- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - When Marc Buoniconti heard about the devastating spinal cord injury that Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand suffered a little more than a week ago, he called his doctor and started asking questions.

“Did they use the hypothermia therapy?” “How is he?” “Is there anything we can do?”

If anyone knows the tough road ahead that LeGrand faces, it’s Buoniconti.

The son of a former Miami Dolphins Dolphins linebacker, Buoniconti suffered a spinal cord injury exactly 25 years ago Tuesday, making a tackle for the Citadel in a game against East Tennessee State.

He has been confined to a wheelchair for the last quarter of a century, but his story is one of never-ending hope that he wants to relay to LeGrand.

Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Buoniconti has become one of the driving forces behind The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the comprehensive spinal cord injury research center associated with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The foundation has raised more than $350 million to find a cure for paralysis in the last 25 years.

“I have never been more optimistic about walking again than I am now,” Buoniconti said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Buoniconti said there has been amazing work being done with stem cell transplants and the Food and Drug Administration has given the OK for human testing of Schwann cell transplants, a regenerative cell in one’s own body that can be mass produced and injected into the spinal cord.

“We’ve shown under the right conditions we can improve function up to 70 percent,” Buoniconti said of tests conducted on rats and mice.

“It is quite amazing and I would like to share that with him,” Buoniconti said of LeGrand. “I have been in my wheelchair for 25 years and I have been able to accomplish and achieve more in my wheelchair than I ever would have been on my feet.”

Buoniconti also believes he knows what LeGrand is experiencing, even though he has no direct knowledge. LeGrand’s injury was in the C-3, C-4 area, the same as Buoniconti’s.

Buoniconti remembers his injury like it was yesterday. It happened as he made a tackle on Herman Jacobs of East Tennessee State in a game in Johnson City, Tenn.

In an instant, Buoniconti was paralyzed from the neck down. Breathing was near impossible. Life seemed to be slipping away as he lay on the field for 45 minutes.

“The first hours you wonder: ‘Am I going to survive,’” Buoniconti said. “I was fighting for my breath, I was fighting for my life on the field. So for the first few hours I was thinking about surviving. After that, it changes to an almost disbelief, and denial sets in and you think about, I will get better in time, and then unfortunately when that doesn’t happen you go through surgeries and the days turn into weeks and the reality sets in. It gets tough.”

For the most part, family and friends are your lifeline, Buoniconti said.

The toughest thing for him was living on a ventilator for seven months.

“Way tougher than my mom who was a strict Italian growing up,” he said. “Way tougher than any football practice I participated in. Way tougher than those sergeants at the Citadel who would bark in your ear and spit in your face all day long, all that pales in comparison to living life on that respirator.”

Getting off the respirator convinced Buoniconti that he had no excuse not to live a happy and productive life.

Every day, he sees the reasons to continue to go on, working with the Miami Project’s international team includes more than 250 scientists, researchers, clinicians and support staff who take innovative approaches to fight spinal cord injuries.

Buoniconti said the injury was his opportunity to do something great.

“I think Eric can do that,” Buoniconti said. “He can be a positive force for change. He can do that whether he is walking or if he is in a wheelchair. I think he can have a productive and successful life, let’s just hope that he can get better.”

Buoniconti refused to put a deadline on when LeGrand can recover, noting that some people need up to a year after the injury. However, it depends on whether the spinal cord injury is complete or incomplete.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has said LeGrand’s condition has not changed since he was injured making a tackle on a kickoff against Army on Oct. 16.

Buoniconti said sometimes it seems like he was hurt yesterday, and sometimes it seems a long time ago.

“When you are healthy and happy and things are going well, you look back and sure I don’t feel my age,” the 44-year-old Buoniconti said. “But then when you have some tough times and you wake up and you are achy and your bones are cracking, you say damn I’m getting old like everyone else.

“I have felt the years but I am also feeling great,” he added. “This 25 years has been an amazing time for me and an amazing time for paralysis research. We have changed the way the world thinks about spinal cord injury.”

Buoniconti said his injury did change his relationship with some teammates at the Citadel and with the school, which he sued.

Some teammates ignored him for more than 20 years because of the lawsuit and it took that long for the fences to be mended.

“We all have loose ends and a lot of these times we leave them open ended,” he said. “I have made it a point not to do that. I have tried to tie up my loose ends. Anything that needs to be dealt with, I have dealt with and I feel better for it.”

Buoniconti is happy the NFL has decided to try eliminate helmet to helmet hits, saying it’s finally time. He supports permanent suspensions for head hunters.

However, he feels the new rules are going to put officials in a tough position.

“There are going to be other instances where people are having head to head contact and it’s not intentional,” Buoniconti said. “It’s hard to play football and not hit your head, it’s nearly impossible.”

“I hope it doesn’t change the game where when you are going out to watch a football game and a flag football game breaks out,” he said.

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