In 1972, the Miami Dolphins made history as the only team in the NFL to go undefeated en route to a Super Bowl victory. But, more than four decades later, key members of that historic team are ailing from illnesses likely caused by the very game that made them famous.
In two long-form profiles published in Sports Illustrated earlier this month, former linebacker Nick Buoniconti and the family of former running back Jim Kiick spoke about their diagnosis of dementia and their declining mental faculties.
Buoniconti was the co-captain of the Dolphins team that set the record and has since been a public advocate for finding a cure for paralysis ever since his son Marc was paralyzed during a football game in 1985. But now, Buoniconti revealed that he struggles with simple tasks like operating a phone and is losing function in his left hand.
“He’s frustrated and depressed,” his son Marc told Sports Illustrated in November. “He’s lost in his own physical disability and there’s no break from it. He’s sitting at his house; he has no outlets. He falls down, and that conversation only exacerbates it. That’s his life, man-—a vicious cycle.”
Marc has often been used as an example of why people should not play football, but he has always pushed back against that narrative. Now, with the decline of his father, he says that he won’t defend the game any longer.
“If someone asked if their child should play organized contact football, I could not in good conscience recommend it,” Marc said. “I don’t think it’s safe. It’s pretty evident that something significant is happening to the brain as far as disrupted development over time. I cannot recommend football for, really, anybody. I was 50-50 on this already but, then, watching my dad—that sealed it for me.”
Buoniconti says he’s taken more than 500,000 hits to the head during his career and was diagnosed with dementia. It’s also possible he suffers from CTE or Alzheimer’s disease.
“At 55 I was very normal,” Buoniconti says. “I’m not normal anymore.”
Kiick Ravaged by Dementia Diagnosis
Jim Kiick has fared significantly worse since his diagnosis of dementia/early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Kiick’s children, Allie and Austin, have been struggling to take care of the 70-year-old NFL legend.
“People have no idea what we’re going through with my dad,” Allie told Sports Illustrated. “For the past four or five years, I really haven’t had a father.”
Allie said that Kiick doesn’t realize he has dementia because his long-term memory is fine, but he exhibited years of erratic behavior and squalid living before being placed in an assisted living facility in 2016.
Tests have revealed that he’s suffered significant brain trauma as a result of concussions and repeated hits to the head while playing football. Dr. David B. Ross, medical director of the Comprehensive Neurobehavioral Institute, told Sports Illustrated that he has a damaged brain with a near definite diagnosis of CTE.
“He has holes in his brain,” Ross said. “Earlier in his career he had enough impact that he had bruises on his brain that left scars and holes. So there’s no question that he suffered significant brain trauma.”
Players Remain Mad at NFL Over Lack of Care
Kiick recounted stories about questioning tactics that would lead to repeated and tough blows to his head and body.
“I got dizzy, got dinged a few times,” Kiick said. “You’d come to the sidelines and they’d ask, ‘How many fingers have I got up?’ And you’d say four or three or whatever, and they’d say, ‘Close enough.’ We were playing because we enjoyed the game. We were too naïve to realize that, in the future years, this could affect us, our life, the brains. We just went back in and got dinged again.”
Players like Kiick did not make as much money over their careers as others like Buoniconti. Buoniconti said he found it frustrating that the league does not take care of players who have suffered while making millions of dollars for the NFL.
“The NFL should be volunteering to pay for this,” Buoniconti yelled last year. “I’m so f—— pissed off at them!
“We’re the players who built the game, but have been forgotten. The settlement is a joke; the way it was structured is a joke. They are waiting for us to die. They’re going to play the clock out until everybody dies.”
Families Struggling Through NFL Settlement Process
The registration period for players to be eligible to receive benefits under the concussion settlement opened earlier this year with a deadline set in August. But it hasn’t been easy communicating with the league for players or their families.
“It’s been a very disappointing process to go through—to even get some kind of information,” Kiick’s son Austin told Sports Illustrated about his dealings with the league. “You get bounced around to different people, and nobody knows what’s going on or who you can contact, and they say they’ll get back to you and never do. I didn’t expect how harsh it would be. I figured I’d be dealing with a huge organization—$14 billion a year and they were non-profit, mind you—basically fighting city hall. But I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it has been.”
Due to his diagnosis and age, Kiick could receive a financial award as high as $620,000 from the settlement, but the journey to get to that point has resulted in countless hours with lawyers and doctors. Buoniconti is eligible for $132,000.
The whole experience has left many former players feeling sour about their time in the NFL and some, like Buoniconti, has said that they regret their decision to play.
“I didn’t have any idea the price would be this debilitating,” Buoniconti said. “Had I known, would I have played? I had no alternative; there was no other way for me to get a college education. Football kept rewarding me—I can’t deny that. But I’m paying the price.” He shrugs, grins. “Everybody pays the piper.”