Henry Mull was 13years old then, poor and sports-mad and hardly intrigued by the long view. Whois at 13? So, no, he never thought about the odd ways lives can meld—not in thehours before his neck got snapped, and certainly not in the hours after.Strangers sliced the shoulder pads and helmet off the Middleton Junior Highquarterback and sped him through the streets of Tampa to the hospital, wheremore strangers shaved his head, their voices and faces and hands flutteringwhile he lay terrified. His mother hadn't arrived yet. "Am I going to playball again?" he asked. Now someone was pressing a metallic device to hishead, now eight grim-faced people were holding down his arms and legs. Whateveranesthetic they used, it didn't take. The boy screamed when they screwed thefirst four-inch bolt into one side of his skull, just above the ear. He kept itup as they twisted in the second, screaming all the way into blackness.
When Henry awokein University Community Hospital that October day in 1979, the world had gonequiet. His head had been immobilized, set in traction with weights attached toa cable attached to a steel bar attached to those Frankenstein screws, and hewas strapped into a grim and primitive rotating bed known as a Stryker frame,facing the floor. "Am I going to play ball?" he asked. He didn't blamethe burly ninth-grader from Van Buren Junior High who had flattened him with aperfectly clean blindside tackle. Henry never even thought about HermanJacobs.
Maybe it wasbecause Henry got better. His swelling subsided, he regained feeling; theparalysis lasted only two days. Four months later he walked out of thehospital, spine fused at C1, C2 and C3 with bone sliced out of his hip, aneight-inch scar running down the back of his neck. Football was out: Henrycouldn't turn his head. But he did play baseball again, well enough to pitch inthe same Hillsborough High rotation as Dwight Gooden and land a collegescholarship. He'd see Herman Jacobs in the halls of Hillsborough High, but thehit never came up. What for? They were young. Only today mattered.
But the fatesweren't done with Henry yet. When he was a senior his apartment building burneddown—he became a hero for running into the building and saving a child—and amonth before he graduated his sister, Donna, died in a car crash. He leftWestern Carolina after two years, went to work installing pools in Tampa. Then,in 1993, while making a morning round for Loomis Armored, he broke his neckagain when his partner accidentally fell asleep at the wheel and their truckcrashed. Another surgery, another piece of hip bone fused to his spine,followed by dizziness and disorientation. Henry Mull is mobile but permanentlydisabled. Every few months the spinal headaches come back, and the pain is sosearing that for days he can't stop vomiting. Self-pity would seem anoption.
August 23, 2009
But this hasalways stopped him: On Oct. 26, 1985, in the first quarter of a game betweenThe Citadel and East Tennessee State at the Mini-Dome in Johnson City, Tenn.,Citadel linebacker Marc Buoniconti hurtled headfirst at the Buccaneers' upendedtailback, his helmet colliding with Herman Jacobs's lower back. Buonicontirolled over, his neck dislocated at the third and fourth cervical vertebrae,his spinal cord hacked as if by a dull hatchet. Soon after Mull heard the newsthat the 19-year-old Buoniconti had become a quadriplegic, a strange sensationwashed through him, one he would feel for decades. On nights when he couldn'tsleep, he would look over at his wife, Cindy, or, later, think of their youngdaughter, Victoria. He would wonder about the titanic odds against Jacobs'sbeing involved twice in such catastrophic hits, and he would whisper to God,"Thank you."
"I feel it's acircle among us, with Herman and Marc," says Mull, now 43. "Why didMarc end up one way, and why did I end up another? I could've suffered the samefate. I always think, I'm very fortunate. I think of Marc: What does he have todo from the moment he wakes up?"
Once he wakes inthe expansive South Miami high-rise apartment where he has never taken a step,Marc Buoniconti, 42, calls into a nearby speaker to the full-time nurse. Somedays it's Lance, some days Peter, some days Mike or Martin. Within seconds theman appears, places pills in Buoniconti's mouth, pours medicine down his throatand inserts a catheter into his penis to drain the urine. After removing thecatheter he unrolls onto Buoniconti's penis a condom that is connected to aplastic bag strapped to one leg. He checks Buoniconti's vital signs, stretcheshis limp arms and legs and examines him for skin lesions or swelling orredness. He pounds Buoniconti's chest to clear his lungs. If Buoniconti is duefor a bowel routine, he places suppositories in his rectum. Then he picksBuoniconti up, places him in a waterproof wheelchair and guides him to theshower.
Sometimes it'sthree hours before Buoniconti is fully dressed. Still, he is far better offthan most quadriplegics. That he has survived nearly 24 years in this state istestament to his deep reservoirs of patience and grit, not to mention the powerof money. Much of Buoniconti's $500,000 annual nursing bill, as well as thecost of his $60,000 customized van and $24,000 electronic wheelchair, iscovered by the health-care package that his father, Dolphins Hall of Famelinebacker Nick Buoniconti, received during his post-NFL days as president ofU.S. Tobacco.
"My dad didwell for himself, but if we didn't have the insurance I have, we'd be broketrying to take care of me," Marc says. "No—I'd probably bedead."
