Bill Dupler is the proprietor of the Crest Tavern, Columbus, Ohio's original dart bar, which was established at the end of Prohibition and has not suffered from refurbishing in the ensuing years. It's a neighborhood joint, Archie Bunker's kind of place, where the drinking is hard, with elbows firmly planted on the bar, and the talk is of sports. One day last week Dupler was idly mopping up spilled beer when his attention—and everyone else's—shifted outside. "Look at that damn fool," Dupler says. "Just bounced his Jeep right up over the curb and parked. With things like that, I don't have to provide any entertainment here."
Immediately the door is darkened by the driver of the Jeep Renegade with the orange and yellow stripes, hulking Tom Cousineau, who is wearing a vest and no shirt, sloppy trousers, untied sneakers and a smile that lights up the saloon. All eyes fill with admiration. For while Cousineau, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft a fortnight ago, may not yet be a hot autograph in Buffalo, he writes his own ticket in Columbus. Right now, in fact, he is perfectly parked at the edge of a financial bonanza and national-celebrity status.
Megabucks will soon flow into the pockets of the Ohio State linebacker, courtesy of the Buffalo Bills, who picked Cousineau No. 1. Celebrity will probably take a bit longer. Not since 1965, when the old AFL Houston Oilers selected Baylor Wide Receiver Lawrence Elkins No. 1, has a first choice from a major school been so little known. Equally unheralded in recent years were Tennessee State's Too Tall Jones (1974) and Tampa's John Matuszak (1973), but they had played for smaller schools.
Curiously enough, since the pro draft was initiated in 1936, Cousineau is the only Ohio State player ever to be picked No. 1, and only the second linebacker so honored—the first being Texas' Tommy Nobis by Atlanta in 1966.
Even in football-crazed Columbus, where the fans are knowledgeable, there is some ignorance concerning Cousineau. Like the other night, when a man walked up to Cousineau and said, "I know you, you're an All-American here. Wait, yeah, Tim Cazzini. Hiya, Tim." Said Cousineau, "Right, that's me." Another guy approached, looked and said, "Hey, you're Cousineau. Wait, no you're not." Said Cousineau, "Right, I'm not."
But in the Crest, where Cousineau feels comfortable, there's no identity crisis. The customers like to slap Tom around, grinning and offering their opinions on how great he is. Sometimes, they go on to explain how they, too, would have been equally great "if only...." Cousineau is assailed on all sides. One man tries to make conversation by saying he's a "free-lance sportswriter," although it comes out "free-sance lortswriter" on the first try.
Tom gracefully squirms away and plugs a jukebox for Luckenbach, Texas. Another patron, Dave Korodi of Columbus, approaches Cousineau and says, "Boy, Tom, I guess this being No. 1 is something you have to get used to." Cousineau drains his bottle of Stroh's and says, laughing, "Well, you can get used to anything."
When Cousineau can slip off into a corner, he props his feet up on a chair and reflects on being No. 1. "How many times in most people's lives does someone walk up and say, 'You're the greatest'? " he asks rhetorically. "That would make anybody feel good—and I feel good. I'll tell you exactly how it feels. Remember how in school two guys would choose up sides, and what it felt like when you were the first one picked? That's it, exactly." He falls silent, thinking, tapping a beer bottle on a table, then adds softly, "I worked awful hard."
A case can be made that nobody anywhere ever worked harder. But because hard work doesn't pay off for everybody, how can he explain his success? Says Cousineau, "I was dropped on my head as a baby."
Gil Brandt, the player personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, says that more than half of the NFL's 28 teams would have drafted Cousineau No. 1, if given the chance. Buffalo Coach Chuck Knox says, "We had Cousineau rated as the best athlete in the draft, regardless of position."
There was never much doubt around Buffalo or anywhere else that Cousineau would be the No. 1 choice, although it wasn't until April 28, less than a week before the draft, that the Bills made that firm decision. Knox called Cousineau and said, "You're our man." Says Cousineau, "I informed him he was making a wise choice."
People in Buffalo already love Cousineau, partly because he hasn't made fun of the town (one critic sneers, "How could a guy from Cleveland make fun of Buffalo?"), and Tom professes delight with his new team. He jokes that there's only one way he can fail in the pros, and that's "if the snow and bitter cold make me arthritic before my time."
