New England Roots: Nick Buoniconti

Editor's note: This is part a recurring series of Q-and-A's featuring local athletes who have gone on to national prominence, talking about their days growing up in New England.

From Springfield’s Cathedral High, to Notre Dame, the Boston Patriots, to NFL immortality, Nick Buoniconti never lost sight of his roots. The Pro Football Hall-of-Famer, who spent seven of his 14 seasons with the Patriots, is most frequently recognized for his contributions to the Miami Dolphins’ “No Name Defense” and their undefeated season in 1972.

However, among Buoniconti’s fondest memories trace back to his days at Cathedral.

ESPNBoston.com broke bread (you’ll get that pun later on) with Buoniconti in a telephone interview from his summer home on Long Island.

Q: What would you say is your greatest memory from your time playing high school football?

A: In my sophomore year, we had a terrific football team. We were undefeated, but in the eighth week of the season, I hurt my knee and I wasn’t going to be able to play in the last game of the season. We had to win that last game against Greenfield. It was a really important game and coach didn’t want them to have any advantages. So our coach, Billy Wise, who was a great quarterback at Holy Cross in his day, during the ’30 or ‘40s, didn’t want to know I wasn’t going to play in the game. So he had me get in my full uniform and go out and stretch before the game, take part in the drills as best I could.

Q: Kind of like LaDainian Tomlinson a couple years ago in the AFC Championship Game.

A: Yeah, something like that. There was no chance I was going to play in the game. We ended the game in a tie, but I guess it worked somewhat. We still ended up winning the championship though.

Q: What was your experience like in high school in terms of the recruiting process?

A: Well, the whole process back then was pretty primitive compared to what it’s like these days. Basically, schools would just send paperwork to your house, letting you know about the program and what they offered. That’s why Coach Wise was so important to me. I owe a great deal to Coach Wise; he was a very much a mentor to me. He helped me go through that entire process because my parents hadn’t ever been exposed to that. It was a different lifestyle, if you want to call it that, for my parents. But we used to get all kinds of letters from different schools at the house — one of them came from Southern Cal, Al Davis sent it. He was working with their scouting department and coaching back then. Years later, when he was going through his memoirs, he sent a copy of the letter to me and told me he was sorry he wasn’t able to get me to USC.

Q:Speaking of your parents, were there any athletes in your family?

A: Actually, my father was a great athlete. He was a pitcher on one of those old barnstorming baseball teams. They used to pack up and go play games wherever they could find one. He was a great bowler, too. He used to compete in candlepin bowling leagues. He used to help me a lot though in baseball. Baseball was really my second love after football. We’d go down to Emerson Wight playground, which was about a 15-minute walk from our house, and we’d play baseball there with the other kids in the neighborhood.

Q: What was it like to have the opportunity to play for your hometown team with the Patriots?

A: Being drafted by the Patriots was one of the greatest things that could ever happen for a Massachusetts boy. It was such a great opportunity for me. There were some NFL scouts that were interested in me and they went to talk to my coach at Notre Dame, Joe Kuharich. He told them, ‘If you tell him to run through the wall, he’ll run through the wall. He just won’t leave a very big imprint.’ Because of that, I was always appreciative to the Patriots for giving me that opportunity, taking me in the 13th round. It was always a joy for my parents to make the drive out to Boston and come to see me play. It was nice to be able to have your family there.

Q: What was it like growing up in your neighborhood as a kid?

A: Well, I grew up in a 100-percent Italian neighborhood. It was about the most bucolic upbringing anybody could have. It was a really tight-knit community, just families. It was a neighborhood where everybody looked after everybody’s child. They were hard-working families and church was a very important part of everybody’s life. I was an altar boy for six years. Of course, we all went to a Catholic grammar school, then high school and I even went to a Catholic college. But I really enjoyed my time at Cathedral, too. The Sisters pushed us very hard. But everybody in the school took part in everything. I played all the sports in high school, but I also took part in the school plays and minstrel shows. To this day, every time I see my buddies from high school, it’s a good time. I try to see them every time I come up. My best friend passed away two years ago and we established a golf tournament in his name, so we I get to see everybody I grew up with when I come back for that every year. We stay as close as we can.

Q: So I take it you can carry a tune, too?

A: Oh, yeah. I was at one of my very good friends’ birthday parties and we were singing karaoke. I had the microphone for 10 minutes; they couldn’t get it out of my hands. My wife said that I was a barrel of laughs.

Q:Growing up in an Italian family and an Italian neighborhood, I assume you must have eaten pretty well growing up, right?

A: (Laughs) Yeah, it was simpler times, simpler foods. Actually, my family owned a bakery, Mercolino’s Bakery. It’s still there to this day, on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Loring Street. My grandfather owned the bakery, then my father, and now my brother owns it. Anything made with dough, we always had around the house, fresh-baked bread, you name it. We always ate well.