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Buoniconti named Hometown Hall of Famer

Date: 5/7/2012

May 7, 2012

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM — In order for Springfield to truly thrive, the area's rising stars, like those produced at Cathedral High School, must play an active role.

That was one of the messages delivered by one of the brightest stars in the school's history, Pro Football Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti, as he was honored by the Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance Company as part of "Hometown Hall of Famers," a national program honoring the hometown roots of the nation's greatest athletes.

"When you have students graduating from Cathedral, going on to college and coming back to the city as educated leaders, that's a big positive for Springfield," he said after a ceremony at Cathedral's temporary home on Main Street in Wilbraham. "You need new life here in Springfield and that's something good young people, like those here at Cathedral today, can bring."

A plaque honoring Buoniconti was given to the school as part of the ceremony on May 1, attended by, among others, his 95-year-old mother Pasqualina "Patsy" Buoniconti, who lives in Longmeadow, State Rep Brian Ashe, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, former classmates and teammates, and the Cathedral student body.

A street sign will also be placed in Springfield to honor one of the City of Homes' favorite sons.

"With this plaque, Cathedral High School is now an extension of the Pro Football Hall of Fame," George Veras, president of Pro Football Hall of Fame Enterprises, said.

"I look forward to the time it will move with you to the new Cathedral where we hope it will inspire future generations," Kurt Wicks from Allstate added.

Buoniconti emphasized to the students assembled in the gym of the former Memorial School that they were necessary in the rebuilding of their school and their community, both of which were changed forever by the June 1, 2011 tornado.

"Every time I speak to people they ask me about leadership," he told the students. "At every level I have played I have been a captain, a leader. You take a leadership role not because you ask for it or it's pushed upon you but because people have respect for you and recognize that you are a good and honest person.

"I hope somewhere along the line we have a lot of leaders in this school. It's going to be a long road back and the one thing we need is leadership. You are the future leaders of this community," he continued.

Buoniconti later told Reminder Publications that the students' ability to adapt to their new surroundings emphasizes the point that Cathedral is more than a building.

"It is a family and always will be," he said. "The present day students represent a rebirth of the spirit of Cathedral. This is a challenge for them and it won't be easy, but they are proving they are up to the challenge."

Buoniconti grew up in Springfield's South End and attended Cathedral High School, graduating in 1958. He reminisced of the days when Springfield was truly the City of Homes and when the Cathedral marching band would play the Notre Dame Victory March as they walked past the old Springfield Technical High School on Main Street after beating them in inter-city football games.

He went on to play middle linebacker for the University of Notre Dame where he captained the team in 1961.

Deemed by many to be too small to play in professional football, he was drafted 102nd overall by the Boston Patriots in the 1962 American Football League (AFL) draft, for whom he played for seven seasons, appearing in five AFL All-Star Games.

He was traded to Miami in 1969 where he was a key cog in the Dolphins' "No Name Defense" that helped them to the only undefeated regular season and postseason in National Football League (NFL) history.

He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.

Longtime friend and former high school teammate Billy Kingston said that two lessons could be learned from examining the life of "Skippy" Buoniconti.

"Number one, don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something. Follow your heart and follow your passion and do it," he said. "Secondly, dedicate yourself to a good cause."

The second piece of advice is one that is embodied in Buoniconti's work as co-founder of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis, which, according to Kingston, has raised more than $400 million for research to find a cure for paralysis and spinal injury.

Buoniconti's son Marc was the inspiration for the undertaking when he was paralyzed while playing football for the Citadel in a game against East Tennessee State in 1985.

"All my son wanted to do was follow in his father's footsteps and play in the NFL ... But when I saw him in the hospital with tubes in his nose not being able to speak, I looked in his eyes and I could see that he was saying, 'Daddy, please help me,' and for the first time in my life I couldn't," Buoniconti said. "I looked into his eyes that day and made a commitment to Marc — we will endure to find a cure so that some day he can rise from his chair, put his arms around me and give me a hug and a kiss."

Kingston said that thanks to Buoniconti's efforts, great strides have been taken toward finding a cure for paralysis. "They told Skippy it couldn't be done," Kingston said. "Big mistake."

While his son's injury was the catalyst for the Miami Project's formation, the majority of its benefits will go to those Buoniconti has never met.

"That tells you a little bit about what Skippy is all about," Kingston said.

Before joining his former teammates, faculty and staff in teaching current students the school's fight song, "The Royal Purple of Old Cathedral," Buoniconti told the assembly that while setting goals, they should remember that life takes unexpected turns.

"Sketch your future in pencil. Don't sketch it in ink. Along the way you are going to make mistakes and that's what the eraser is for," he said. "As you go through life, I hope the future you sketch will be something that makes your parents proud, your school proud and will make you proud of yourself."

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