Cousineau's relative anonymity is easy to explain. First, he is a linebacker, not a running back or a quarterback. Then, Ohio State has been slipping in recent years—three losses in 1977, four losses and a tie last year. And finally, Woody Hayes not only insisted on being center stage, but he also seldom let anybody even stand on the stage with him. On his television football show, Hayes not only asked the questions of the players, he answered them as well. Thus, a number of Buckeyes who would have gotten more publicity at another school have been similarly unsung.
Although Hayes was fired for slugging a Clemson player at the end of the 1978 Gator Bowl game, he routinely hit his own players, who accepted the punishment in relatively good spirits. Cousineau says the maddest Hayes ever got at him was in the spring game of his junior year, an affair attended by a number of pro scouts. The defense was under orders not to tackle Quarterback Rod Gerald, but in his thoroughgoing exuberance, Cousineau did. Says Cousineau, "Woody came racing across the field hollering, 'You goddam stupid s.o.b.' He had his arm cocked, then he saw it was me, and he knew I wasn't one of the players who needed to be motivated by being hit. So he lowered his aim and hit me in the stomach. I laughed. The pro scouts laughed. Woody didn't laugh."
Nobody laughs at Cousineau's Ohio State statistics. "I wanted to set the records high enough so that they'll never be broken," he says. Maybe he did. In 1978 Cousineau set a record for tackles in one game (36 against Penn State), solo tackles in a season (142), total tackles in a season (244) and career tackles (647). The old career record was 320 by Randy Gradishar in 1973. Dave Adkins, another former OSU linebacker, who played with Cousineau for several years, says, "He was pretty good."
Buffalo is counting on that and a lot more. The Bills had the fifth-worst defense in the NFL last season, and were the poorest in the league against the run. They gave up 354 points, and had a 5-11 record, good for a last-place tie with Baltimore in the AFC East. Knox was instrumental in signing Joe Namath when he was an assistant coach of the Jets in 1964, and he sees a lot of Namath in Cousineau. "Tom has the same star quality about him," Knox says.
Buffalo's director of college scouting, Norm Pollom, saw Cousineau against Penn State, and after that the Bills had a bead on him. Ideally, the pros like their middle linebackers at about 6'2", 225 pounds; Cousineau is 6'2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àöœÄ", 232 pounds. With 4.7 speed for 40 yards, he's also about .2 faster than most fast linebackers. However, like most college linebackers, Cousineau must learn how to play the pass better. On the whole, though, Pollom says, "Everything about him is positive."
It always has been. Growing up in the Cleveland suburb of Fairview Park, he was in the Fairview Park High School district, but St. Edward's High, a parochial school, was the football power. When he mentioned that he was thinking of transferring to St. Edward's, the Fairview Park coach said, "I'd sure hate for you to go over there and get lost in the shuffle." Says Cousineau, "That was enough to send me there immediately." He helped St. Edward's to four years of glory.
Tom's father, Thomas Richard Cousineau, was the football and wrestling coach at Lakewood High, another public school, but Tom couldn't go there because the family didn't live in that district. Thus Tom, who once was the state's second-ranked heavyweight wrestler, although he hated the sport, would sometimes find his own father sitting across the mat and cheering against him. But nothing deflates Cousineau.
"It's all in the way you look at things," Cousineau says. "Somebody asks, 'How are you?' They say, 'Not bad.' I say, 'Pretty good.' "
Four times it was father against son in football, and four times the son won. But the elder Cousineau says, "I know he didn't want to beat me, and that's why I think he always played mediocre against us." Says Tom, "He was my best friend, my pal—and my father." Asked if success might spoil Tom, Hayes says, "Nah, his dad will beat him up if he gets out of line."
Pursued during high school by just about every college that ever pumped up a football, Cousineau narrowed his choices to a predictable three—OSU, Michigan and Penn State. "It was so hard to tell those great coaches no," he says. "But I finally decided there wasn't any reason to go a long way to play when the best football in the country was in my own backyard. I didn't come here because of Woody, though. I came here because Ohio State was bigger than Woody."
