NEW YORK (AP) — A victim himself of the sport, Marc Buoniconti wants youth football banned.
He hasn't always felt that way. Now, as his Buoniconti Fund and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis also researches head trauma, the former college linebacker paralyzed from the shoulders down in a game nearly 32 years ago has a different view.
As he has learned more about concussions and has seen his father, Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti, have significant cognitive issues in recent years, Marc Buoniconti is adamant that children should not play football.
"For me, my opinion has changed 180 degrees," Buoniconti told The Associated Press. "Years ago I would always tell people that absolutely I will let my son get on the field, play football; I love football. The things you learn at football — the teamwork, the camaraderie, learning how to win, how to lose, the practice, the discipline — everything is so important that you learn in football that you can apply to your life.
"It was amazing for me what I learned on the football field was so instrumental when I went to the Citadel because of all I had to go through there with all that training and discipline that it really prepared me.
"But the more I learned about concussion through the research, through the experience of my father, I honestly can no longer tell parents that their loved ones should play football. I just can't do it in my heart."
Buoniconti is thinking about calling for a ban on "Little League football" and perhaps extending it through high school. He fears that the hitting inherent in the game is too dangerous for kids, even if no concussions have been sustained.
Buoniconti is not speaking for the Miami Project, for which he has raised nearly a half-billion dollars for research into the treatment of spinal cord and brain injuries. That organization, founded in 1985, has not taken a stand on including such a discussion in its efforts.
"This is my personal opinion, I don't even have any evidence to suggest that is what happens with children who play football," Buoniconti says. "It's just my opinion that children playing football, continually hitting their head, whether it is concussion or repetitive hitting, is detrimental to their health."
While acknowledging that helmet manufacturers are trying to develop safer equipment, Buoniconti finds that a losing battle.
"No matter what you do, you are always going to hit the head," he says. "The head leads the body and no matter how you try to protect the head, it's just the type of game where the velocity is just too fast and people are too strong, and there is nothing they can do to really protect the brain. The equipment just doesn't exist."
Buoniconti has written a book titled "Undefeated: From Tragedy to Triumph." He notes that it was both a painful and uplifting exercise to tell his life story. The book discusses his family's fund and the advances the Miami Project has made through the decades in the search to find a cure for paralysis.
And now, perhaps, Buoniconti has another cause toward which he could devote his unflagging energy.
"Just think about it," he says, "the brain of a child is in the earliest developmental stages at this time in their life. (It is) the most critical and important time of their brain development and they are repetitively hitting their head constantly day in and day out. I believe over a longer run, they are going to find out that it is not just concussion that causes brain damage, just that repetitive hitting of the head over and over again is also causing damage.
"So I would like to start the conversation of thinking about that type of research to try to understand early childhood development of brain function, whether or not this impact is really going to cause damage. Because I think someone is going to have to stand between the player and the field, especially with these children, and I would like to start that conversation about doing that type of research to protect our kids."
Buoniconti will host the 32nd annual Great Sports Legends Dinner to honor the Miami Project, part of the Miami Miller School of Medicine, in New York on Monday night.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL