He would gladly give it up for one wish.
"My son, Marc, dreams that he walks," Buoniconti
said at the close of his acceptance speech Saturday. "And
as a father, I would like nothing more than to walk by his side."
In a stirring moment on the front steps of the hall, Buoniconti
then turned and kissed his son, who minutes earlier had been his
presenter. Marc Buoniconti, paralyzed from the neck down from
an injury in 1985 playing the game his father loved, received
a 30-second standing ovation as he haltingly moved his wheelchair
to the podium to present his father.
Buoniconti was joined in the class of 2001 by offensive linemen
Mike Munchak, Jackie Slater and Ron Yary, wide receiver Lynn Swann,
defensive end Jack Youngblood and coach Marv Levy.
The younger Buoniconti painted a picture of both his and his
So many, he said, labeled his father too small to play in the
NFL. So many, Marc said, predicted he would never breathe without
a machine, let alone walk. Neither heeded the skeptics.
"It seems to me, Dad, that you're not a very good listener,"
Marc said, his voice breaking.
Nick Buoniconti went on to become one of the greatest middle
linebackers in football, first with the Boston Patriots of the
AFL and then with the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
After Marc's injury, he and his father founded the Miami Project,
which has raised more than $10 million each of the last 15 years
for research in curing spinal-cord injuries and helping people
such as his son walk again.
Buoniconti, selected by the seniors committee, wasn't the only
one who had to wait to get into the hall.
Yary, a cornerstone of the Minnesota Vikings' powerhouses of
the 1970s, was overlooked 13 times by the voters
Swann, who played his last game with the Pittsburgh dynasty
in 1982, had to wait a year more.
"It was 14 years on that list before I could stand here
today and wear this gold jacket and say thank you and how much
I appreciated your support over all those years," Swann said.
A large crowd of Steelers fans _ chanting, waving towels and
holding up signs _ prompted Swann's fellow wide receiver, teammate
and presenter John Stallworth to survey the people surrounding
the hall and say, "It feels like Three Rivers Stadium in
Levy coached the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls
_ and lost them all. But he chose to remember people and the victories
that had marked his years in the NFL.
"It's been a long trip. It's taken 76 years," Levy
said. "How lucky can a man get? What an odyssey I lived."
Munchak, now an assistant coach for the Tennessee Titans, set
aside more than 100 passes just for family members from Scranton,
Pa., and his entourage was estimated at between 300 and 400.
When he first stepped out into the sunlight at the beginning
of the ceremony, he was greeted by a large banner that read, "Way
to go, 63!"
Still, he didn't feel he belonged.
"I've been sitting up here for the past hour, nervous
as heck, because I kept thinking somebody from NFL security would
show up and say, 'Hey, Munchak! What are you doing up here? This
is for Hall of Famers."'
Slater worked up front for 20 years on Los Angeles Rams lines
that paved the way for seven different runners to rush for at
least 1,000 yards in a season.
He was overcome while speaking about his two sons and his wife
of 25 years, Annie. He blamed it on the climate.
"These allergies are something in this part of the country,"
he said, trying to hide his tears.
Youngblood is remembered for his toughness at defensive end
for the Los Angeles Rams. He played in the 1980 Super Bowl with
a broken leg, never missing a down on defense.
He said, under the circumstances, the Steelers could have been
more accommodating instead of beating the Rams in that Super Bowl.
"You guys had three rings _ you could have let us have
one," he said, laughing. "You could have shared."
At one point, Youngblood pointed out his high school coach
from Monticello, Fla.
"Coach, could you have believed this?" he said, incredulous
at the honor.