It was fortunate for Cousineau that he had such great ability because when he arrived on campus, his hair, which then hung six inches below his helmet, gave Hayes a case of the mutters. As a freshman, Cousineau was one of only two among more than 30 in his class who passed the sprint tests. Duncan Griffin, one of two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin's brothers, was the other. Cousineau even started three games, a rarity for a Buckeye freshman. His main shortcoming that year was that he would often brood over his mistakes and carry them into the next play.
Why did the short-tempered Hayes put up with him? "Because I played good football," Cousineau says. Still, Hayes pressed him on the hair issue, and Cousineau argued, "It's neat and clean, and I prefer to wear it long. But it will be cut. Sometime."
As he now explains, "It didn't mean anything when it was long, and it didn't mean anything when I got it cut. I'm not a rebel." But when Cousineau finally did get his hair cut, Hayes told him, "You get better looking all the time." Cousineau's countenance also worried Hayes, who often told his team, "I never saw a player who could smile while attacking." Says Cousineau, "That was until he saw me."
Indeed, football is a joy to Tom Cousineau. Totally. Absolutely. The only thing that angers him is that games have to end; they all pass much too quickly. He even likes to practice. And when he talks about football, Cousineau sounds almost evangelistic.
"What I like about football is that every week you go out and prove yourself all over again," he says. "Every play provides not only an opportunity to get knocked down but also the chance to get back up. Isn't it something that I've been playing this game I love for 14 years for nothing and now I'm going to get paid? Look, there are a lot of things more important than football. Heck, nearly everything is more important than football. It's a kid's game. But the thing that is humorous is that I get to keep playing and my friends have to quit."
Cousineau was rather late coming to this philosophy, and as often happens, it sprang from adversity. He had never been hurt, if you don't count his little finger being shattered in eight places against Minnesota in his sophomore year, which he doesn't. Then on the second series of downs against Oklahoma in 1977, his left arm was injured as Cousineau was making a tackle. He was out for the rest of the game, and the next one, too. He was despondent.
"I walked around with a chip on my shoulder," he says. "Or, actually, with a chip off my shoulder. [It turned out later that the shoulder was only severely bruised.] I thought I was going to lose my mind. Then I realized that this wasn't right. What if I were truly disabled? Man, I had to get myself prepared to leave this game at any moment. I decided right then that I could never again take football so seriously. I had let it consume me and that was a mistake. I have a head on my shoulders. I can do lots of things besides play football."
Luckily, he didn't have to. In a couple of weeks he was back raising defensive havoc, despite the hurt. "How much you feel pain depends on your commitment," he says. "I'd rather play, then deal with the pain later."
It is routine for Cousineau to work out so hard in the weight room that he cannot summon the energy to walk outside to his Jeep. While other athletes require several hours to go through the prescribed exercises on a variety of equipment, Cousineau takes less than an hour. Others talk, Cousineau works; others walk around, Cousineau works. George Hill, the former OSU defensive coordinator who now is an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, says, "Cousineau has done a tremendous job of conditioning his body and his mind so that he is tremendously competitive at a high level of competency. Coach Hayes has often said he's the finest-conditioned athlete he's ever had."
Cousineau started down this road at the age of 10 when he won a trophy by bench-pressing 100 pounds 10 times in a row. When Ohio State athletes once were tested for body fat—a reading of approximately 15% is tolerated—Cousineau had 3.7%, lowest on the team. Steve Bliss, OSU's conditioning coach, says, "He's like a Ferrari, a beautiful machine. But like a Ferrari, there's always room for fine tuning."
Cousineau is fascinated by his own capabilities. He says, "People have the capacity to do so much more than they do. The things they dream about never get done. That's sad. I'm not a masochist, but I enjoy finding out my limits." That may explain why Cousineau once dived 50 feet off a lighthouse into Lake Erie in the dead of winter. "Very cold," he reports. Or why he twice jumped out of a jet boat that was going 70 mph. "I felt like a skipping rock," he says. Or why he jumps his Jeep over curbs. Or why he plans to go down the Colorado River on a raft this summer, paddle a canoe across Lake Erie and take up bull riding and skydiving.
