General Published on : 1/1/2005
Hall of Fame

Walking Tall
Buonicontis take center stage at induction

By Don Seeholzer
NFL Insider

CANTON, Ohio (Aug. 4, 2001) -Mike Munchak had the largest rooting section, and Lynn Swann got the loudest cheers. But no one moved the crowd at Saturday's Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies more than the one speaker who couldn't walk to the podium.

Wheelchair-bound for 16 years, Marc Buoniconti made the day's first presentation speech one of its most powerful. For three minutes, the quadriplegic son of Nick Buoniconti shared memories of a loving father and his hopes for a brighter future, bringing the crowd of more than 12,000 to its feet and his tough old man to tears.

Nick and Marc Buoniconti
Nick and Marc Buoniconti

Not that anyone could blame him. As the former Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins linebacker said at the pre-induction morning media session: "The only thing I know is, when Marc speaks, I don't want to follow him. Marc is a very good speaker."

The kid proved that during his time at the microphone, noting that football has given the Buoniconti family "some of its greatest moments and its darkest days"-notably the 1985 game in which he was paralyzed while making a tackle for The Citadel.

"Dad, looking into your eyes, I saw the mask of pain and fear transform into that familiar look of determination," he said. "I knew you were getting ready for our biggest challenge. So when they started using labels for me and telling you all the medical clichés that I'd never walk again, that I'd need a machine to breathe for me, that paralysis couldn't be cured, once again you didn't listen. You made a bedside promise to do anything and everything you could to help me walk again."

That promise became The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which the Buonicontis co-founded and funds scientists in numerous disciplines to research a cure. Together, father and son have helped raise about $12 million annually for the project, and Nick Buoniconti said finding a cure for spinal-cord injuries is his greatest remaining challenge.

"I've climbed a very high mountain," he said. "But there's another mountain to climb…Believe me, we are going to find a cure, and the single biggest reason we're going to do it is my son, Marc."

That wasn't the only subject tackled by Buoniconti, who finally got into the Hall of Fame 25 years after his final play and 20 years after he became eligible.

The first defensive player in Dolphins history to be inducted paid tribute to the other members of Miami's No-Name defense, rattling off the names and numbers of every starter. He also called on the Hall of Fame to recognize his old Patriots teammate, Gino Cappelletti, and more former American Football League players in general.

The undersized, overachieving middle linebacker, who played in three Super Bowls and won two, closed on a personal note.

"As I close this book on my professional career…the biggest challenge and the highest mountain has yet to be climbed," he said. "I would trade this ring in and all my professional accomplishments if one thing could happen in my lifetime. My son, Marc, dreams of the day when he can walk. As a father, I would like nothing more than to walk at his side."

That was a tough act to follow, but the other six members of the Class of 2001 also had their moments.

-Former Steelers receiver Swann, who was the last to speak, joked that his mother named him Lynn because she wanted a girl and about running off to dance class in tights in high school.

Swann also paid tribute to former Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who will be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, and thanked the many Pittsburgh fans for their support during his long wait for enshrinement.

"It was fourteen years on that list before I could stand here today," he said. "…But if patience is a virtue, the virtuous part of that patience is finding the positives to enable you to wait that long."

-Former Houston Oilers guard and current Tennessee Titans offensive line coach Munchak recalled watching NFL highlights as a kid and pretending he was Swann.

Munchak, who set a Hall of Fame record with 400 invited guests-including nearly 100 family members-also recognized them and his nearby hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

"For twelve years, they have piled on buses to see me play," he said. "That kind of support is unusual, especially for an offensive lineman."

-Ron Yary and Jackie Slater, the other two offensive linemen inducted, offered up their tributes to football's often-overlooked warriors.

The Class of 2001
The Class of 2001

Yary, who missed just two games during a 15-year career with the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams, waxed poetic on the subject of the unselfishness of the men in the trenches.

"This is the creed of the offensive lineman that defines the American spirit," he said. "Which is built into the fabric of the sport of football."

Former Rams tackle Slater, whose 259 regular-season games were the most by an offensive lineman at the time of his 1995 retirement, called his brethren "the rank-and-file guys."

The only player in NFL history to play 20 seasons with one team dabbed at his eyes several times during his speech, blaming the moisture on his "allergies."

"A wise man said there's nothing better under the sun for a man to do than to eat, drink, and know that his work is good," he concluded. "I'd like to think my work was good and thank you for telling me that."

-Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen, in presenting former Rams teammate Jack Youngblood, recalled the defensive end's tough rookie season of 1971 and how coach Tommy Prothro, after a loss, ripped him in front of the whole team by bellowing, "Youngblood, you may be the worst football player I've ever seen."

Youngblood, who went on to play in a Rams-record 201 consecutive games and was the league's defensive MVP in 1975, retold the story about how he played the 1979 NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XIV with a fractured fibula. He then chided Swann and his presenter, John Stallworth that the Rams could have beaten the Steelers that day "if only they had stopped the game with six minutes left…You guys already had three rings. You could have let us have one."

"I played this game with a passion," Youngblood concluded. "It was more like a love affair that gave me momentary satisfaction but never enough. I didn't accomplish everything I wanted to…but I always played with passion and I hope it shows."

-The most eloquent speech was delivered by the Class of 2001's elder statesman, former Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, who turned 76 on Friday.

He thanked everyone from his old high school basketball and track coach, to mentor George Allen, and Bills owner Ralph Wilson, and recalled the day he phoned his World War I veteran father to tell him he was leaving Harvard Law School to become a high school football coach.

"Thirty seconds of profound silence followed," Levy said, "and then the old Marine said, 'Be a good one.' I hope I didn't disappoint him."

Levy didn't, and neither did any of the other guys in their new gold jackets. The Class of 2001 doesn't know the meaning of the word