WAS JUSTICE PARALYZED?

A verdict exonerating the team doctor left unresolved issues in the case of injured Citadel linebacker Marc Buoniconti
July 24, 1988

It never changed. time and again, it was monotonous yet riveting, tedious yet fascinating. Whether it was played in slow motion or with a frame frozen on the screen, the one-minute videotape, run and rerun, never failed to be affecting.

Judge John Hamilton Smith of the County Court of Common Pleas in Charleston, S.C., sat transfixed, watching the little monitor on the bench in front of him. The 12 jurors leaned forward and the attorneys stopped shuffling their papers and sat staring at one of the three large TV screens placed about the courtroom. Now and then some of them would glance at the 21-year-old man sitting in the wheelchair, looking for some reaction from him—a grimace of memory, a wince of recollection—but there was nothing. He stared stonily at the screen, as if watching someone else getting hurt out there, as if seeing the crippling of another man.

The videotape showed a single play in an otherwise insignificant college football game played on Oct. 26, 1985, between two ordinary teams. East Tennessee State and The Citadel. As the tape began, the ball was snapped and quarterback Keith Harris of East Tennessee State faked a hand-off to his fullback up the middle. Turning, Harris pitched the ball back to running back Herman Jacobs, who turned upheld in full stride. The Citadel's middle linebacker, Marc Buoniconti, after fighting free of one blocker, cut left across the field to head off Jacobs.

But outside linebacker Joel Thompson got to Jacobs first, met him head-on, and dived at his legs. Jacobs flipped over and tumbled forward. Buoniconti, almost in front of Jacobs, suddenly turned toward him, lowered his torso until it was parallel to the ground, and dived into the pinwheeling running back.

That was when Buoniconti's head crashed into Jacobs, and, Buoniconti would say later, when he felt his body go slack. He rolled over and saw an arm lying in front of him. "I saw it was connected to my body," he said in court. "If I hadn't seen it connected, I wouldn't have known it was mine."

It's impossible to tell from the videotape precisely what part of Buoniconti's head struck Jacobs's back or left hip. What is clear, according to the X-rays, is that Buoniconti suffered what doctors describe as "a complete bilateral facet dislocation" between the third and fourth cervical vertebrae.

In lay terms, the blow broke Buoniconti's neck, bending it to the point that the third vertebra became dislodged from the fourth vertebra beneath it, crushing the spinal cord. The injury occurred when Buoniconti was a 19-year-old sophomore at The Citadel, and since that moment he has been a quadriplegic, unable to move anything but his head.

The videotape became the most crucial and compelling item of evidence in a five-week civil trial in which Buoniconti sought $22.8 million in actual damages from Dr. E.K. Wallace Jr., The Citadel's team physician, on the grounds that Wallace was negligent in advising and treating Buoniconti. But the six men and six women on the jury didn't see it that way. After meeting for just three hours, including a half-hour stretch at the start of their deliberations in which they were heard screaming at one another behind closed doors, the jurors found that Wallace was not liable at all and awarded Buoniconti nothing.

(Two weeks earlier the Amerisure Co., which was insuring two other defendants, The Citadel and team trainer Andy Clawson, ordered the school's attorneys—reportedly against the attorneys' advice—to offer Buoniconti $800,000 in an out-of-court settlement, which Buoniconti accepted. Because of a court-imposed gag order, the jury was not aware of the settlement, but Clawson and The Citadel, a 146-year-old military college in Charleston with an enrollment of 2,000, were removed as defendants in the suit, and Wallace became the sole defendant.)

Thus Wallace alone was exonerated at the close of a trial during which experts, viewing the same X-rays, videotapes and medical records, disagreed as to what this evidence meant. Buoniconti's lawyers charged that their client's injury was the result of Wallace's negligent advice and care; that Buoniconti had spinal abnormalities when he enrolled at The Citadel but was never told about them; that he had entered the East Tennessee State game hurt and in pain; and that Wallace had allowed him to play in equipment, designed by Clawson but approved by Wallace, that placed his neck in a position that made it vulnerable to being broken.

Wallace's lawyers and, until the out-of-court settlement, the school's attorneys insisted that Buoniconti was injured not because of any improper treatment, ill-conceived equipment or earlier injuries, but because his tackling technique against Jacobs was both dangerous and illegal. Buoniconti had led with his head, said the defense, and in doing so he had violated an NCAA rule against "spearing"—a rule adopted in 1976 to prevent just the sort of injury Buoniconti sustained—and had caused his own disability.

While the trial settled legally the question of who was or was not at fault (at this writing Marc, whose father is the former Miami Dolphin All-Pro linebacker Nick Buoniconti, hadn't decided whether to appeal), it raised a number of questions and issues involving college athletics, from the relationship between the team doctor and team trainer to matters that vitally affect the health of the players.