"I don't have a death wish," he insists, "and I don't feel I have anything to prove. But a lot of people never find out what they can do. I understand, of course, that some people might not consider it important to jump out of a jet boat. But I know what I can do. I'm not a fool."
Is there anything he wouldn't try?
"Sure. I've watched people take a bite out of a glass. Now, that's crazy."
What is also crazy, in Cousineau's view, is all the commotion that surrounded him before the draft. NFL scouts were unhappy with Cousineau because he wouldn't run 40 yards for them—until he was ready to be timed. "They insisted I prove I could run," he says. "They'd been seeing me perform for four years." He told them he would run the 40 in 4.7 seconds—"on my terms." The scouts persisted, and several told him, "If you don't run, you won't get drafted," a fairy tale of enormous proportions.
Finally, three weeks before the draft, Cousineau ran. Time: 4.7. "What did I have to hide?" he sniffs. "My movement is my greatest asset." He delayed, he says, because even though the scouts said that "the time wasn't important," Cousineau knew it was. Further, he knew that if he did a 5.2 on a poor day, that would be his NFL time—forevermore and to his everlasting detriment.
Despite his boundless self-confidence, Cousineau didn't believe he would be No. 1 until Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced it in a blaze of lights at the Waldorf-Astoria. His first thought? "That's me." Then Rozelle said, "Congratulations, Tom. This is a great honor, and I'm sure you'll do well. How's Woody?"
Says Cousineau, "When I think about that day, it makes me smile. I'll never forget it, May 5. Wait, May 3. Wait, I've forgotten. Whatever, that was my little space in time that made me feel good. There might be bigger things happen to me in my life—but there might not."
His agent, Jimmy Walsh, who also represents Richard Todd and Joe Namath, won't talk contract dollars, but says, "I don't anticipate any problems with Buffalo. There are problems only if something is potentially impossible, and there is no degree of impossibility here." What helps is that Buffalo has a reputation for making fair deals and paying good value. In Cousineau's case, good value may be $1 million for five years.
For his part, Cousineau, who is majoring in marketing/public relations and will graduate this spring on schedule with a 2.9 grade average, smiles a lot when asked what he'll do with the money. "I'm going to make more," he says. "You always hear that money can't buy happiness, but if you put it in the proper perspective, it can put you in a situation to be very happy."
Happiness is a big Cousineau theme. When he and a companion see a man sweeping up some trash in a desolate manner, Cousineau is told that that will be him in three years if he doesn't fly high with the Bills. "It may not be so bad," says Cousineau. "Let's ask him if he's happy."
About the only thing troubling Cousineau these days is the media's continuing interest in a small earring in his left ear and a tattoo on his right calf. "What does either one of these have to do with football?" he says. The short answer is that he wears them both because he wants to. Cousineau's best friend, former OSU Center Doug Porter, explains, "Tom does exactly what he wants to do exactly when he wants to." Of the earring, Cousineau says he wears it because he noticed a country singer wearing one. "The problem is that people are not always ready to accept the fact there's an extra dimension to an athlete," he says, "and I think the difficulty with the earring is the image. Is it wild like a pirate? Is it gay? A rebellion image? For me, it means nothing."
Many Ohio State players have tattoos; Cousineau's is of a shark and the sun. "I wanted to make sure I had a little sunshine in my life every day," he says. Why does he do these things? "I'm just a little bit loose."
Here comes Cousineau now, driving the Renegade down the highway, veering off the road, bouncing along the side in the weeds, back on, off—all the while talking about football. "Americans love football because they like seeing somebody getting knocked on his butt," he says. "A great hit—Wham! Whoooom! They love it. Heck, I love it. It's not vicious. Well, O.K., it can be, I guess. But it's not barbaric. Fans just love to see someone get boned."
And now, late at night in his apartment, he's staring at a parking meter that is on the steps leading upstairs. "It screwed me, so I took it so it wouldn't ever screw anybody else again," he says of the meter. "It seems to me that people say they want more but they settle for less," he goes on. "I won't do that. Not ever. And I'll enjoy myself. More than anything, I like to go out fishing in a place that is so quiet that the only noise you hear is what you make yourself. And one other thing."
"I feel very secure."