Even so,Buoniconti's life is an emergency waiting to happen. In April he went intosurgery to treat a recurring urinary tract infection—a routine affliction ofquadriplegics, along with kidney stones—and nearly died when his blood pressurespiked. That was his fourth brush with death: Two years ago he suddenlycouldn't breathe, and his blood pressure plummeted; in the late 1980s he had ablood clot in his lungs; and the night of his injury he went into pulmonaryarrest en route to the hospital. He spent seven months on a respirator beforedoctors put him through the weeks-long torture of jump-starting his diaphragm,forcing his body to relearn to breathe. They would decrease his oxygen supplyso that he could take just 10, then six, then four breaths per minute.Buoniconti refused to sleep because he was sure he'd suffocate. He lost 100pounds.
The mostdevastating pain, though, came a few weeks after the accident, during an MRI inMiami. Dye was injected into Buoniconti's spinal cord through a needle placedin a guide tube driven deep into the side of his neck. Morphine had no effect:After pushing the tube and the needle through nine inches of skin and muscle,the doctors found both instruments were too short and had to repeat theprocedure. Buoniconti wept as they tunneled back in. "I'd rather die thango through that again," he says.
Throughout, therewas a feeling he couldn't shake. Maybe he deserved it: life in a chair, life inpain and fear, life with strange hands prodding and turning him like a side ofbeef. Maybe God was exacting payment. The feeling would stay with him evenafter he grew into a kind of icon, the optimistic face of an unparalleled driveto cure paralysis. "I'm serving a sentence," he would tell friends,"for all I did when I was bad and younger."
So, no, for yearsBuoniconti didn't have the energy to worry about anyone else who had been in onthe play that night. He didn't see himself as part of any circle.
A player collideswith two others on football fields six years apart, and the results seemclear-cut: One kid walks out of the hospital impaired, the second never walksagain and the third walks away whole. But over time it becomes less clear whogot paralyzed. The victims bull forward, try with every fiber to prevent theirfrailties from defining them, keep moving. On that cool October afternoon in1985, only Herman Jacobs's life stopped cold.
In high school hetried not to blame himself for what happened to Henry Mull. The followingseason, without saying why, he refused to play defense; he wanted never to bein the position to hit, much less cripple, anyone. But after The Citadel game,when a trainer reminded him that Buoniconti had been injured tackling him,Jacobs thought of Mull, felt a new guilt rising and for the first time saw thecircle as it tightened around him like a straitjacket. What is it about me? heasked God. Why? Why? Why?
Before that momentJacobs had been the top offensive threat for East Tennessee State, a powerfulrunner with 4.4 speed. When younger players challenged him for the startingjob, he warned them, "You're going to have to go through hell—and thensome—to get it." NFL scouts were watching. Jacobs finished with 835 yardsin 1985; his senior year he would gain 889. But after the Buoniconti hit, theBuccaneers' coaches sensed a change; Jacobs shied away from tackles, was morereserved in the locker room and seldom flashed his "million-dollarsmile," says Mike Ayers, then the Buccaneers' coach.
"You grabbedhim around the neck and said, 'It's going to be all right. This wasn't yourfault,'" Ayers says. "But something mentally wouldn't let that connect.It scarred him right down to his soul."
That made nosense: Buoniconti had hit him. But when ETSU played at The Citadel thefollowing season, Jacobs heard his tacklers growl, "That's for Marc,"and found nothing wrong with that. Maybe they were right. Maybe he needed to bepunished.
Jacobs left EastTennessee State in 1987 without a degree, then played semipro ball for a teamin Johnson City. In the summer of '88 he traveled to Charleston, S.C., totestify in Buoniconti's civil suit against The Citadel team doctor who hadcleared him to play despite neck pain that had kept him out of contact drillsthe week before the game. The Buoniconti family sought $22.5 million in damagesand was awarded none; the school and its trainer settled out of court two weeksbefore the trial's end for $800,000. At the courthouse Jacobs met briefly withBuoniconti, who insisted he didn't blame him.
"I heard himsay it wasn't my fault, but as fast as he said it, it went away," Jacobssays. "That picture that I was seeing—him in that wheelchair? All I'mthinking is, How often can this happen to one person? Why me?"
That fall, in asemipro game, an opposing linebacker intercepted a pass, and as Jacobs girdedhimself for the tackle, that picture of Buoniconti popped into his head. Heshoved the player out-of-bounds instead and knew: He didn't like playingfootball anymore. He drifted into a job as a fast-food cook, first at Mrs.Winner's Chicken & Biscuits, finally at a drive-in called Pal's, in theshadow of the Mini-Dome. Efficient and demanding, he did his job well, rose toassistant manager, but his enthusiasm had been replaced by a menacing quiet.Most employees gave him a wide berth.
At the trialJacobs asked lawyers for a copy of a one-minute tape that included hiscollision with Buoniconti. Every few weeks after work, Jacobs would pop it inthe VCR and watch it in soundless slow motion. One day a Pal's coworker andEast Tennessee State student named Daniel Weaver walked into the apartment andsaw the tape on Jacobs's coffee table. The two of them watched it in silence,again and again, until Jacobs began speaking of Henry Mull and how he seemeddestined to hurt people. "I don't see how you can keep watching this,Herman," said Weaver. "I don't see how you can watch it atall."
