Ex-Dolphins, Jack Nicklaus among hundreds who celebrate the life of Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti.

MIAMI — The toughness that made him a champion on the football field and the compassion that made him a champion of an infinitely larger cause were all celebrated Friday night, when hundreds gathered at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to honor the memory of former Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti.

Looking over a crowd that included scores of former Dolphins, singer Gloria Estefan, golfing legend Jack Nicklaus and a dozen or more in wheelchairs, Marc Buoniconti said, “Not having him in my life now has left a huge, gaping hole in my heart.”

Nick and Marc formed what both labeled an unbreakable bond dating to when Marc was paralyzed playing football in 1985. Nick famously vowed to do everything in his power to see his son walk again but died at age 78 on July 30. That vow led to the Buonicontis spearheading efforts to raise a half billion dollars to help found and support The Miami Project.

“I will continue to try to follow in your footsteps and deliver on your promise of a cure,” Marc said, directing his comments to his father. “I only wish that we could have finished it together. I love you, Dad.”

A letter from coach Don Shula to Dr. Barth Green of The Miami Project paid tribute to the man Shula respected for more than his Hall of Fame football prowess.

“Nick was the heart and soul of the defense,” Shula wrote. “He inspired his teammates with his leadership and play at a championship level. Never the biggest or the fastest at his position, Nick made up for that by being the toughest, smartest and most-determined player on the field.

“He started out as a player who wanted to hit as many people as possible to knock them down. And he finished as a humanitarian who wanted to touch as many people as possible to help them stand up again.”

Estefan, who suffered a serious back injury in a vehicular accident in 1990, recalled becoming hooked on the Dolphins during their historic 17-0 season in 1972. She especially appreciated the team’s middle linebacker, whom she called “easy on the eyes … got to give the man props for that.”

Turning serious, Estefan then recalled praying for Marc when he was injured.

“I had no way of knowing that one day I would fight my own battle with paralysis,” she said.

“His name is synonymous with Miami and our treasured Miami Dolphins. But one day he will be hailed as a champion to find a cure for paralysis.”

Sons Nick III and Marc both spoke of the heartaches they could cause Pop while growing up. Nick III confessed to crashing Nick’s Mercedes on prom night, calling it, “My only play against Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti. Let me tell you, you never want to be hit by that guy.”

The contrast between No. 85 Dolphins fans saw and the caring side not always in public view was stark.

“I see a lot of paralyzed people here today and I can tell you my dad loved every single one of you,” Nick III said. “Every single person in a wheelchair was his child. And his goal was to get every single person out of those wheelchairs.”

Marc recalled witnessing seeing his father comforting countless parents who suddenly found themselves in the position Nick was once in — coming to grips with being told their child won’t walk again.

“He often would be with families of the newly injured and would offer them encouragement and support only the parent of another paralyzed child could offer,” Marc said.

Former Dolphins attending included Nat Moore, Dan Marino, Don McNeal, Mercury Morris, Larry Little, Bob Griese and Jim Kiick. Emerson Fittipaldi also attended.

During the ceremony, photos flashed on screens showing all phases of Nick’s life. They included images of Nick with Jerry Rice, Magic Johnson, Walter Cronkite and Jason Taylor.

“A legend focuses on, ‘What can I give?’ rather than ‘What can I get?’ ” Marc said. “A legend does the right thing, regardless of the outcome. A legend leaves the world a better place.

“I know that everybody here would agree with me that that defines Nick Buoniconti.”

hhabib@pbpost.com

@gunnerhal

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