Jim Kiick’s illness a harsh reality in life after the NFL

Jim Kiick meets and speaks with several Dolphins fan site web-masters November 2012.
Jim Kiick meets and speaks with several Dolphins fan site web-masters November 2012. /

In the 1970’s the NFL was far different from the game that is played today. While NFL players are far more protected now, that wasn’t the case. Now those players are fighting to simply survive.

On Monday, SI.com senior writer S.L. Price wrote an article, The Complicated Decline of Nick Buoniconti, about former Miami Dolphins great and Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti. And it’s changed the way many are looking at those golden years of football. A companion piece about the struggles of Dolphins running back Jim Kiick is also turning heads as well.

The story appeared on MMQB.SI.com.

It’s hard to believe that so much can change in only a few years. It’s even harder to believe that the last time I saw Jim Kiick he was still vocal and could remember everything about the game he played and loved. That was five years ago.

On November 10th, 2012, myself and a slew of others who run Dolphins fan sites met for our annual Web Weekend event in Miami. I had made a choice that year. It was a month prior, my phone rang and a member of the Dolphins had a simple question for me. “Who do you think the web weekenders would like to see this year? HOF guard Larry Little or Jim Kiick?”

The thought of meeting a HOF football player was hard to pass up but this was Jim Kiick. And the stories he could tell had to be great.

Kiick entered the room a shell of the man he was in the 1970’s but he was clear of mind and focused. His handshake was still very firm. He had his wits, his humor, and seemed every part of a man who was simply getting old.

I remember that night well. A local television station was running a special on the 1972 undefeated team and those of us in the room got to see it ahead of the air date. With Jim Kiick sitting among us. He laughed at times, cheered at others, and there was no questions that his passion for both the game and the team remained decades after he stopped playing.

Now it’s different. He is living in an assisted living facility.

"“It’s been a very disappointing process to go through—to even get some kind of information,” says Austin Kiick, 28, of his dealings with the NFL. “You get bounced around to different people, and nobody knows what’s going on or who you can contact, and they say they’ll get back to you and never do.” – from the MMQB article."

For Kiick’s family it’s a nightmarish struggle that has left his children realizing that the father they knew is no long there. Dementia and Alzheimer’s have taken his place. The years of NFL brutality and concussions taking a toll. CTE tests and therapy. But it’s too late for Mr. Kiick.

I will remember not a father nor a friend. I will remember a player I looked up to and admired but I am fortunate because I remember a man who was still a legend talking with a bunch of us coherently. I don’t have to witness his families anguish.

If it’s bad for Kiick it’s the same for Buoniconti.

"‘I Feel Lost. I Feel Like a Child’ – from the S.L. Price interview"

Buoniconti endured the NFL and won two Super Bowl rings. He was elected to the Hall of Fame, hosted HBO’s Inside the NFL, and watched his son Marc get paralyzed during a football game while playing for the Citadel. He founded a spinal cord research group that has made tremendous strides in understanding spinal cord injuries. Yet it’s now, in his senior years that Buoniconti is finding himself in need of others.

A video the family wanted others to see is on the linked pages above. When asked if he would have still played the game knowing what he knows now, he simply said “no”.

The NFL has a lost generation of players and so many others have fallen through the cracks. It’s the higher profile players that get the attention but so many others suffer as do their families. Unlike today’s NFL players, these players didn’t know about the long-term dangers. Today’s players do.

Over the next several years and even decades the NFL will change. It will be forced to. Players will change this game. Today players are faster, stronger, and hit a lot harder and despite taking away helmet to helmet hits, the tolls on the everyday body still sit in silence waiting to creep up after the games and careers have ended. It’s why more and more players will play through their rookie deals, sign their big contract in free agency, and when that contract is up, walk away.

And they should.

Read both of these mens stories by visiting MMQB.SI.com.