"I can't stopwatching it," Jacobs said.
His hands flop onthe wheelchair armrests, his skin browned to the tone that once sent afun-in-the-sun message: Hit the beach! Play 18! Study them long enough, though,and they become a cruel joke: Marc Buoniconti, son of Miami, the boy who usedto fish all day in the waters east of U.S. 1, who spent fall Saturdays with hisbrother Nicky running and jumping in the Orange Bowl while his dad's Dolphinswalked through Sunday's game plan, sports a tan on his hands because he has nochoice. He can't move them.
The iPhone ringsbeneath his fingers. Peter hustles over, holds the phone up to show who'scalling, pushes the button and stands there, arm extended, as Buonicontispeaks. He gets calls all day—from family members, buddies, staffers at theMiami Project to Cure Paralysis—and answers in a voice that ranges from nearwhisper to brassy baritone as he takes the shallow breaths afforded by adiaphragm operating at 30%. Afternoons he spends at the Miami Project, a fewDan Marino bombs from where the Orange Bowl used to be. In January 2008,Buoniconti became president of the 23-year-old organization, making officialwhat had been clear for years: He is the project, the animating force behindthe 250-person staff; the decade-old, $40 million research center; themind-boggling $300 million that has been raised for research by the BuonicontiFund.
University ofMiami surgeon Barth Green, the project's cofounder and chairman, had beenrejected for an NIH grant two months before The Citadel played in Johnson Cityin 1985. But in Buoniconti, the cause suddenly had a stirring story to tell,complete with a famous dad who could tap all his moneyed contacts in sports andthe media. Nick raised $2 million the first year alone, and once his20-year-old son left the hospital, once Marc appeared at halftime of aDolphins-Jets game before 80,000 standing fans, the cause had its irresistibleface, young and tragic and disarmingly upbeat. Marc Buoniconti—an incorrigibleflirt with pretension-puncturing wit and a knack for charming everyone fromkids to civic leaders—could get jocks, entertainers and business types to writechecks like no one in a lab coat ever dreamed of.
Without Marc? TheMiami Project, Green says, would still be a small-scale research centerincapable of assembling the team that pioneered its hypothermia treatment,which helped Bills tight end Kevin Everett to walk again after a helmet-firsthit in 2007 dislocated the same two cervical vertebrae that Buoniconti broke.Without Marc, Green and his team probably would not be poised to begin, pendingFDA approval, the first testing regime for the effectiveness of Schwann celltransplants on human subjects—a regime already proved to restore 70% ofspinal-cord function in lab animals.
"Everyhospital in the world and paramedics are using hypothermia for cardiac arrest,in cardiac and vascular surgery, and in the future they'll be using it forbrain injury and spinal-cord injury and stroke," Green says. "Eventhough we haven't cured paralysis, we've done a lot to change the practice ofmedicine. Physical therapists are using electrical stimulation because theMiami Project proved [its effectiveness] scientifically. Doctors in operatingrooms all over the world are checking patients' brains and spinal cords becausethe Miami Project got monitors approved by the FDA. We're making babies fromparaplegics and quadriplegics because we changed a research project into aclinical practice. We've made some good contributions to the quality of lifefor people who are and aren't paralyzed.
"Marc was thecatalyst. And Marc is truly the president: He makes the policies, he's thespeechmaker—a much better talker than his old man and me put together. Used tobe, I didn't want to follow Nick on the stage. Now I don't want to followMarc."
The cruel subtextis, of course, that a young man had to be paralyzed for these breakthroughs tohappen, had to give up use of his own body so that others might someday walkand run and live. Marc is the only public figure in gimlet-eyed South Floridawho is universally admired, and if that's partly due to overcompensation bythose who feel guilty about being more mobile and less benevolent than he is,so be it. "He's more of a man in that wheelchair than I'll ever be with twolegs and two arms," says John Stephens, one of Buoniconti's Citadelteammates. "Because when he [enters] a room he changes people's lives. Whenthey hear him speak, people want to be part of what he's doing. Can you imaginebeing in a wheelchair 20 years and having the courage to say, 'I don't thinkthere's any help for me, but I want to get other people out ofwheelchairs'?"
Even Marc'smother, Terry, can't help but see him as a secular saint. "I'm thechurchgoer in the family," she says, "but I've said to him, 'You don'thave to. You've lived what it's meant to be.'"
She laughs atthat, too, because no one seemed less likely for the role than Marc.Undisciplined in high school, indifferent to any intellectual pursuit, he livedfor football's mayhem. On the field he resembled his dad, canny and fierce.Former Dolphins coach Don Shula, whose son Mike was a Columbus High teammate ofMarc's, is sure Marc could've played pro ball. Even from the top row of thestands Marc's hits sounded like no other. "They didn't have to announce whomade the tackle," Don Shula says. "You could hear it—just a greatimpact. He had that great ability to gather himself and unload on theballcarrier."
