When the Buffalo Bills made Ohio State Linebacker Tom Cousineau the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft last May, Cousineau told Bills Coach Chuck Knox, "You've made a wise choice." Later that same day Cousineau was asked if he might consider playing in Canada. "No," he replied. "I want to play in the NFL. I want to play with the big boys, and I'm going to play in Buffalo."
Maybe he will play in Buffalo someday, but while the Bills were beating the Colts 31-13 last Sunday in' Baltimore, Cousineau was up in Ottawa playing secondeur and separating porteurs from the ballon for Les Alouettes de Montreal as they tied the Rough Riders 29-29.
Cousineau defected to Canada on July 19, signing a three-year contract with the Alouettes for an estimated $850,000. From that moment Buffalo's 1979 draft was destined to be remembered as the one in which the Bills, who have a long history of front-office bungling, fumbled Tom Cousineau.
But another chorus of that old Buffalo favorite, "Wait till next year!" isn't called for. Despite the loss of Cousineau, Buffalo still had an outstanding draft. The Bills had nine picks in the top five rounds, and all except Cousineau have been on hand while the Bills—5-11 last season—have won three of their first five games.
October 7, 1979
The best draftee is Clemson Wide Receiver Jerry Butler, who was the fifth player selected overall. Two weeks ago Butler burned the New York Jets by catching 10 passes for 255 yards, the seventh-highest yardage total in NFL history, and four touchdowns. The next morning a Buffalo newspaper carried a cartoon showing a morose Cousineau watching Butler's heroics on television, while a shapely companion cooed, "Wow, did you ever meet him?"
The message was clear: thanks to Butler, Buffalonians have pretty much forgotten about Cousineau—for now.
Butler, a native of Ware Shoals, S.C., went to Clemson on a track scholarship. As a junior he won the Atlantic Coast Conference 60-yard dash. His speed is welcome in Buffalo, where it has been several ice ages since the Bills had someone who could catch the ball deep.
At Clemson, Butler set single-season and career receiving records, but the Tigers ran a conservative offense and Butler never came close to the sort of day he had against the Jets. "What happened was too wild to dream about," Butler says. Indeed, Butler's best single-game performance at Clemson had been 163 yards, and four touchdowns represented a season's work.
Butler closed out his Clemson career last December in the Gator Bowl game in which the Tigers beat Cousineau's Buckeyes and Woody Hayes took a poke at one of Butler's teammates. "I hit Cousineau on one play," says the slight, 180-pound Butler with a smile, "but I doubt if he remembers the blow."
Butler is just one of three rookies starting for the Bills, the others being second-round draft choices Fred Smerlas and Jim Haslett. The 6'3", 270-pound Smerlas, who recovered a Richard Todd fumble for a touchdown in the 46-31 rout of the Jets, works at nose tackle, while the 6'3", 232-pound Haslett is playing the inside slot Cousineau was expected to fill in Knox' 3-4 defense. In his first NFL game, Haslett had 13 solo tackles against the Miami Dolphins and was named Buffalo's best player.
Curiously, neither Smerlas nor Haslett prepared for the NFL in the kind of big-time, big-winning program scouts value so highly. Smerlas toiled last year for Boston College, which finished 0-11, the only winless major college in the country. Haslett played his football at Indiana University. To be more precise, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, good ol' IUP. In Haslett's last three years the Big Indians—that's right, the Big Indians—suffered three straight non-winning records in the Pennsylvania Conference, while playing the likes of Slippery Rock and Lock Haven.
In training camp Smerlas and Haslett were Buffalo's pranksters-in-residence. They battled curfew with reckless abandon, and instituted the practice of hazing veterans. One day they used rolls of tape to barricade Defensive Back Marvin Switzer in his dormitory room. Switzer is no longer with the Bills. He was cut...or may still be locked in the dorm.
Like the other Buffalo rookies, Smerlas and Haslett don't bemoan the loss of Cousineau. In fact, the Bills' first-year players poked fun at Cousineau in an X-rated skit in their rookie show. "I get mad when people say I took Cousineau's place," says the fiery Haslett, who got into a fight on each of his first two days of practice with the Bills. "Cousineau never had a place. And if he comes back he still doesn't have one. I earned my spot. If he wants it, he'll have to take it away from me."
Meanwhile, across the border, Cousineau isn't dominating the Canadian Football League as expected. He didn't join the Alouettes until five days before their third regular-season game, but he was immediately inserted into the starting lineup. Cousineau faced a double handicap. Not only was he unfamiliar with the Canadian game—with its wider field, three downs and constant motion—but he also was playing the unfamiliar position of outside linebacker, Carl Crennel having retained his regular middle linebacker position. By his own admission, Cousineau's early performances were "embarrassing." Now he seems to have adjusted.
"When I was first here, other teams were running at me all the time," Cousineau says. "Nobody runs at me much anymore. I've played some damn fine games."
Buffalo officials blame their failure to sign Cousineau on his agent, Jimmy Walsh, who used to handle Joe Namath's NFL negotiations. Walsh has admitted that he and a group of investors, including Namath, are interested in purchasing part of the Alouettes. That disclosure prompted Bills owner Ralph Wilson to charge, "Walsh certainly took care of his own affairs. He steered Tom to Montreal for his own personal reasons."
Walsh and Alouette owner Sam Berger deny any connection between the agent's business interests and his client's decision. Privately, Walsh has told friends that the Buffalo offer—reportedly $1.2 million for five years—was very misleading in that it was loaded with performance clauses that would be virtually impossible for any rookie linebacker to meet.
Cousineau, who never personally negotiated with the Bills, says, "I'm the one who had to put his name on the contract. I wasn't coerced by Jimmy Walsh. The simple truth is that the lump sum in Montreal was greater and the payout was much better."
However, Cousineau's CFL contract reportedly includes a "happiness clause," which allows him to void the Montreal deal if he becomes disenchanted. This explains why Norm Pollom, the Bills' director of college scouting, has seen some Montreal games, and also why the Bills, who were humiliated by Cousineau's decision to go north, never knock Cousineau in print. As vice-president Stew Barber, who handled the Cousineau negotiations, says, "Look, we want the kid back. I don't want to say anything that might upset him."
Cousineau insists he is content. "I like Montreal," he says. "It's like a piece of Europe. I'm happy with the money I'm making, and I'm on a winning team. What more can you ask? There may never be a reason to go back."