HBO’s documentary The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti reveals the intricacies of a man who superseded the label of football player and carries on a new fight.
It’s easy to look at the title and brief introduction of HBO’s new documentary The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti and size it up as another stereotypical rags-to-riches story about a football player who beat the odds to become a success. That element is present, but there’s so much more depth and nuance to Buoniconti’s life. His life is a bit of a rattlesnake that will leave you feeling a range of emotions and his story airs on HBO Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 10 p.m. ET.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Nick Buoniconti’s name. Yes, he’s an NFL Hall of Famer, but not a household name like Jerry Rice or John Elway. Liev Schreiber narrates his life in this documentary that runs just short of an hour and 15 minutes. As advertised by its title, Buoniconti was much more than a football player, and he wore many different hats.
Buoniconti is 78 years old today, and he helps narrate much of his own story. The documentary moves chronologically throughout his life. We hear about his origins as a tough Italian kid who grew up in Springfield, MA, was a scholarship football player at Notre Dame, and finally made it to the professional ranks as a lightly regarded 13th round draft pick in 1962.
He’s the stereotypical overachiever who lasted 15 years in the NFL as a middle linebacker despite being 5-foot-11 and a little over 200 pounds. People loved him for his tough play for the Miami Dolphins, and he was part of the legendary “No-Name” defense that helped the Dolphins accomplish the only completely perfect record in NFL history. They won Super Bowl VII in 1972.
That’s an inspiring story, but one that’s been told before and in different sports. Buoniconti’s life separates itself from other sports stories because he pursued and earned his law degree while playing in the NFL.
His NFL career ended in 1976, but Buoniconti became a full-time lawyer which spawned his career as a sports agent. He famously helped Andre Dawson secure one of the most lucrative sports contracts during the early 80s.
Buoniconti moonlighted as a sports broadcaster and became the Vice President of U.S. Tobacco in 1983. He was a hero who some might argue turned into a corporate villain. He defended the safety of smokeless tobacco in 1983 on 60 Minutes, which is something he regrets to this day.
Just when it looked like his life was set as a business high-roller, his son Marc suffered a catastrophic injury while playing college football in 1985. Everything in Buoniconti’s life stopped when his son dislocated his neck and became a quadriplegic for life.
The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti isn’t a tale solely about football and it shows the powerful love that fathers have for their sons. Buoniconti has spent his life fighting to help his son and all others who have undergone traumatic spinal injuries. He started “The Miami Project” which continues the search for a cure to paralysis to this day.
The most influential words throughout the documentary belong to Buoniconti himself. There are lots of people who help tell his tale, but his words carry the most weight. His thoughts are clear and compelling, then suddenly he will lose his attention and apologizes to the film crew. Buoniconti is 78 years old and is mentally debilitated by the abuses his brain and body endured through his many years as a football player.
Buoniconti’s documentary is a rallying cry to help end not only paralysis but also the devastating effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy better known as CTE. Buoniconti isn’t sure that he has CTE. It can only be diagnosed after death via an autopsy, but his symptoms closely mirror those plagued with CTE.
The point of this film isn’t to vilify the NFL. It’s not meant to inspire everyone to become a philanthropist like Buoniconti. It’s very simple—enjoy your life, make the most of it, and love the people who are dearest to you. Buoniconti’s life brings to mind the words of author Norman Maclean, “And I knew just as surely, just as clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.”
Our lives are a series of moments. Many of them are happy and beautiful, but they can’t be the only ones that surround us. Buoniconti’s life illustrates that more than most and will leave you feeling inspired to make the most of your time on earth.
The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti premieres on HBO on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 10 p.m. ET.