For instance, how severe must an injury be—how much pain must an athlete be suffering—before a doctor or trainer orders him not to play? Why is there no NCAA rule that declares a player ineligible to participate in a game if he is unable because of injury to take part in contact practice during the week before that game? And in whose interest is the doctor working—that of the player whose injuries he's treating or that of the school whose paycheck he's receiving?

As in most civil cases, this trial quickly developed into a battle of dueling experts. Neurosurgeon Barth Green from Miami, who was called to the witness stand by Buoniconti lawyers, stated that Buoniconti already had three spinal abnormalities when he entered The Citadel: a narrowing of the spinal canal, old vertebral body fractures in two places (probably from high school football injuries) and an abnormal curvature of the cervical spine. Any one of the three, Barth testified, increased Buoniconti's risk of a serious neck injury.

"I would have recommended he not play football," Green testified. "And I would have told him, if he did play football, that he would be very many more times likely to have a neck injury...."

Defense witnesses testified that they saw nothing in Buoniconti's X-rays to indicate that he was in any more danger of suffering a catastrophic injury than anyone else playing college football. In letting him play, these witnesses said, Wallace did not deviate from "'accepted standards of medical care."

The testimony of Joseph Torg, an orthopedic surgeon from Philadelphia, was the most emphatic and dramatic offered to dispute Buoniconti's assertion that he was injured largely because of the equipment that Wallace had approved for him to wear. One of the nation's leading experts on spinal cord trauma, whose research into football injuries led to the NCAA rule on spearing, Torg said, "Absolutely not!" when asked whether the care provided by Wallace was responsible for Buoniconti's injury.

Buoniconti first suffered a neck injury at The Citadel in an Oct. 5, 1985, game at Virginia Military Institute, and he testified that the resulting pain was different from the usual "stingers" and "burners" he had experienced in the past. Stingers and burners are pinched nerves and cause a sensation similar to the one felt when a funny bone is hit. Buoniconti hurt his neck again a week later in an Oct. 12 game against Davidson. "I had extreme pain," he told the jury. "My neck was weak. I had a hard time moving my head down to eat."

Buoniconti underwent daily heat-pack and whirlpool treatments, but, he testified, they didn't help. On Oct. 19, in a game against the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, he suffered a sprained neck that hurt him so badly during the following week that he could not sleep, was excused from military drill in the mornings and wore a soft collar around campus to support his neck. Wallace ordered X-rays on Monday, Oct. 21—doctors testifying at the trial differed widely in interpreting what those X-rays meant—and ordered Buoniconti not to have any contact in practice for at least two days.

In the middle of the week Clawson fit Buoniconti with what would prove to be a most controversial piece of equipment. Believing that Buoniconti had suffered an extension injury to his neck—that is, an injury caused by his head having been thrown back—Clawson fixed a 10-inch elastic strap to the face guard of Buoniconti's helmet and snapped it to the front of his shoulder pads. This prevented Buoniconti's head from tipping back. Clawson also fitted him with a 4¼-inch-thick, hard rubber neck collar. Wallace approved these restraints, then permitted Buoniconti to play without reexamining him.

The unorthodox equipment was the target of sharp attack. Frank Bassett, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Duke who is the team physician for the Blue Devils, testified. "Any strap applied to the front of the helmet is very dangerous because it keeps the head flexed forward." Bassett said that allowing an athlete to play after suffering a neck injury wasn't the same as allowing him to play with standard, garden-variety aches. "The neck is not negotiable," Bassett said from the stand. "Some injuries are; the neck is not."

And Buoniconti's lawyers hammered away at this point: Their client should not have played if he was unable to practice that week. No practice, no play is a policy followed at many colleges, including Duke. "If a player is hurt too badly to practice, he is hurt too badly to play." Bassett testified.

Defense witnesses attached little importance to the strap and collar. "I don't think any kind of equipment he was wearing influenced this injury at all," said Victor Frankel, an orthopedic surgeon from New York, who also testified that X-rays of Buoniconti's neck taken the Monday before the fateful game showed no evidence of spinal instability.

Torg testified that the injury had resulted from the way Buoniconti made the tackle on Jacobs: headfirst. He added that his research into catastrophic injuries in football has revealed that the vast majority of them are attributable not to the spine being bent too far back, in hyperextension, or too far forward, in hyperflexion; rather, he said, they occur because of a phenomenon he calls axial loading, which is when the crown of a tackler's head strikes a runner straight on and the neck buckles, like an 18-wheeler slamming into a wall and having the rig jackknife.

