Our Game 2: NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti’s Fight Against Paralysis Brings Out The Legends

Sports legends, celebrities and philanthropic giants descended upon The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City on Tuesday, in support of NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti and his son, Marc, for the 30th Annual Great Sports Legends Dinner.

In 1985, Nick and Barth A. Green, M.D. helped found The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis after Nicks son; Marc suffered a spinal cord injury during a college football game. Today, The Miami Project is the worlds most comprehensive spinal cord injury research center.

The dinner benefits The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis and raises cash to support the ground-breaking and innovative spinal cord research done by scientists at The Miami Project. Committed to finding a cure for paralysis, the Buoniconti Family established the fund in 1992, a non-profit organization devoted to assisting The Miami Project in achieving that goal.  

Since its inception, the Great Sports Legends Dinner has honored more than 300 sports titans and other honorees and has raised over $100 million for the Miami Project.

Past Legend Alumni have included: Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Andre Agassi, tony Hawk, Cal Ripken, Jr. Mia Hamm, Wayne Gretzky, Dan Marino, George Foreman, Joe Namath, Julio Iglesias, Dana Torres, and Joe Torre, just to name a few.

This year there was a band of new honorees in attendance. Even Wayne Newton, “Mr. Las Vegas”, was in the house. The Shadow League was in the building and interviewed some of these impactful figures who recognize that paralyzing injuries occur in the pursuit of athletic careers and everyday living.

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Jockey Victor Espinoza is a true American rags-to-riches story of glory. He grew up on a dairy farm in his native Hildalgo, Mexico where the Diminutive Don (should have seen the statuesque, blond bombshell he had accompanying him to the dinner) began riding horses at an early age.

The eleventh of twelve children, Espinoza came to the U.S. in 1990. Fast forward 25 years later and hes considered the Jay-Z of  jockeys, winning  horse racings first Triple Crown in 37 years in 2015, riding American Pharoah.

Horse racing is a sport that’s as challenging to predict as what Antonio Brown will wear to a football game. Espinoza, however, has turned chess into checkers winning the Kentucky Derby three times and Preakness Stakes three times, riding War Emblem (2002), California Chrome (2014), and American Pharoah (2015). His Belmont Stakes victory had several historic windfalls. It made Espinoza the oldest jockey and first Hispanic jockey and 12th human being to snag Triple Crown props.   

Viva La Mexico!

Victor Espinoza:  It took many, many years to get to this level. Its so hard to win Triple Crown because over those years Ive seen some great horses get beat.  For some reason they always have some excuse as to why they cant get it done.  Im just a lucky guy, to be able to win the Triple Crown in the right year, with the right horse at the right time.  Ive been close a couple of times and last year I was close with California Chrome, but not close enough.  

For me its an honor to say that Im the one to win the Triple Crown after 37 years. The first one since Affirmed in 1978.

Its my job and I dedicate myself and focus to do one thing; win, every time that I ride. No matter where I go and no matter what horse I ride. Im a professional jockey. Thats my job and I have to do the best I can when the time is right.

Gambler: What is it about you that makes you so dominant? It seems like if you put a guy out there on a horse with wings he still couldnt beat you.

Espinoza: I treat the big races the same as all of my races. A lot of jockeys tray to accomplish more if the big races and thats where I come in and say, Youre not going to do that. This is easy for me.

The other riders get nervous and get a bit intimidated when the big races come. For me its more exciting. Its ShowTime for me. When it comes to big races for me its ShowTime. I erase all of the doubt and lock in on beating whoever is supposed to be the best one.

Needless to say his celebrity is at an all-time high and hes not eager to relinquish it just yet.  His “Dancing With The Stars performance wasnt legendary, but it elevated  and extended Espinozas celebrity as he was paired with professional dancer Karina Smirnoff. The tandem was eliminated on Week 2 of competition and finished in 12th place.

Espinoza: I just go day by day and when the time is right I will step out.  A lot of the young guys are coming along, but I been too busy the last few years with California Chrome and American Pharoah, chasing the Triple Crown, to really notice one.  A few that I saw I was like, wow who is that guy?  He looks better than me at that age.

I dont plan on doing this too long. Hopefully I will retire in the next two years, but I can never plan how many years I will ride, because every time I plan something, it never happens. Planning in life is like planning to win the Triple Crown. Impossible right?

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