Away from thegame, though, Marc was lost. His grades were a mess, his report cards alwaysmisplaced or strategically smudged. "Marc was the biggest conniver I'veever been around," Nick says. "He played every angle. He always lookedfor the easy way out." Terry tried every clampdown known to moms, includingcampusing—confining Marc to his room for weeks at a time—but he nevercomplained. "He knew what the price was, he was going to pay that price,but he was not going to compromise," Nick says. "He wouldn't everapologize to his mother. He had his own value system, and it really enabled himto deal with his injury."
But before that?Life his senior year of high school was a game, his mother the enemy, and withNick in Greenwich, Conn., for his duties at U.S. Tobacco, the house was a warzone. Marc left home at least once, Terry hurling his belongings out the frontdoor. The air was filled with recrimination and pot smoke. Marc barelygraduated. His own football coach warned off interested college programs. Thefamily line that, had he not been paralyzed, Marc would have ended up dead orin jail is delivered these days with chuckles. But ask Marc why he's been"serving a sentence," as he puts it, ask if he actually hurt people,and his voice sinks. His eyes fill. "Sometimes," he says.
"Are therecertain things that would have put me in jail for 20 years? Yeah, I've dones--- that I could definitely get more than 20 years, combined," he says."I'm giving you hints, man: Miami, the '80s ... having a good time? Myparents know I was experimenting at the time, not only with partying but withdifferent groups of people, some nefarious. Put it this way: Many nights I wasat home awake, looking out the front window waiting for either a car I didn'tknow or the police.
"You know whatelephant turds are? Those white cement blocks that line your property so peopledon't go on your grass? You pick them up and drive around town and see how manycars you can throw them through. Windows of cars, houses: It got crazy, butyou're all f----- up, vandalizing, doing pranks. Random, bad things. Those arethe a------ kinds of stupid things that make you say, You know what? You dodeserve it."
By the time Marcleft for Charleston, even he sensed his life had spun out of control. TheCitadel was the only Division I college to offer him a scholarship, but itseemed perfect: an extreme dose of military school to counter years ofself-indulgence. While Buoniconti got through his knob year—that brutalinitiation marked by sleeplessness and upperclassmen spitting in his mouth asthey screamed from a quarter inch away for no reason but to break his will—hewas hardly reformed. His grades still stunk. Each time Buoniconti would sneakin food from the training table for a ravenous buddy or slip away with anotherteammate to a lake to skip stones, he was still conniving, working the angles.It would take him years to understand the steely bond formed when 90-pluscadets, collected into a company called F Troop, endure such abusetogether.
He was one of onlytwo freshmen to make the travel squad, and by his sophomore year he wasstarting. John Stephens, the kick returner, always grabbed Buoniconti's jerseyand followed him upfield; he was becoming known as The Citadel playmakeropponents had to account for. "I'd heard about him through the season, andthe week we had to prepare for them, Marc had all my attention," Jacobssays. "We dressed a guy in number 59, put BUONICONTI on the back of hisshirt. Our concern wasn't the other guys. It was Marc."
But by the EastTennessee State game, Marc's neck had been hurting for weeks. He couldn't tiphis head back, but the team doctor let him play. The trainer, Andy Clawson, rana 10-inch elastic strap from his face mask to the chest plate of his shoulderpads; between that and a 4-inch hard-rubber collar, Marc's head essentiallybecame a battering ram. Laid out and launched at Jacobs, he could barely seewhat he was aiming for.
On the Buccaneers'second offensive series Jacobs tore off a nine-yard gain. "Second-and-one,they ran I formation up the middle, and I hit him dead in the hole and knockedhim back for no gain," Buoniconti says. "Then it was third-and-one..."
Jacobs took thepitch, got tripped up by linebacker Joel Thompson and shot forward. Buonicontirocketed to meet him, diving just inches off the turf. Jacobs had never beenhit harder: Years later a doctor would find that the tackle had cracked one ofJacobs's lower vertebrae.
"... and theygot denied again," Buoniconti says. "At least I got that silver lining,man. It would've sucked if I'd broken my neck and they still got the firstdown."
In the aftermathnobody got off easy. Family lore has it that Nick, horrified that his greatlove, hard-nosed football, had destroyed his son, had to be stopped fromwrenching off his Super Bowl ring and flinging it. Terry wondered if she was toblame, having let Marc play in high school even after learning that he had anunusually narrow spinal column. But the Buonicontis found a place to directtheir anger and fear: Soon Nick noticed that all his calls to The Citadel werebeing directed to lawyers; soon it became clear that the school would refuse topay Marc's medical bills or honor his scholarship. F Troop was whipsawedbetween loyalty to Marc and loyalty to the institution. His close friendStephens, who shared a love of Bob Marley songs with Marc and who would testifyat the trial on Buoniconti's behalf just after graduating, felt the friendshipcaused him to be blackballed for his last 2½ years on campus. "I had atarget on me," he says. "They knew which side of the fence I wason."
