaged by football head collisions, and he pledged to donate his brain and spinal cord for research.
When he dies, they will be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an incurable, degenerative neurological disease that scientists have linked to the kind of repeated head blows experienced by football players.
“This is not easy, it’s difficult,” said a weeping Buoniconti in a news conference at the Boston University School of Medicine. “I’m not half the man I used to be.’’
With his wife Lynn at his side, Buoniconti said, “I don’t do this for myself. I do it for the thousands of others who will follow me.”
Buoniconti urged President Trump to support CTE research by continuing to provide federal funding through the Veterans Administration. Many members of the military also suffer from symptoms of CTE.
Buoniconti, 76, a Springfield native who starred for Cathedral High School and the University of Notre Dame, played 14 seasons of professional football as a hard-hitting linebacker. He anchored the Patriots defense from 1962-68 and excelled for a dominant Miami Dolphins team from 1969-76.
Buoniconti said he hoped his donation to researchers at BU’s CTE Center, the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and the VA Boston Healthcare System, which operate the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, would further advance knowledge about the connection between head impacts in sports and debilitating brain damage.
He spoke only briefly, and haltingly, weakened by his neurological deficits. He seemed to relax only after the short news conference. Though reporters were not permitted to ask questions, Buoniconti’s face brightened as he reminded the media and medical researchers who were present that he was “an old Boston Patriot, in case anybody forgot.’’
He recalled graduating from Suffolk Law School while he played for the Patriots and said he was “best of friends’’ with late House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. of Cambridge.
Researchers on the BU and VA team have reported diagnosing CTE in 110 of the 111 deceased NFL players they have examined. CTE can be diagnosed only at autopsy.
Six former Patriots have been diagnosed with the disease: Aaron Hernandez, Bill Lenkaitis, Junior Seau, Mosi Tatupu, Kevin Turner, and Dennis Wirgowski. Countless other former players are living with symptoms of CTE, many of which are similar to Buoniconti’s.
“We need to shine a light on this problem because there are too many people like Nick who are suffering,’’ said Dr. Ann McKee, who heads the CTE research team at BU and the VA. “Nick Buoniconti represents the urgency of this problem.’’
Buoniconti’s health problems have been no secret. In May, he told Sports Illustrated that he had experienced an estimated 500,000 head impacts playing football. He indicated the damage has been profound and irreversible.
“I can’t remember how to tie a tie; I can’t remember how to lace my shoes,” he said. “My left arm won’t do what my brain tells it to do.”
He can no longer engage in physical activities or read. His doctors have diagnosed him with dementia and have said he suffers from other symptoms consistent with CTE, including impaired cognition, behavior, and motor control.
“I feel lost,’’ Buoniconti told Sports Illustrated. “I feel like a child.”
Lynn Buoniconti told the magazine that her husband began showing symptoms of neurological damage about six years ago.
Buoniconti said he had been diagnosed with at least 10 football concussions, including one caused by a blow in the Super Bowl in January 1972 against the Dallas Cowboys that “knocked me silly.”
Football was both kind and cruel to Buoniconti.
“Nick always said that football gave him greatest joys and his saddest moments,’’ Lynn told SI. “Now it has basically taken Nick’s life as he knew it away from him.”
The BU-VA research team has been at the forefront of research on CTE in athletes and members of the military. Its studies have helped identify symptoms of CTE such as depression, impulsive anger, violent mood swings, memory loss, and deficits similar in some cases to Alzheimer’s disease.
The research team found that suicide was the leading cause of death among former football players with mild CTE. Seau and Wirgowski are among those who took their lives.
In September, the BU-VA researchers reported discovering a biomarker for the disease, moving them closer not only to diagnosing CTE in the living but developing possible treatments.
Much remains unknown about CTE, and scientists are relying on donations like Buoniconti’s to help further understand the disease.
“Nick’s pledge will do so much to raise the profile of CTE and let the world know that one of the most respected legends in the history of football is backing our team, and we are extraordinarily thankful,’’ McKee said.
VA Secretary David Shulkin attended the session and signaled Trump’s commitment to supporting CTE research. Afterward, Buoniconti struggled to autograph a picture of himself playing for the Dolphins for Shulkin to present to Trump.
Shulkin said Trump has personally pledged to him that his administration will support CTE research.
Buoniconti won two Super Bowl rings, his first with the Dolphins in 1972, to complete the last undefeated, untied season by an NFL team. He won another with Miami in ’73.
In each title game, Buoniconti led a defense that allowed only a single touchdown, as the Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins, 14-7, in January of 1973, and the Minnesota Vikings, 24-7, in January of ‘74.
After his playing career, Buoniconti served as a player agent and president of US Tobacco. He co-hosted HBO’s “Inside the NFL’’ until 2001, when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Buoniconti’s son Marc was paralyzed in 1985 while playing football for The Citadel. The elder Buoniconti has since helped raise more than $450 million to support spinal cord research at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
When he was asked by Sports Illustrated in May if he would have chosen the same career had he known how his life would unfold, Buoniconti said, “No, I would not have played football.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.