NICK BUONICONTI WILL DONATE BRAIN TO
As he pledged to donate his brain to scientists studying the long-term effects of repeated head hits, Nick Buoniconti, one of football’s most famous and revered players, lashed out at the N.F.L. for failing players and not doing enough to support research.
Buoniconti, a Hall of Fame linebacker and leader of the Miami Dolphins during their heyday in the 1970s who is declining mentally, made the announcement Friday in Boston, the home of his first team, the Patriots, as well as the country’s leading brain bank for the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease linked to head trauma.
Researchers at the C.T.E. Center at Boston University, led by Dr. Ann McKee, have examined hundreds of brains, including those of many football players, to help determine the links between head hits and C.T.E. Buoniconti said he hopes that donating his brain will ultimately help doctors better understand the disease.
“The fact that the N.F.L. pulled its funding from Ann McKee’s research prompted me to come up here and make a statement that the N.F.L. is only in it for the money, and they don’t care about the guys who preceded me,” Buoniconti, speaking haltingly, said in an interview before the announcement. “I’m really angry because they turned their backs on us and it’s not a responsible way to do things.”
In response, the N.F.L. in a statement said, “We support research that can advance the science and hope it has an impact benefiting athletes, the military and society overall.”
Several years ago, the league provided several million dollars to researchers at Boston University, but has since donated tens of millions of dollars to other institutions doing related research.
Buoniconti arrived at the news conference in a wheelchair, wearing his Super Bowl VII ring.
“I owe it to the thousands of others who will follow me on this trek,” Buoniconti said in the interview. “My life is not what it was, and I just want to be able to help with Ann’s research and hopefully the research will end up helping so many other players.”
The disease, which can only be diagnosed posthumously, has been found in more than 100 former N.F.L. players as well as dozens of others who played football in high school and college. Symptoms of the disease include irritability, memory loss and depression.
Buoniconti grew up in Massachusetts and played college football at Notre Dame and then 14 years in the N.F.L., where he led the famed “No Name Defense” that helped the Dolphins win two Super Bowl titles, including in the 1972 season, when they became the only team to go undefeated.
He left the league after the 1976 season and worked as an agent for professional athletes; became president of U.S. Tobacco; and was a host of the HBO program “Inside the N.F.L.”
But in recent years, Buoniconti has become more forgetful, has had trouble speaking and has had more difficulty completing basic tasks, he said in an interview with Sports Illustrated in May. Buoniconti said that he was also falling more frequently, and had to call 911 five times in the past two years.
These problems, coupled with a growing body of research that connects concussions and head hits to C.T.E., led Buoniconti to donate his brain. In July, doctors at Boston University said that 110 of the 111 brains of former N.F.L. players that they examined showed signs of C.T.E.
The list includes the Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Stabler of the Oakland Raiders and the former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson. Since that study was published, the former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide in prison, has also been found to have had C.T.E.
In addition to Buoniconti, other former N.F.L. players including Warren Sapp, Matt Hasselbeck and Leonard Marshall have pledged to donate their brains to the C.T.E. Center.
The doctors acknowledge that the research on the 111 brains has limitations because, rather than a random sample, most of the families who donated the brains of players did so because those players had symptoms of cognitive problems.
But they assert the findings are still significant and point to other research that has suggested risks in playing tackle football before the age of 12.
Buoniconti began playing at a young age as well, as did his son, Marc. When Marc suffered a spinal cord injury in 1985 while playing college football at The Citadel that left him a quadriplegic, Nick founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. The Project has since been expanded to research head trauma as well.
In an interview last month with The Associated Press, Marc said that his father’s recent decline has convinced him that youth football should be banned. Marc said that Nick’s opinion has “changed 180 degrees.”
Buoniconti and his wife, Lynn, spoke often about what to do to alert other former players and their families, and to help researchers.
“We kind of both felt that we wanted to come here to get more clarity on what Nick has,” she said.
He agreed, adding that too often, players try to hide their problems rather than talking about them. He hopes that will change now that he has spoken out about his own condition.
“It’s not hard for me to go public like this because so many others depend on getting out there and not to be ashamed,” he said, speaking slowly. “I never, never, never dreamed it would happen to me. We just hope this will pave the way for thousands of others who are out there and in denial and can come out now.”