In 1988 Buonicontireturned for his class's graduation only because he felt he owed it to hiscompany-mates. He went back once more, for an off-campus 10th-year reunion, butrelations between The Citadel and its most famous cadet remained icy. "Wewere shammed in the case," Buoniconti says, referring to the jury'sthree-hour deliberation and decision to award him nothing. More galling was hisbelief that the school's legal strategy, which argued that Marc's injuryoccurred because he speared Jacobs, portrayed him as a reckless freelancer."Where's the military code of honor the school is supposed to have?" hesays. "Am I not a soldier to them? It's like going out to battle, gettingshot and being left there."
His disgustmarinated for more than two decades. It was as if, in allowing himself to hatethis one place, he found an escape valve for all the anger, the nastiness, thelove of leveling some poor ballcarrier that had made him such a goodlinebacker. Because there was no room for venom in his new existence. Once hestopped grieving, once he felt himself cared for by so many selfless people,saw so many strangers give time and money to help cure him, Buoniconti began tobelieve: Being paralyzed didn't end his life. Being paralyzed saved it.
This isn't justbecause Buoniconti is certain that, had he remained ambulatory, he would haveflunked out of The Citadel, returned to Miami and fallen back into trouble.It's that as the Miami Project grew, as he rose to lead the Buoniconti Fund in1999, he found that no other high matched raising money, pushing for a cure,seeing paralyzed people gain hope. He enrolled at Miami to study psychology andspecialized in posttraumatic depression. He made the dean's list several timesand graduated in '93.
"This chairmade me grow a conscience," Marc says. "I never had onebefore."
It wasn't enough.He still had 19 years to make up for. So Marc didn't limit his transformationto the time he spent working at the Project. He and Terry, who divorced Nick in1997, grew close; his dad became his best friend. He made his apartment, fourstories down from his mother's, a crash pad for friends down on their luck:drugs, broken marriages, no income. He put himself on call. If anyone neededhelp, he was waiting.
Herman Jacobsneeded something, Lord knows. He was a religious man, he prayed and sangChristian songs, but his was not an active faith. It's as if, in the yearsafter college, he'd forgotten the old saw about God helping those who helpthemselves. No, worse: He felt that any movement, any effort at all, justwasn't worth the risk. Henry Mull was part of that, yes, and so was MarcBuoniconti. But Jacobs's haunting had begun much earlier, in Tampa's Ybor City.Hadn't he been the one to greet his dad at the door?
He was five yearsold the day Willie arrived home from work with all hell rolling in behind him.A man, an acquaintance of one of Herman's sisters, met Willie outside and beganyelling about money, and the man pulled a gun and Willie started to run—ontothe street, behind cars, into a startled neighbor's house. Herman trailedbehind. The man put two shots into Willie's back, and Herman couldn't help butwant to look. There was the body. "I walked in," Herman says of thescene and nothing more.
The family movedto Tampa's notorious Rearview Terrace. Herman and his twin brother, Herbert,were inseparable but as different as night and day. In the choose-ups forgames, Herman's speed and smiling demeanor made him irresistible; he'd run 50yards for a score and never show up an opponent. Herbert was bigger. Hisnickname was Fat Daddy. He'd beat people senseless if they looked at himwrong.
Herbert driftedinto drugs; Herman helped the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter atHillsborough High grow from 14 to 314 members in two years. But the twins couldreach each other like no one else. Herbert, a defensive tackle, knew just howto motivate Herman, make him harder and meaner. Herman could calm Herbert downwhen his temper sparked. An injured back ended Herbert's football career inhigh school, and he dropped out in 11th grade.
Four years laterthe lines from Tampa to Tennessee hummed with worry: Herbert's in trouble. Itwas December 1986, during finals; Herman had just finished his senior season.He called Herbert, pleaded with his brother to come live with him in boring,safe Johnson City. And Herbert actually listened. He had started going tochurch. "He was trying to do good," Herman says. Herbert said yes. Hewas coming.
Two hours laterHerbert walked into an apartment where someone was supposed to give him money.He was shot three times in the chest and spilled outside, yelling, "Theyset me up!" Herman's coaches told him the next day that his best friend,his brother, was gone.
Coming just 15months after the collision with Buoniconti, Herbert's death sealed it forJacobs: Too many people he came close to ended up suffering. The only way tomake sure it didn't happen again was to retreat behind a wall of coolpassivity. Tamp down any ambition, avoid all contact beyond the superficial.Just let life ... go.
Jacobs had gottenmarried as a college freshman, and that soured fast. Angie went back to Tampahis sophomore year, gave birth to their daughter, Mitzi, and in the spring ofhis junior year demanded a divorce. Herman didn't argue. His daughter was sixmonths old when he last saw her. The first conversation he ever had with herwas by phone after her high school graduation.
In 1991, whileworking the window at Pal's, Jacobs met a nurse named Patti Rowe. She had twoyoung daughters, Ashley and Amber, from a previous marriage. Jacobs and Rowewere married in '97. It took years for Patti to learn about Marc Buoniconti,and then only because she walked in on her husband watching the tape. HenryMull? Herman never mentioned him.
"He was alwaysdistant," Patti says. "Even when he was trying to open up, he wouldstop himself from showing any kind of emotion or affection." Andprofessionally, she says, "it was like he was stuck in neutral."
