The unorthodox equipment was the target of sharp attack. Frank Bassett, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Duke who is the team physician for the Blue Devils, testified. "Any strap applied to the front of the helmet is very dangerous because it keeps the head flexed forward." Bassett said that allowing an athlete to play after suffering a neck injury wasn't the same as allowing him to play with standard, garden-variety aches. "The neck is not negotiable," Bassett said from the stand. "Some injuries are; the neck is not."
And Buoniconti's lawyers hammered away at this point: Their client should not have played if he was unable to practice that week. No practice, no play is a policy followed at many colleges, including Duke. "If a player is hurt too badly to practice, he is hurt too badly to play." Bassett testified.
Defense witnesses attached little importance to the strap and collar. "I don't think any kind of equipment he was wearing influenced this injury at all," said Victor Frankel, an orthopedic surgeon from New York, who also testified that X-rays of Buoniconti's neck taken the Monday before the fateful game showed no evidence of spinal instability.
Torg testified that the injury had resulted from the way Buoniconti made the tackle on Jacobs: headfirst. He added that his research into catastrophic injuries in football has revealed that the vast majority of them are attributable not to the spine being bent too far back, in hyperextension, or too far forward, in hyperflexion; rather, he said, they occur because of a phenomenon he calls axial loading, which is when the crown of a tackler's head strikes a runner straight on and the neck buckles, like an 18-wheeler slamming into a wall and having the rig jackknife.
One witness called by Buoniconti, a former teammate, defensive tackle Scott Thompson, said that before the game he saw Clawson tighten the strap Buoniconti was wearing so that Buoniconti's head was held downward at a 15-degree angle. "It was taut." Thompson testified. "The strap was an elastic strap, but I didn't see much elasticity in it." Nor did another of Buoniconti's former teammates, guard Bob Grant, who said that he reached out and felt its tightness and said that Buoniconti "walked like a robot...with his head down."
While coming to make the tackle against Jacobs, Buoniconti said, he could not see much upfield because the helmet was pulled down nearly over his eyes. "I am trying as hard as I can to pull my head back, but the collar and strap are pulling my head down," he testified. It was in that position, he said, with his head tied down in flexion, that he struck Jacobs and felt his body go limp.
While Torg called the hit an illegal tackle, other witnesses disagreed. "I don't think he violated any rules," said former Chicago Bear linebacker Dick Butkus, testifying for Buoniconti, after reviewing the video. Ronald Leatherwood, who was head linesman for the East Tennessee State game and watched the play from a few yards away, supported that contention. The defense presented its own celebrity expert, Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors, who testified in a videotaped deposition that the tackle was headfirst and thus in violation of the rules.
Throughout the trial the sense among many observers was that surely the jury would award Buoniconti something, if only out of sympathy for the suffering he has endured. Buoniconti's lawyers spent considerable time detailing that agony: the seven months on a respirator, learning how to breathe again; the continual bouts with urinary tract infections; the sudden muscle spasms; the mercurial blood pressure readings; the loss of a sex life—all the problems attendant upon having a conscious head attached to an unconscious body.
Early in the trial Buoniconti took the stand himself and narrated a video depicting a day in his life. The reddening of his cheeks as he spoke and the catch in his breath only served to sharpen the poignancy of his narrative: "Here's me waking up for my daily urinary tract infection treatment...here's me being checked for bed sores...here's me being dressed, shaven and fed."
He arrived at court in a van, which was sometimes driven by his father. He steered his way into the courtroom in a Sip-and-Puff wheelchair that he controlled by blowing or drawing through a mouthpiece attached to an air hose. Nurses attended him, and when his mother, Teresa, and father testified in his behalf, they were near tears.