November 02, 2015 11:45 AM

A devastating accident led to a decades-long friendship between two college football players.

Herman Jacobs and Marc Buoniconti met on a football field on Oct. 26, 1985 – Jacobs as a running back for East Tennessee State and Buoniconti a linebacker for Citadel. After the pair collided on a third down play, Buoniconti was left a quadriplegic.

The now 49-year-old recounted the accident for the Miami Herald: “Next thing I knew, bam! My body rolled over and my arm flopped to my side and I thought, ‘Whose arm is that? Oh, that’s my arm. Ok, I am hurt bad. I am paralyzed. Don’t panic. Don’t freak out.’ ”

Although it was a horrific injury, Buoniconti now credits the accident with setting him on the right path.

“My injury saved me because I was going in the wrong direction,” Buoniconti, now president of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, told the Miami Herald.

“I was a semester or two from flunking out of college. I had no plan or future outside of football. My mom says I probably would have wound up in jail or dead. I’d flown through life with reckless abandon and that’s how I played the game. I dove into Herman and the impact changed everything,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jacobs spent years plagued by guilt. Never having completed his degree, he wasted years bouncing from job to job and contending with loneliness.

“For 20 years I punished myself,” he explained. “I felt like I was to blame. I felt like everybody hated me, especially Marc and his family.”

“I stopped smiling, lost my friends, went through a failed marriage. I just pushed people away, couldn’t seem to do anything right. It’s like I was searching in the dark,” he shared.

Then eight years ago, Buoniconti, who breathes into a tube to move his wheelchair, reached out to his former football opponent.

“I told Herman flat out, ‘This is not your fault, you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ ” Buoniconti told the Miami Herald.

But Buoniconti did much more than help alleviate Jacobs’ guilt. He offered Jacobs to become his roommate in his Florida condo and aided him in enrolling at Johnson and Wales University.

“Marc allowed me to heal and start over at age 44,” said Jacobs. “If not for him, I might be living on the street.”

Jacobs has now found success in the restaurant industry and has since remarried. He and Buoniconti often spend time together, although they no longer share a home, and Jacobs even took over feeding, cleaning and helping to mobilize Buoniconti after his nurse had a heart attack.

“Unless you see a quadriplegic’s life first-hand, you can’t understand how difficult it is,” Jacobs told the Herald. “It takes three hours just to get Marc up and going in the morning. Living with Marc, living by his example, watching him interact with patients – he motivated me.”

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