OccasionallyJacobs would talk about becoming a chef, complete with a toque and his ownmenu, maybe in his own restaurant. But he worked at Pal's, that mustard-yellowdead end, off and on for 18 years—still an assistant manager, always passedover for promotion, seething at slights but unwilling to do or even sayanything about them. East Tennessee State discontinued its football program in2003. Every six months or so Jacobs would come home from work and watch thetape, rewind it, watch it again. His team and his game were gone. Yet he andthe Mini-Dome, standing across the street, remained.
In early 2007Daniel Weaver, the student who had watched the tape with Jacobs in 1990,received notice at his home in Memphis, Mich., of his 20th high school reunion.He wondered about Jacobs, searched for him on the Internet, found his name in aSouth Carolina newspaper story about Marc Buoniconti that mentioned his Citadelteammate Joel Thompson. He contacted the writer. He called Thompson. Neitherman knew Jacobs's whereabouts. Weaver called the East Tennessee State alumniassociation.
"HermanJacobs?" said the man on the other end. "I think he works atPal's."
Weaver felt as ifhe'd been kicked in the stomach. "There's no way," he said. "Iworked with him there almost 20 years ago." But within seconds he knew itwas true. And he knew precisely why.
The forgiving hadbeen under way for a while by then. But Jacobs didn't know it, didn't know thatthe ice around the feet of Buoniconti's former team- and company-mates hadbegun to melt.
In late 2004Thompson finally got over his shame at falling out of touch with Buoniconti forso long, his conflicted feelings about The Citadel and the lawsuit, and calledhis old road roommate for the first time in years. He followed up with a visitto Miami, said he wanted to get involved in the Miami Project. He finally askedBuoniconti, "You ever think of getting back to The Citadel?"
"No,"Buoniconti said. "They want to make amends? I'm not against it. But I'm notmaking the first move."
When Thompsonvisited again, Buoniconti motioned him into his closet and nodded to somethinghanging there: his carefully preserved Citadel home jersey and a few of his oldcadet hats, including the antiquated shako worn for parade formation, plumedfeather still high. "Do you mind if I talk to some people there?"Thompson asked.
He started makingcalls, not knowing that the officials from his time at the school had begun toretire or die, and something—the admission of women or simply the passing ofthe years—had softened the hard-assed institution enough for it to see thebenefits of détente with Buoniconti. The chairman of the Board of Visitors,Billy Jenkinson, had wanted Buoniconti back in the fold, and he took it as asign when Thompson called. "It's going to happen," Jenkinson said."It's time."
In February 2006The Citadel notified Buoniconti that it wanted to retire his jersey and invitedhim back for its annual Corps Day. Nick was wary. "I'm not doing it forme," Marc told his dad. "I have teammates, classmates who hate theschool for what they did to me, and a lot of people hate me for what I did tothe school. I'm doing it for everybody who has been dealing with this void intheir lives all these years."
Still, when Marcwent back the next month, he was nervous. Then Jenkinson walked up, laid a handon his and said, "Welcome home."
In September ofthat year, at halftime of a football game, The Citadel took the same jerseysliced from Marc's body 21 years before and retired it. But the real shockerhad come a day earlier, when Buoniconti's kickoff buddy Stephens presented himwith his Citadel ring, the first awarded to a living ungraduated cadet. Insidewas an inscription: Marc's name and Bob Marley's words GET UP, STAND UP, THEN#59 BULLDOGS.
A jet salutescreamed overhead as Thompson slipped the ring on Buoniconti's finger, but Marcdidn't notice. He couldn't stop staring, through tears, at his hand.
Sometime duringthat warm weekend, Thompson and Stephens and Buoniconti looked at one anotherand agreed: Herman Jacobs should be here. Seven months later, after Weaverpassed on Thompson's number and Jacobs called him, Thompson could hear theworry in his voice. "Does Nick blame me?" Jacobs asked. "Would itbe all right if I called Marc?"
Marc called himfirst. They talked a few times, but Patti saw a change the moment Herman hungup after the first call. "He just opened up and just became—not a differentperson—a better person," she says. "It made a world of differencebetween him and the kids. He became more understanding."
The followingfall, in Charleston, with Buoniconti's return to The Citadel now established asa fund-raising event for both the Miami Project and a Citadel scholarship,Jacobs flew in for the weekend. He walked into Buoniconti's hotel room late thefirst night and gave him an awkward, cheek-brushing hug. Surrounded by playersfrom the game, they talked for hours. "I could've sat there all night,"Jacobs says.
"Out of allthe things I've done—raising money, the jersey with Joel, the ringceremony—that, to me, was the best feeling I've had," Stephens says. "Isaw the weight of the world fall off Herman when he made eye contact with Marcand realized he was among friends."
Still, Buonicontisensed what others did in Jacobs: a low-grade malaise. During a quiet moment ata tailgate party he hit Jacobs head-on one more time, asking, "Are youdoing what you like to do? Are you happy?" Jacobs was shocked; no one hadever asked him that. And Buoniconti wouldn't let up. He invited Jacobs to visithim in Miami, to bring Patti and the girls. By the time they arrived for a weekthe following January, Buoniconti had it all worked out: Herman would move toSouth Florida, go to culinary school. Patti would take a nursing job at ahospital. "You've got to get out of Johnson City," Marc told Herman."You're buried there."
