Nick Buoniconti grew up as the son of immigrant Italian bakers in Springfield, MA. As a Catholic he attended Cathedral High School. There was a legend who had walked the corridors of Cathedral, who had starred on its football fields. It was Angelo Bertelli, who found his way from Springfield’s Cathedral to Notre Dame and won the first Heisman Trophy ever for a Notre Dame player. When Notre Dame offered Buonoconti it was an easy decision.
Nick Buonoconti differs from most of the people on this list in two key areas:
- He played in Notre Dame’s Dark Ages, the interregnum between Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. Buoniconti enjoyed only one winning season, as a freshman, under his recruiter, Terry Brennan, at 6-4. It would never be that “lofty” again. Kuharich arrived and the next three years, 5-5, 2-8 and 5-5, were painful.
- Nick played in the era of limited substitution. Although his stronger skill set was as a linebacker, Buoniconti was impressive at offensive guard as well. This challenge cut both ways as it increased his wear and tear and lessened his instruction time with the position coaches.
Notre Dame’s on-field decline lessened the proclivity of writers to place Notre Dame players on All-America teams. Buonoconti was named a second team All-American in 1961.
But Buoniconti kept tacklng. Only 5’11” and 200 pounds, Nick was second behind Myron Pottios in tackles in ’60 and led the team with 74 in ’61. He ended his Notre Dame career with 212 tackles.
Toughness when things are going your way is one thing, toughness when all is aligned against you is more noble and rarer. A tough day at the office is different from a tough day landing on Normandy Beach. Catholic Italian from Bertelli’s High school or not, the irascible, snarling Kuharich tested even the well-documented patience of Nick Buonioconti.
“He took some of the greatest talent I’ve ever seen and just butchered it,” Buoniconti said. “The players didn’t have much respect for him and he didn’t have much respect for the players. I spent three years under Kuharich, and it was three of the worst football years I’ve ever spent in my life.”
The Irish went 12-18 during that Kuharich stretch with very few bright spots. They beat rival USC all three years and knocked off a highly-ranked Syracuse team with a dramatic last second field goal in 1961.
Sometimes greatness is seen not in the moments that we record and drink to, but when “the odds be great” long after we’ve switched off the TV. Nick Buoniconti held his ground when few did, and fewer watched and cheered.
#21 Nick Buoniconti, Guard/Linebacker, 1958-1961