One witness called by Buoniconti, a former teammate, defensive tackle Scott Thompson, said that before the game he saw Clawson tighten the strap Buoniconti was wearing so that Buoniconti's head was held downward at a 15-degree angle. "It was taut." Thompson testified. "The strap was an elastic strap, but I didn't see much elasticity in it." Nor did another of Buoniconti's former teammates, guard Bob Grant, who said that he reached out and felt its tightness and said that Buoniconti "walked like a robot...with his head down."

While coming to make the tackle against Jacobs, Buoniconti said, he could not see much upfield because the helmet was pulled down nearly over his eyes. "I am trying as hard as I can to pull my head back, but the collar and strap are pulling my head down," he testified. It was in that position, he said, with his head tied down in flexion, that he struck Jacobs and felt his body go limp.

While Torg called the hit an illegal tackle, other witnesses disagreed. "I don't think he violated any rules," said former Chicago Bear linebacker Dick Butkus, testifying for Buoniconti, after reviewing the video. Ronald Leatherwood, who was head linesman for the East Tennessee State game and watched the play from a few yards away, supported that contention. The defense presented its own celebrity expert, Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors, who testified in a videotaped deposition that the tackle was headfirst and thus in violation of the rules.

Throughout the trial the sense among many observers was that surely the jury would award Buoniconti something, if only out of sympathy for the suffering he has endured. Buoniconti's lawyers spent considerable time detailing that agony: the seven months on a respirator, learning how to breathe again; the continual bouts with urinary tract infections; the sudden muscle spasms; the mercurial blood pressure readings; the loss of a sex life—all the problems attendant upon having a conscious head attached to an unconscious body.

Early in the trial Buoniconti took the stand himself and narrated a video depicting a day in his life. The reddening of his cheeks as he spoke and the catch in his breath only served to sharpen the poignancy of his narrative: "Here's me waking up for my daily urinary tract infection treatment...here's me being checked for bed sores...here's me being dressed, shaven and fed."

He arrived at court in a van, which was sometimes driven by his father. He steered his way into the courtroom in a Sip-and-Puff wheelchair that he controlled by blowing or drawing through a mouthpiece attached to an air hose. Nurses attended him, and when his mother, Teresa, and father testified in his behalf, they were near tears.

In one emotional moment Nick modeled his son's pads and helmet for the jury, wearing the collar and demonstrating how the strap had been affixed to Marc's helmet. In another he described the moment he first saw Marc after the injury. According to Nick, Marc was terrified, attached to a respirator in a hospital in Johnson City, Tenn. "In his big brown eyes, all he was asking for was help," Nick said, his voice breaking. "I couldn't stay in the room."

But if the Buonicontis had sympathy and emotion on their side, in the end they did not have the jury. The 12 jurors, including a bank teller, a telephone company technician and a merchant seaman, all came from Charleston, where The Citadel is a revered institution in a state where football is widely viewed as a hardnosed endeavor in which a boy takes his chances giving and taking his licks.

But while the jury exonerated Wallace, that was not enough to clear the courtroom of the unpleasant suspicion that something was wrong here, something was being misread. After the verdict, the lawyer for Wallace, Robert Hood, said that the trial was a warning against spearing. But no one ever established that Buoniconti was guilty of spearing; the videotape is unclear as to what part of his head hit Jacobs.

What is more certain, when viewed in retrospect, is that Buoniconti had no business playing against East Tennessee State, not after what he had been through in the week leading up to the game. Buoniconti had suffered an extremely painful neck injury the Saturday before—one that required the avoidance of physical contact in practice.

What would possess anyone in authority to allow Buoniconti to play after a week of suffering such physical distress? The argument that he should have taken himself out of the game is naive. How could anyone expect the 19-year-old son of a former pro football star—a player who loved to hit and had just taken over as a Citadel starter—to do anything but not complain and play hard? And Nick spoke for every football father when he testified, "Every young man wants to play, but there has to be someone between him and the field, and that has to be the doctor and the trainer."

Marc Buoniconti did not leave Charleston with what he came after, but he did leave it as he came, his face determined and his cheeks slightly flushed as he guided his chair with all the breath in him. "I dreamed of living a normal life," he told the jury. "After my injury, all those dreams were shattered. I had to change everything in my life. My number one priority right now is just to stay alive—to keep living the best I can."

PHOTOTONY TOMSICThe strap attached to Buoniconti's face mask was the subject of courtroom dispute. THREE PHOTOSWCSC-TV CHARLESTON, S.C.The videotape shows Buoniconti (59) advancing on an already airborne Jacobs (20), but the exact position of Buoniconti's head at impact is obscured. PHOTOTONY TOMSICMarc was sometimes driven to the courthouse by his father, former All-Pro Nick. PHOTOWADE SPEESWallace deemed Buoniconti fit enough to play. PHOTOTONY TOMSICClawson and the school settled with Buoniconti for $800,000. PHOTOBILL WAXThe Buoniconti clan managed brave smiles after the losing verdict.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)