He got out. Butthis is no movie: It didn't happen instantly or cleanly. Buoniconti needed tobe sure Jacobs was coming for himself, not out of some misplaced sense ofguilt, needed him to crack the walls he'd built around himself and move. It wasonly when, over the next few months, Jacobs made the necessary calls, collectedand sent in his application and transcripts, that Buoniconti took the nextstep. He cold-called the admissions director at Johnson & Wales Universityand offered his own name, one of Miami's most prominent, in the service of theschool. Suddenly it was done: Jacobs was enrolled as a student in the school'srenowned College of Culinary Arts, with enough financial aid that it wouldbarely cost him a nickel.
When he made the15-hour drive down in September 2008, though, Jacobs was alone. The girls werein school back home, Patti's mother was ill, and Miami scared her. Also, truthbe told, she had been a bit thrown by this new Herman. He had come back fromCharleston that first time and made a point of apologizing for everything."I had been a damned ass," he says. But he also kept telling Patti shehad never known the "real me," had never seen him when he was drivenand alive and fun.
"We've had ourtrials, let's say that," Patti says. "But we're trying to keep ittogether as much as we can. That's his dream, to be a chef; I could never tellanybody they couldn't do what their dream is. But it's hard. In the end we'llfigure it out, one way or the other. Where he's at is the best place forhim."
For pocket moneyBuoniconti hooked Jacobs up with a cooking job at the Dolphins' stadium, but heknew that wouldn't be enough. Jacobs needed to get his feet under him: He wouldmove in with Buoniconti. Marc told his nurses they were getting a roommate."Take one for the team," he said. Jacobs settled in for the fall 2008semester. Buoniconti warned him at the start: "My name's out there, too,now. Don't half-ass it."
He kept on Jacobsabout his studies, helped him write a paper on Sicilian culture; they scored100 on that one. Jacobs was up at 5 a.m. for classes. Buoniconti would wake tofind a note about another good test and beam over Jacobs's A's and B's like aproud parent. The two men went to concerts and barbecues together, Marcincluding Herman in everything, Herman feeling reborn.
"The lack ofconfidence, the feeling selfish, holding myself responsible: All that wentaway," Jacobs says. "See, I'm getting back to ... me. I thank Marc allthe time, I want to do for him and the Miami Project—as much as I can."
It might seem aone-sided exchange, but Buoniconti says people get it backward. "Herman hashelped me," he says. "I've felt recently that you need to tie up allthings that are incomplete. The fact that he was in the state of mind he was inand I could help him? It makes me feel good. I haven't done much—phone calls,made some promises, that's all. Tragedy brought us together, but we're turningit into something beautiful."
Last December oneof Buoniconti's nurses had a heart attack, leaving him unable to perform therigorous, delicate tasks needed to keep Marc going. Jacobs had filled inbefore—spooning food into Buoniconti's mouth, fetching him drinks, helping himblow his nose—but this was different. At bedtime Buoniconti needed to be movedgingerly from his wheelchair to his bed. So night after night Jacobs would leanover and gather up Buoniconti, all 170 pounds of him, lift him out of hiswheelchair and turn toward the bed. Even in that small moment, with Jacobsgasping and Buoniconti floating, the balance kept shifting. It was hard to knowwho was lifting whom.
Now Buoniconti issitting outside, as the Miami sun chases everyone else into the shade. It'sMay, the school year is winding down, and the freshman has just come fromclass, wearing his white Johnson & Wales chef's uniform, blue scarf pulledtight around his neck, HERMAN JACOBS name tag on his chest. They talk about thehit and its aftermath for the umpteenth time, but soon the two middle-aged menare bantering in that jeering ex-jock way, two guys who know what it was liketo sink cleats into the dirt and feel young and strong and special.
They're speakingabout the season after the accident, when Jacobs went to The Citadel and gottackled and heard That's for Marc but romped for 112 yards and two touchdownsanyway. "You won the game too," Buoniconti says, eyebrows waggling.
"Yeah, wedid," Jacobs says softly. When he laughs, Buoniconti's face brightens too,and Jacobs wants to keep it going. "Actually I had a good game that day—areal good game!" And for those few seconds Buoniconti is a linebackeragain, mean and loving it that Jacobs is embracing the code that says you stickit hard to whoever dares push you. "Yeah, that's for me," Buonicontisays, smiling. "Bitch."
"For thelongest time, no matter what anybody said to me, I just took it," Jacobssays. "So I started working on that, every day. If someone says, 'Herman, Idon't like your shoes,' now I'll say, 'I don't dress to make you happy. It'sfor me.' I had to get back control of who I am."
He moved out ofBuoniconti's place after six months, moved in with one of Marc's friends.Seeing the way Buoniconti has spent the last few years reconnecting, Jacobs hascaught the bug too. He e-mails photos back and forth with his stepdaughters inJohnson City, speaks weekly with his daughter in Tampa and in July went thereto visit his mother. He also, for the first time since high school, trackeddown Henry Mull.
