MIAMI - This is a story about good karma, with a tough beginning, a ton of tears, but a happy ending.
On Oct. 26, 1985, 19-year-old Citadel middle linebacker Marc Buoniconti suffered a dislocation of the third and fourth cervical vertebrae and a severe spinal cord injury while making a routine tackle. Now 40, Buoniconti has spent more than half his life in a wheelchair. Two weeks ago, Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett injured the same two cervical vertebrae while making a routine tackle. Doctors say Everett will walk soon. And he can thank Buoniconti.
Turn back the clock 22 years. Buoniconti will never forget the fateful hit. "My body dropped like a ton of bricks," he said. "As my arm hit the ground, I knew I was paralyzed."
He couldn't breathe. He thought he was going to die.
"I remember saying to myself, 'Don't freak out.' "
His father, Nick Buoniconti, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker for the Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins, was in New Jersey sipping champagne with his Notre Dame college roommate when the phone rang. He rushed to his son's bedside.
Marc was on a ventilator and could not speak.
"I'll never forget the look in his eyes," Nick Buoniconti said. "His big brown eyes read, 'Dad, help me.' It was the first time in my life I couldn't help my son."
Oh, but he would help - in a major way. Nick Buoniconti - the centerpiece of the famed No-Name Defense that was instrumental in the Dolphins' perfect season in 1972 - went on the offense.
"My dad made a promise to me that he would do anything and everything in his power to raise the money to find a cure, and I said I would join him to try and make that promise come true," Marc said.
Nick Buoniconti found a University of Miami neurosurgeon, Dr. Barth Green, who was tired of telling parents their child would never walk again. Green told him, "Get your son to Miami and I'll save his life."
Buoniconti did more than that. He decided to use his fame to raise money for a cure. He and Green founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the world's largest comprehensive spinal cord injury research center, at the University of Miami.
In 1985, nobody was talking about finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.
"Oh yeah, man, it was borderline inappropriate back then," said Marc Buoniconti from his breath-controlled wheelchair. "When I first got hurt, there was nothing being done in research for paralysis."
The trio worked tirelessly, and to date they have raised more than $200 million for research. There are now 200 scientists, doctors, and researchers working under one roof.
"Dr. Green laid out his vision, the best scientifics under one roof," said Marc. "It was very gutsy. They called him a quack, they called him a wishful thinker, a glory seeker. He was spreading false hope.
"But he didn't care, because look at his job. At some point you have a frustration level. But then fate steps in. Dr. Green was ready to give up, and then that's when I had my accident and came down to Miami."
Green acknowledges he was nearly defeated.
"I was pretty beat up back then," he said.
Instead, the researchers and doctors worked on a hypothermia cooling technique that if administered quickly after the trauma could limit the damage. They also worked on finding a way to create healthy cells to offer a cure.
A bold decision
On Sept. 9, Everett stopped moving after making a helmet-first tackle in the season opener against Denver. His teammates prayed. Initial reports were that Everett suffered a catastrophic, life-threatening injury. He would be paralyzed. Forever.
Here's where the karma comes in.
The Bills' team neurosurgeon, Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, earlier this year had attended a hypothermia treatment seminar given by the scientific director of the Miami Project, Dr. W. Dalton Dietrich. The idea is to quickly lower the body temperature to 92 degrees by using an ice-cold saline solution that prevents swelling and further damage, giving drugs a better chance to work.
Dietrich was watching the Bills game. The Bills' owner, Ralph Wilson, is a Miami Project fan. He has donated millions to the Buoniconti Fund - there's a plaque with his picture in the lobby of the Miami Project - and he is close friends with Dr. Green. Everett is a former University of Miami player.
There was a stream of phone calls and e-mails between Miami and Buffalo.
Cappuccino ordered paramedics in the ambulance to immediately start running an IV with cold saline.
"It was less than 15 minutes after Everett hit the turf," Green said. "It was a bold decision - the first time a paralyzed patient or any patient following any kind of a brain or spinal cord injury has received this therapy within 15 minutes of a catastrophic injury. The results are amazing. And because of it, Everett will walk again."
Within 90 minutes, Everett was in the operating room, where doctors repaired the dislocation of the spine and took pressure off the spinal cord.
Green talked to Cappuccino and helped him locate a Cool Gard, an intravascular cooling device that was inserted by a catheter into Everett's femoral vein near his groin.
"Talk about karma, there was one machine in all of Buffalo, and it happened to be in Cappuccino's hospital in a closet in the ICU right on the floor he was working," Green said.
Everett eventually started to move his limbs and experience feeling in his hands. He was transferred to a Houston hospital Friday to be closer to his family and friends.
"It's medical history," said Green. "He's out of the woods and on his way to walking soon. The best-case scenario is he'll walk and be very independent. He'll be able to work but not as a football player, probably.
