In one emotional moment Nick modeled his son's pads and helmet for the jury, wearing the collar and demonstrating how the strap had been affixed to Marc's helmet. In another he described the moment he first saw Marc after the injury. According to Nick, Marc was terrified, attached to a respirator in a hospital in Johnson City, Tenn. "In his big brown eyes, all he was asking for was help," Nick said, his voice breaking. "I couldn't stay in the room."
But if the Buonicontis had sympathy and emotion on their side, in the end they did not have the jury. The 12 jurors, including a bank teller, a telephone company technician and a merchant seaman, all came from Charleston, where The Citadel is a revered institution in a state where football is widely viewed as a hardnosed endeavor in which a boy takes his chances giving and taking his licks.
But while the jury exonerated Wallace, that was not enough to clear the courtroom of the unpleasant suspicion that something was wrong here, something was being misread. After the verdict, the lawyer for Wallace, Robert Hood, said that the trial was a warning against spearing. But no one ever established that Buoniconti was guilty of spearing; the videotape is unclear as to what part of his head hit Jacobs.
What is more certain, when viewed in retrospect, is that Buoniconti had no business playing against East Tennessee State, not after what he had been through in the week leading up to the game. Buoniconti had suffered an extremely painful neck injury the Saturday before—one that required the avoidance of physical contact in practice.
What would possess anyone in authority to allow Buoniconti to play after a week of suffering such physical distress? The argument that he should have taken himself out of the game is naive. How could anyone expect the 19-year-old son of a former pro football star—a player who loved to hit and had just taken over as a Citadel starter—to do anything but not complain and play hard? And Nick spoke for every football father when he testified, "Every young man wants to play, but there has to be someone between him and the field, and that has to be the doctor and the trainer."
Marc Buoniconti did not leave Charleston with what he came after, but he did leave it as he came, his face determined and his cheeks slightly flushed as he guided his chair with all the breath in him. "I dreamed of living a normal life," he told the jury. "After my injury, all those dreams were shattered. I had to change everything in my life. My number one priority right now is just to stay alive—to keep living the best I can."