Patients, researchers, sports icons, and musical stars come together to celebrate groundbreaking research and progress
By Scott Roy
Illustration by Dan Page
hile the 35th Annual Great Sports Legends Dinner benefitting The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis — the fundraising arm of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis — was held virtually this year, it was no less impactful. During the livestream event, those living with spinal cord injury and paralysis shared their inspirational stories, sports and musical icons stressed the importance of supporting the fund, and researchers highlighted the advancements made possible through the fund. The dinner raised more than $2 million to support the groundbreaking work of The Miami Project — the leading center in the world for spinal cord injury research, located at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
A virtual night of stars
The dinner’s theme, Stand Up For Those Who Can’t, was highlighted by all those who participated in the event, emceed by legendary sportscaster Bob Costas. Special guests included previous Great Sports Legends honorees: three-time Major League Baseball MVP and World Series champion, Alex Rodriguez; 18-time golf major champion and the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus; Olympic gold medal figure skater champion, Tara Lipinski; Red Sox World Series champion and MVP, David Ortiz; National Football League Hall of Fame safety and nine-time Pro Bowler, Ed Reed; and World Series champion, Mariano Rivera, the only MLB player to be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame.
Musical legends — including Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Jon Bon Jovi, multiple Grammy Award winner, Gloria Estefan, and the cast of Broadway’s Hamilton — performed vibrant musical performances created just for the occasion. Bon Jovi sang “Living on a Prayer” and other songs from a recording studio. Gloria Estefan performed “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, with backup singers and a stage design reminiscent of her Miami Sound Machine days. The Hamilton cast presented an emotional mash-up of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and the Hamilton hit, “It’s Quiet Uptown.”
Breakthroughs brought to life
The highlight of the evening was when Miami Project patients shared their triumphs. Their stories brought to life the incredible breakthroughs doctors and scientists have been making over the last 35 years at the Miami Project.
“The Miami Project taught me that hard work will pay off when combined with their expert care,” said Maria Jose Torrealba, who completed part of the Miami Marathon with the help of a walker. “There is nothing I can’t do. I won’t stop competing in marathons. I won’t stop dreaming.”
Marko Dimitrijevic credits The Miami Project and Barth Green, M.D., the project’s co-founder and chair, for making it possible to return to his life after an accident.
“Before my accident, I was very active — scuba diving, visiting the arctic to shoot underwater photography — I had been to over 100 countries in the world,” he said. “But two months ago, my life changed forever from my accident. The Miami Project and Dr. Green have given us the tools for me to regain my strength faster than any other program.”
Tributes and honors
The Buoniconti Fund President Marc Buoniconti, who was paralyzed in a college football game 35 years ago, paid a beautiful tribute to his late father, Nick, the NFL Hall of Famer who founded the fund to benefit Marc and others who were paralyzed. Marc recalled his father’s passing a year ago.
“It seems like a lifetime ago — and in many ways, it was just like yesterday,” he said. “As we all deal with the new realities of life and the pandemic, we know it’s essential that we keep moving forward. I have full confidence that my father would be proud that his original mission continues at The Miami Project, and I will not rest until his dream of curing paralysis is a reality.”
Athlete honorees shared their gratitude for being included in the event and urged guests to continue their generous support of the fund.
“I never would have thought, growing up with two paralyzed uncles, that I would be amongst so many people with this injury and to be helping this community,” Ed Reed said. “What happened to Marc has changed so many lives, and I am so grateful to be a part of this community. To cure paralysis, you need great people — people who are fighting constantly. I know The Buoniconti Fund is doing just that.”
Alex Rodriguez, a longtime friend of the Buoniconti family and supporter of The Miami Project, shared his memories of The Buoniconti Fund founder.
“Nick always told me about how important this project was to him,” Rodriguez said. “He never talked about being a hall of famer or a great linebacker. This project was front and center to his life — it was his vision and his purpose. I love supporting this event and this cause. We’re doing it to get one step closer to our goal: curing paralysis.”
Jack Nicklaus, a Nick Buoniconti super-fan and friend, talked about his relationship with the family and how he attended almost all of Nick’s games when he was in Miami.
“I’ve gotten to see, through my friendship with Nick, what an incredible person Marc is — how he has worked so hard, so tirelessly despite his paralysis,” Nicklaus said. “Nick wished that one day he could walk the fairway with Marc, and if Nick was still with us, he may have gotten to see that dream come true.”
Nicklaus concluded his tribute with a heartfelt promise.
“Marc, you and I will walk that fairway one of these days.”
The evening — presented by Tudor Group, the Mack Family, Badia Spices, and HBO Sports — was hosted by Marc Buoniconti and Dr. Green. Mark Dalton, event chairman, closed the evening.
“The inspiration that the Sports Legends have given us over the years has been extraordinary and has inspired over $125 million donated to the effort to cure paralysis,” Dalton said. “It’s a dream that Nick has passed on, and it’s a dream we can continue and pass on until a cure is found.”
Since its inception in 1986, the Great Sports Legends Dinner has honored more than 370 sports legends and humanitarians and has raised more than $125 million for The Miami Project’s spinal cord injury research programs. The Miami Project and Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis are committed to finding a cure for paralysis resulting from spinal cord injury and seeing millions worldwide walk again.
Support the groundbreaking work of The Miami Project today.