The devastating revelations that two former NFL greats who were part of the historic Miami Dolphins teams in the early ‘70s suffer from debilitating brain diseases continue to bring the future of football into question.
Former linebacker Nick Buoniconti and former running back Jim Kiick are no longer the able men they used to be when they took the Miami Dolphins to a historic undefeated season in 1972 on the way to a Super Bowl victory. For the family of Kiick, the decline has been swift and severe.
“I just remember seeing the biggest change in him,” Allie, Kiick’s daughter who’s also a professional tennis player, told Sports Illustrated. “He just acts like a kid, in every way now—not taking care of himself. We tell him what to do and he listens, but he was pooping his pants, all that stuff. So I—literally—mean that he had turned into a kid.”
Kiick was diagnosed with dementia/early-onset Alzheimer’s disease that doctors attribute to his time playing football. The 70-year-old displayed erratic behavior and lived in squalor until he was placed in an assisted living facility in 2016.
His decline didn’t become noticeable until around eight years ago when his usually tidy home started to fall into shambles along with his hygiene. Then, a few years ago, he left Allie, who was 16 years old at the time, at a Barnes & Noble and had completely forgotten she was supposed to be staying with him.
He was eventually submitted to neurological tests to see what was going on in his brain. The results were alarming.
“His imaging tests show that he’s suffered concussion trauma,” Dr. David B. Ross, medical director of the Comprehensive Neurobehavioral Institute, said to Sports Illustrated. “I’ve dealt with a few football players and other sports people, and most of the time you don’t see clear evidence of traumatic brain injury because it’s usually microscopic.”
He went on to say that Kiick had clear signs of traumatic brain injury.
“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. This is more than Alzheimer’s. This is more than frontal-lobe dementia, Parkinson’s dementia. This is more than infection. He had brain trauma, and that’s unequivocal.”
Buoniconti Suffers Mental and Physical Decline
The 75-year-old Buoniconti has suffered a similar but less dramatic decline. His brain troubles only began surfacing in his early ‘70s, which is when the brain in even those who didn’t play football begin showing signs of shrinkage, but what he was experiencing wasn’t normal.
He began forgetting things, his handwriting slowed, he started losing function in his hand and he couldn’t perform simple tasks like hanging up a phone.
“He’s frustrated and depressed,” his son Marc told Sports Illustrated. “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 had his own long and complicated experience with the game of football as well. He suffered a spinal injury while tackling a runner as a 19-year-old linebacker in October 1985. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down. Marc’s injury has driven the latter half of Buoniconti’s life as he’s sought to find a cure for paralysis.
While people have pointed to Marc as a reason to not play football, he has consistently defended the merits of the sport. What is happening to his father is changing that.
“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.”
Some Players Say NFL Concussion Settlement Not Enough
When thousands of former players sued the league over concerns about long-term concussion-related injuries, the settlement was supposed to be a compromise that helped players and the NFL move forward.
The process has been anything but helpful or straightforward.
“It’s been a very disappointing process to go through—to even get some kind of information,” Kiick’s son Austin said about dealing 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 their ages, Kiick and Buoniconti will likely get smaller financial awards from the settlement than younger players. The amount isn’t always enough to cover basic medical needs or the cost of living in an assisted living facility for years.
And while players like Buoniconti have made millions during and after playing in the NFL, others like Kiick did not make as much. Buoniconti told Sports Illustrated he was incredulous that the league was not taking care of its players, even though the NFL made millions off of them.
“The NFL should be volunteering to pay for this,” Buoniconti yelled in a UCLA examination room 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.”