They met forlunch, talked a half-dozen times, and slowly Jacobs learned about Mull's life:How he eventually went back to school and got a degree in English literature,how at 43 he's finishing up a second degree in education, how he wants to reachand teach Tampa's toughest kids. Jacobs also learned that Mull wanted to meetBuoniconti and feel their circle close in a new way.
So a month laterBuoniconti and Mull are sitting at a table at a Miami restaurant called Mr.Moe's. This is where Jacobs works between classes, where he's working now, backin the kitchen preparing the salads. And somewhere in all the talk of women andsports and teaching, the war stories begin. Mull speaks of the obese biker withwhom he shared a hospital room, the one with an amputated leg who fell out ofhis bed when Henry was in that Stryker frame, 13 years old and so frightened,and the biker's stump hit the floor and the blood from it splashed all overHenry's unsuspecting face.
"I'm lookingat the floor and going, 'Oh, my God, what just happened?' and he's justscreaming," Mull says. "They've got six people trying to get this fatguy off the floor, and I told them, 'Hey, guys, listen, I felt something hitme. Did he spill his water?' And I start to feel it dripping, and my mom walksin the room, and she's in hysterics because she's thinks it's my blood. Thatwas horrible."
There's a pause,and then Buoniconti says, "All right, I've got a good one." He tellshow an obese former teacher fainted at the first sight of him injured and fell,all 400 pounds of him, right on top of Marc's paralyzed body. That was in theintensive care unit.
"Guy next tome with an ice pick in his eye: Icepick Eddie," Buoniconti continues."Another guy had a knife stuck in his throat. Eventually everyone starteddying off, and when I'd rotate, I'd see [attendants] zipping them up, puttingthem in the bag. Four or five people died around me, and every time the nursescame to me and said, 'It's O.K.,' to make sure I didn't think I wasnext."
Jacobs doesn'thear any of this: He's in the kitchen. But in all the storytelling there's nohint that he played the smallest part in setting such horrors in motion. Themen laugh over the slapstick, the grossness. The food is superb. If only thenew chef could take a break: They'd love for him to join the conversation.
He still dreams offootball. Not of that catastrophic hit but of ranging across the field at TheCitadel and, strangely, of playing for the Dolphins. Marc Buoniconti dreams ofwhat he never did, in the Orange Bowl or Land Shark Stadium: play in a uniformjust like his dad's. "I would've liked to give it a shot," he says.
There's aminiature replica of Michelangelo's David, the ideal male body, on the desk inhis apartment; Buoniconti sees it every day. During good weeks he'll simulatewalking in a high-tech contraption at the Miami Project called a Lokomat. For40 minutes he is strapped in and propped up, and he takes steps again, standingtall. People see this, and they often cry.
The odds aren'tgood for Buoniconti to walk unaided again, no matter what happens with theresearch. Lately he's been musing about how long he has to live, and that"penance thing," as he calls it, has lost its sting. Serving 24 yearsin a chair to make amends for 19 years of uncaring might have made sense once,but, he says, "I'm past that now. I'm sitting overtime."
So he rolls on:fund-raising, the annual trip to The Citadel, outings with family. At onedinner last spring he sat at a full table in one of those Coconut Groverestaurants where everyone knows everyone and oh-so-cool Miami feels like asmall town. His thin voice barely pierced the din, but he'd long ago learned tocompensate, mouthing the words broadly, exaggerating his smile. He's still aflirt; rakish helplessness is a rare combination, catnip for women, and everyfew minutes another one came over to giggle and touch his shoulder.
Still, no matterhow famous he is, the sight of Buoniconti blowing through the tube that sendshis wheelchair trundling down a sidewalk always causes someone to squirm.ABBA's Dancing Queen played on the outside speakers as he left; a perfectlycoiffed blonde averted her gaze and mouthed the song's words as he buzzed by."I fall in love 10 times a day in this town," Buoniconti said.
He reached the vanat the end of the street. Peter opened the side door, lowered the ramp;Buoniconti's hair brushed the top of the door frame as he inched in, turned,got locked into the space where a front passenger seat would be. Then came thefinal routine: Peter hooked a thick strap to one side of the wheelchair, thenanother, the steel clasps clicking into place. He pulled the shoulder and lapbelt across Buoniconti's sunken chest, his spindly arms: another click.
Through thewindshield the lights from the restaurants, the sight of all the healthy peoplewalking by, shone in Marc Buoniconti's eyes. "I'm a rock, man," hesaid. "I'm going to live forever." As if to say, Don't worry about me.As if to say, Don't let this scare you. As if to say, in a rasp that soundslike wisdom, Sometimes life works out exactly as it should.
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For more on Marc Buoniconti, check out William Nack's 1988 story on thelinebacker in the SI Vault at SI.com/bonus
"Why did Marc end up one way, and I end upanother?" says Mull. "I could've suffered the same fate."
Buoniconti could get jocks, entertainers and businesstypes to write checks like no one in a lab coat ever dreamed of.
Buoniconti's place was a crash pad for friends down ontheir luck. For anyone in need, he was waiting.
"Herman has helped," says Buoniconti. "I'vefelt recently that you need to tie up all things that are incomplete."