That there are so many profoundly hard-to-watch moments in the new HBO documentary about Nick Buoniconti's long and remarkable life story is exactly why it rates as must-see viewing for football aficionados of any generation.
"The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti'' debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, and old-school Boston Patriots fans from the 1960s will thrill to see the footage of No. 85 playing a fierce middle linebacker for his home-state team, the blue-collar Springfield, Mass., native becoming an AFL all-star by 1963, his second year in the league.
But there is so much more to Buoniconti's interesting saga, of course, and the superb 74-minute documentary delves into and details his times in all the different stages of his fascinating life, as an undersized but Hall of Fame-bound Patriots and Miami Dolphins linebacker, a lawyer, an agent, a corporate executive, a broadcaster, a philanthropist, and activist. This is no work of hagiography, and Buoniconti and his family offer a stark cautionary tale of what the game of football can give in terms of rich rewards, and what it can cost in terms of loss and risk to one's physical health.
There is no more poignant moment in the film than when Buoniconti, now 78, recalls the fateful night his son, Marc, was rendered a quadriplegic while making a tackle for The Citadel in an October 1985 game at East Tennessee State, playing linebacker just as his famous father did. The 33-plus years that have passed since that tragic event have done little to blunt the pain of Nick Buoniconti's memory.
"Still vivid,'' Buoniconti said. "Still vivid. Still vivid. Like it happened yesterday. Still have nightmares about that….. I was told Marc would be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. I fell to my knees. I couldn't believe it. It was so traumatic. After the phone call, I went out and told his mother Marc was paralyzed. And of course, she cried. The doctor said 'Please get here as soon as you can; he's dying.' I cried and I cried and I cried."
Inspired by his son's plight, Buoniconti went on to co-found and lead the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, using his high-profile platform to raise millions in the fight to treat and combat spinal cord injuries. But tying the entire documentary together is the story of Buoniconti's own fight these days, as he deals with the on-set of dementia and CTE symptoms that have rendered him "half the man I used to be.''
Shot largely at his Long Island home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., the documentary doesn't gloss over the reality of Buoniconti's day-to-day life, showing him being helped around his own house by an in-home health aide, and keeping the cameras rolling even after he has lost his train of thought in mid-sentence.
"Everything is just jumbled for me,'' Buoniconti said, after stopping a story he has long since forgotten the details of. "It's just not possible for me to do it without stumbling.''
Buoniconti started showing signs of confusion in 2013, his wife, Lynn, said, but it wasn't until a 2017 trip to Boston University yielded a diagnosis of likely CTE, the irreversible degenerative disease caused by repetitive brain trauma. That prompted them to join forces with BU and the Concussion Legacy Foundation to launch the Nick and Lynn Buoniconti CTE Research Fund, and in conjunction with that, Buoniconti announced he would donate his brain for study upon his death.
"I'm positive that football caused this,'' Buoniconti said, of his cognitive issues. "I always loved (the game). I still do. But I'm paying the price.''
Despite the saddest chapters of Buoniconti's life, there are so many surrounding highlights that the documentary brings forth. Drafted in the 13th round out of Notre Dame by the Patriots in 1962, Buoniconti tells an anecdote that I love, of Patriots head coach Mike Holovak throwing him out of his first practice with the team after getting into a fistfight with an unnamed tight end.
One of the early shots of Buoniconti helmet-less and wearing his Patriots uniform appears to show him in pre-game warm-ups, on what looks like the green grass of Fenway Park, which was Boston's home field for most of the 1960s. It reminded me of a phone interview I conducted with Buoniconti in the summer of 2014, for a profile of him I wrote for the NFL game program of a Dolphins-Raiders game in London.
Buoniconti said he loved his days with the Patriots in Boston, and with the upstart AFL, where he felt a kinship with his fellow players who toiled in the shadow of the older, more-established NFL. But it wasn't an easy ride.
"I was in the middle of that for eight years from 1962-69, and it was fun,'' he said. "On the other hand, it was a difficult financial situation for the owners and the players. We played at Fenway. We played at Boston College. And we played at Harvard and we played at BU. The Patriots finally settled on Fenway Park. It was a mess. I joke that we were the only team that had on their season tickets, TBD, for the site, for the stadium. Because they really didn't know where we were going to play. It was a nightmare.''
Other great tidbits from the documentary touch on Buoniconti's relatively short but successful career as a player agent, when he not only negotiated Miami native Andre Dawson's new six-year, $6-million contract with the Montreal Expos in 1981, but also gave George Steinbrenner ulcers while representing Yankees shortstop (and Red Sox nemesis) Bucky Dent, prompting Steinbrenner to label him the toughest negotiator he ever faced. A clip of Buoniconti, as the lead executive for U.S. Tobacco, sparring with "60 Minutes'' correspondent Ed Bradley about the "disputed'' dangers of smokeless tobacco is especially painful, as even Buoniconti later admits, upon watching himself fight for an unworthy cause.
And still the re-invention of Buoniconti's career continued. For those who might have missed his stellar 15-year NFL playing career (1962-76), many came to know him during his strong 23-year run on HBO's "Inside the NFL,'' a weekly highlight show that was wildly popular in the pre-internet era. Along with his co-host, Len Dawson, the former Chiefs quarterback and fellow Hall of Famer, Buoniconti added to his fame while staying in contact with the game throughout the '80s, '90s and early 2000s.
Some of the best moments in that section of the documentary are from Cris Collinsworth, the former Bengals receiver and current NBC analyst who joined the "Inside the NFL'' cast in 1990. Collinsworth tells a colorful tale of how he thought Buoniconti and him were ready to come to blows one day on the set after butting heads, but merely standing up to the opinionated Buoniconti did the trick, with the two working together seamlessly from that point on.
Seamlessly is exactly how director Bentley Weiner fits together the many pieces of Buoniconti's multi-faceted life to create a documentary that is both inspiring and dispiriting, powerful and compassionate. Narrated by HBO staple Liev Schreiber, the film is at its best when Buoniconti's two sons, Marc and Nick Jr., are on camera and putting their family's complicated history with football into perspective.
"When we were growing up, football gave everything to us,'' said Marc, who remains wheel chair-bound. "And then look what it did to me. And look what it's doing to him (Nick Sr.). I mean, do you love the game? Do you hate the game? Do you love it and hate it?"
The dichotomy of Buoniconti's life story and relationship with football is stark, but it's fairly told and well-illuminated by this latest HBO documentary. It's a compelling tale well worth the time.