Buoniconti unflagging in quest of cure for son
Hall of Fame inductee an all-star fund-raiser


Nancy McVicar - South Florida Sun-Sentinel


FORT LAUDERDALE _ Doctors told Nick Buoniconti rather bluntly that there was no hope his son Marc, 19, would ever walk again.

"That's unacceptable," the stricken father said at the time, and he made Marc a promise that he would do everything he could to bring about a cure for spinal cord injury.

Two weeks after Marc suffered a paralyzing injury while playing football for The Citadel, his dad founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis with Dr. Barth Green, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Miami School of Medicine, Marc's doctor.

Buoniconti also started the Buoniconti Fund, which has raised in the neighborhood of $150 million for research. Much of the money has come from charity events for which he enlisted celebrities as diverse as Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, Gloria Estefan, Mets manager Bobby Valentine, Chris Evert and Emerson Fittipaldi to sponsor or play in sporting events, attend gala dinners, or just open their checkbooks.

He has worked tirelessly for the cause.

"Anything we ask him to do within reason, he does," Marc said last week during a visit to the Dolphin Training Center in Davie with his father. "He made a commitment to me from the beginning to raise the money it would take to find a cure. Every day he's involved."

The senior Buoniconti credits his 23-year stint on HBO's Inside the NFL for giving him the wide recognition that allows him to ask the rich and famous to give their time and money.

Palm Beach philanthropist Lois Pope, whose friend Christopher Reeve was paralyzed when thrown from a horse in 1995, gave $10 million toward construction of a new research center to house the Miami Project's scientists who were scattered in several locations across the medical school campus.

The state of Florida matched her gift, and with other donations the new $37 million center, named for Pope, opened Oct. 26, 15 years to the day after Marc's life-altering injury.

More than 90 scientists, physicians and clinicians exploring 20 different areas of basic science, clinical and rehabilitation and pain research are now working in the facility, the largest of its kind in the world.

"It's great. I compare it to a professional sports team. You have the coaches, the best players, and the best facility in the world. There's really no excuse," said Marc, who spends at least three days a week working at the center.

When the Miami Project began, conventional medical wisdom was there would never be a cure because nerve cells could not regenerate. By 1991 Miami Project scientists had proved conventional wisdom wrong by regenerating human central nervous system tissue in the laboratory.

Three years later, Miami Project scientists succeeded in getting nerve cells to grow across a spinal cord break in animals.

Another promising area of the research involves work on stem cells, cells that can be programmed to become any kind of tissue or organ in the body. Researchers think they hold great promise in restoring nerve pathways in damaged spinal cords.

"We actually have one of the leading stem cell research labs in the country," Marc said. "We mass produce stem cells and clone stem cells, and can differentiate them into the cells we need. The controversy over federal funding has not stopped the progress."

There are still puzzles that require solving, but the quest is now considered an achievable goal, Marc said.