"The Miami Project has been swamped with calls from everywhere. You're going to see patients across the country getting this treatment next week because of what Dr. Cappuccino did. It will also work for car accident victims and heart attacks. This is a very big deal.
"We want to put all our hands together. We hope to meet with all NFL doctors to see if we can get a consensus to give this a try and do it at other places. Colleges all around the country want to join hands with us."
Reason for optimism
According to the National SCI Statistical Center, 11,000 new cases of spinal cord injuries occur in the United States each year. Human trials will start next year at the Miami Project on a healing treatment for chronic cases like Buoniconti's.
The growing of Schwann cells to repair damaged spinal cords has returned 70 percent of walking functions in tests done on rats.
"Schwann cells are able to reinsulate wires of spinal cords so they can conduct electronic messages and let the person move again," Green said.
That could help Buoniconti walk again.
"I've never been more excited or more optimistic," he said. "I think I've realized how close we're getting. I think we've dinked it and dunked it all the way down the field. We're in the red zone, that's for sure.
"It sure would be nice to take advantage of a cure after 22 years. I get emotional because I've seen an ignorance crumble, which is beautiful."
Now at the Miami Project's Lois Pope LIFE Center, Buoniconti works out three times a week on a robotic treadmill. It hoists him using a crane and moves his legs to improve his cardiorespiratory rate and increase bone density.
Marc Buoniconti said a cure means so much more than football ever did.
"I've scored TDs on interceptions before," he said. "I know the euphoria of making a tackle on fourth and 1. I've done that. I could only imagine the kind of glory I'd get getting out of this wheelchair.
"I don't believe things happen for a reason. I believe things happen and you make a reason. You respond to adversity and I dedicated my life to raising money and awareness for getting a cure. Little did I know that decision I made in a hospital would lead to this.
"Look at Kevin Everett. Was that not a cure? He owes a big thank you to our researchers."
NFL denies grants
But if you want to see the fire that still burns in Marc Buoniconti's eyes, just mention the NFL. In his mind, the acronym stands for No Funds Lately.
"Initially they were supportive of the Miami Project, but years ago they just pulled the plug on us and started denying our grants," Buoniconti said. "We're on the verge of clinical trials in humans.
"For the NFL to say it's not important research or it's not a priority, I think, is irresponsible, I think it is unfair to the current players, and in a way is a slap in the face to my father and any player who goes out on the field and has the potential to have a spinal cord injury. I'm hopeful they will rethink their position.
"Are they really interested or are they appeasing everybody by doing a little here or a little there or are they actually going to take a real focused approach to help their players?
"There's injuries in the past - Darryl Stingley [Patriots], obviously Dennis Byrd [Jets], Mike Utley [Lions], Reggie Brown [Lions], Kevin Everett. And there will be more in the future.
"Don't turn a blind eye, don't think, 'Out of sight, out of mind.' You've got to be progressive and proactive. And responsible."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said NFL Charities donated about $1.5 million to the Miami Project between 1985 and 2002 and bought a table at this year's fund-raising dinner. He added that the NFL enlisted a group of doctors to sift through the ever-increasing applications for funds and that "they decided to focus more on concussion research.
"We look forward to giving their application strong consideration in the future."
Buoniconti was not appeased.
"That's a window-dressing response, focusing more on concussions," he said. "So spinal cord injuries are not important, I guess. Tell that to Kevin Everett and anyone else who puts on a helmet. Ask them if they're more scared of a concussion or a spinal cord injury."
Last Monday, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis raised nearly $6 million at its annual dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. A round of golf with Jack Nicklaus went for $250,000. A flag that flew on top of Saddam Hussein's palace in Baghdad on the Fourth of July brought in $200,000.
Buoniconti says he cried like a baby at the dinner. Tears of joy. Tears of appreciation.
"I'm turning into a big baby," he said. "My dad gave of his own life for me. He has devoted a large part of his life to help me. He's dedicated most of it to me. My mom is the backbone of the family, even though they are divorced. It humbles me and I feel an enormous debt. It has brought us together.
"Let me tell you what he said in his Hall of Fame speech [in 2001]. 'I've had many accomplishments. Two Super Bowl championships, the unbeaten perfect season. I would trade this ring in and all my individual accomplishments if one thing could happen in my lifetime. As a father, I would like nothing more than to walk by his side. I'd give it all up to walk with my son again.'
"I have such vivid memories of me walking. I rarely dream that I'm in a chair. I'm always moving, I'm a free spirit when I'm sleeping."
Buoniconti's brown eyes glisten, but his voice is steady.
"I'll be going to get up and leave this chair and go and hug my mom and dad," he said. "I'm hugging my mom and dad first."