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Henry Mull was 13 years old then, poor and sports-mad and hardly intrigued by the long view. Who is at 13? So, no, he never thought about the odd ways lives can meld—not in the hours before his neck got snapped, and certainly not in the hours after. Strangers sliced the shoulder pads and helmet off the Middleton Junior High quarterback and sped him through the streets of Tampa to the hospital, where more strangers shaved his head, their voices and faces and hands fluttering while he lay terrified. His mother hadn't arrived yet. "Am I going to play ball again?" he asked. Now someone was pressing a metallic device to his head, now eight grim-faced people were holding down his arms and legs. Whatever anesthetic they used, it didn't take. The boy screamed when they screwed the first four-inch bolt into one side of his skull, just above the ear. He kept it up as they twisted in the second, screaming all the way into blackness.
When Henry awoke in University Community Hospital that October day in 1979, the world had gone quiet. His head had been immobilized, set in traction with weights attached to a cable attached to a steel bar attached to those Frankenstein screws, and he was strapped into a grim and primitive rotating bed known as a Stryker frame, facing the floor. "Am I going to play ball?" he asked. He didn't blame the burly ninth-grader from Van Buren Junior High who had flattened him with a perfectly clean blindside tackle. Henry never even thought about Herman Jacobs.
Maybe it was because Henry got better. His swelling subsided, he regained feeling; the paralysis lasted only two days. Four months later he walked out of the hospital, spine fused at C1, C2 and C3 with bone sliced out of his hip, an eight-inch scar running down the back of his neck. Football was out: Henry couldn't turn his head. But he did play baseball again, well enough to pitch in the same Hillsborough High rotation as Dwight Gooden and land a college scholarship. He'd see Herman Jacobs in the halls of Hillsborough High, but the hit never came up. What for? They were young. Only today mattered.
But the fates weren't done with Henry yet. When he was a senior his apartment building burned down—he became a hero for running into the building and saving a child—and a month before he graduated his sister, Donna, died in a car crash. He left Western Carolina after two years, went to work installing pools in Tampa. Then, in 1993, while making a morning round for Loomis Armored, he broke his neck again when his partner accidentally fell asleep at the wheel and their truck crashed. Another surgery, another piece of hip bone fused to his spine, followed by dizziness and disorientation. Henry Mull is mobile but permanently disabled. Every few months the spinal headaches come back, and the pain is so searing that for days he can't stop vomiting. Self-pity would seem an option.
But this has always stopped him: On Oct. 26, 1985, in the first quarter of a game between The Citadel and East Tennessee State at the Mini-Dome in Johnson City, Tenn., Citadel linebacker Marc Buoniconti hurtled headfirst at the Buccaneers' upended tailback, his helmet colliding with Herman Jacobs's lower back. Buoniconti rolled over, his neck dislocated at the third and fourth cervical vertebrae, his spinal cord hacked as if by a dull hatchet. Soon after Mull heard the news that the 19-year-old Buoniconti had become a quadriplegic, a strange sensation washed through him, one he would feel for decades. On nights when he couldn't sleep, he would look over at his wife, Cindy, or, later, think of their young daughter, Victoria. He would wonder about the titanic odds against Jacobs's being involved twice in such catastrophic hits, and he would whisper to God, "Thank you."
"I feel it's a circle among us, with Herman and Marc," says Mull, now 43. "Why did Marc end up one way, and why did I end up another? I could've suffered the same fate. I always think, I'm very fortunate. I think of Marc: What does he have to do from the moment he wakes up?"
Once he wakes in the expansive South Miami high-rise apartment where he has never taken a step, Marc Buoniconti, 42, calls into a nearby speaker to the full-time nurse. Some days it's Lance, some days Peter, some days Mike or Martin. Within seconds the man appears, places pills in Buoniconti's mouth, pours medicine down his throat and inserts a catheter into his penis to drain the urine. After removing the catheter he unrolls onto Buoniconti's penis a condom that is connected to a plastic bag strapped to one leg. He checks Buoniconti's vital signs, stretches his limp arms and legs and examines him for skin lesions or swelling or redness. He pounds Buoniconti's chest to clear his lungs. If Buoniconti is due for a bowel routine, he places suppositories in his rectum. Then he picks Buoniconti up, places him in a waterproof wheelchair and guides him to the shower.
Sometimes it's three hours before Buoniconti is fully dressed. Still, he is far better off than most quadriplegics. That he has survived nearly 24 years in this state is testament to his deep reservoirs of patience and grit, not to mention the power of money. Much of Buoniconti's $500,000 annual nursing bill, as well as the cost of his $60,000 customized van and $24,000 electronic wheelchair, is covered by the health-care package that his father, Dolphins Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, received during his post-NFL days as president of U.S. Tobacco.
"My dad did well for himself, but if we didn't have the insurance I have, we'd be broke trying to take care of me," Marc says. "No—I'd probably be dead."
Even so, Buoniconti's life is an emergency waiting to happen. In April he went into surgery to treat a recurring urinary tract infection—a routine affliction of quadriplegics, along with kidney stones—and nearly died when his blood pressure spiked. That was his fourth brush with death: Two years ago he suddenly couldn't breathe, and his blood pressure plummeted; in the late 1980s he had a blood clot in his lungs; and the night of his injury he went into pulmonary arrest en route to the hospital. He spent seven months on a respirator before doctors put him through the weeks-long torture of jump-starting his diaphragm, forcing his body to relearn to breathe. They would decrease his oxygen supply so that he could take just 10, then six, then four breaths per minute. Buoniconti refused to sleep because he was sure he'd suffocate. He lost 100 pounds.