“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Nick Buoniconti, an All-America guard and linebacker at Notre Dame, always "played bigger than his size. A scout for the Boston Patriots of the upstart American Football League sent a glowing report on the Notre Dame guard/linebacker to Patriots head coach Mike Holovak. The Patriots, confused by the NFL’s apparent disinterest, drafted Nick in the thirteenth round of the 1962 AFL Draft. Buoniconti got what he wanted – a chance – and immediately set out to prove that the NFL snub was a mistake. His confidence and hardnosed play impressed his coaches, and by the first game of the season, the 5-11, 220-pound long shot was the Patriots’ starting middle linebacker. At season’s end he was second-team All-AFL. The following year, 1963, he earned the first of his seven consecutive first-team All-AFL honors.
Nicknamed "Skippy," Nicholas Anthony Buoniconti, Jr., was born on December 15, 1940. He attended Cathedral High School, where he was a standout football player. Buoniconti, who helped the Cathedral Panthers capture the Western Massachusetts AA Conference title in 1955, was a natural. The Patriots, in 1962, when Nick arrived, had a weak secondary. As a result the coaches had him blitz sometimes seven out of 10 plays. Critics began to suggest that without the blitz, the under-sized linebacker might not be as effective. But by 1965, the Patriots secondary improved and the number of called blitzes dropped significantly. Buoniconti’s play, if anything, improved, and with another selection to the all-league team the criticism stopped.
Even his relatively small stature began to be called an asset. Although considered a hard hitter, Nick argued that his speed, whether it was used to chase down an opposing quarterback or to drop back into pass coverage, was his strongest asset. Still, others disagreed with Nick’s self-assessment. In one stretch in 1966, the Patriots defense, with Buoniconti plugging up the middle, stymied the potent running attacks of the AFL’s four best teams in successive games. The Buoniconti-led defense held the Kansas City Chiefs to just 76 yards rushing, the New York Jets to 29, the Buffalo Bills to 52, and the San Diego Chargers to 40.
On the other hand, Nick demonstrated his speed and ability to sniff out a play by picking off three passes in a single game, against the Bills in 1968. It was just the second time in AFL history that a linebacker recorded three interceptions in one game. Nick was also team leader. When Dee retired prior to the start of the 1968 campaign, Buoniconti, who captained his Notre Dame team, moved in as the Patriots’ defensive captain. It was a position he would also assume with the Dolphins.
During his seven seasons in Boston, the speedy hard-hitting linebacker was the class of the Patriots defense. He led in pass interceptions with 24 and was the team’s leading tackler. Injuries in 1968, however, limited his play to eight games. Prior to the start of the 1969 season, in a surprise move, the Patriots announced that they had traded their defensive star to the Miami Dolphins for quarterback Kim Hammond, linebacker John Bramlett, and a fifth-round draft pick in 1970. The draft pick ended up being Bob Olson, a linebacker who didn’t make the team.
Stunned by the trade, Buoniconti considered retiring. After all, he had earned his law degree while playing for the Patriots. However, after talking with then-Dolphins head coach George Wilson, Buoniconti decided to make the move. Nick immediately picked up where he left off with the Patriots. The Dolphins, in 1970, behind a stingy defense and conservative offense improved from 3-10-1 to 10-4 and advanced to the divisional playoff game, only to lose to the Oakland Raiders 21-14. Nick was again named the team’s MVP.
The next season, the team again pressed on to the playoffs, eliminating the Kansas City Chiefs 27-24 in overtime and advancing to the AFC championship game. In that game the Dolphin defense shut out the reigning world champions Baltimore Colts 21-0 and earned the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl VI. Unfortunately, in Super Bowl VI, the powerful Dallas Cowboys seriously bruised the defense’s pride, throttling Miami 24-3. The following season the Dolphins defense really gelled into a cohesive unit. Capitalizing on their relative anonymity, the defense accepted and reveled under the nickname "No-Name Defense." Under Shula’s no-nonsense approach, the team became the first NFL franchise to go undefeated and untied in the regular and post-season, and avenged their Super Bowl VI loss with a 14-7 win over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
Nick Buoniconti stuck around for 14 playing seasons (1962-1974, 1976). During that time he was first- or second-team All-AFL/AFC 10 times, and was named to eight AFL All-Star Games or Pro Bowls. A driving force, he inspired his teammates with his outstanding play and fiery leadership. Buoniconti, who recorded 32 career interceptions, was named to the All-Time AFL Team in 1970. And although he was sometimes overlooked or under appreciated, his hard work, determination, and self-confidence has earned him permanent recognition with his sport’s highest honor, election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As remarkable as his career has been in sports, Buoniconti’s most challenging foe has turned into his passion and driving force. Since his son Marc suffered a devastating spinal cord injury in 1985, he has focused most of his attention on raising awareness of, and funds for, spinal cord injury research. He helped found, and serves as a national spokesman and fundraiser for The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. He and his family also founded The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis to help The Miami Project achieve its national and international goal of finding a cure for spinal cord injuries. To that end, through the direct involvement of the Buonicontis, more than $150 million has been raised in support of The Miami Project’s research programs. In that time, The Miami Project has grown to become internationally recognized as the leading research center for spinal cord injuries in the world.