Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.
Perhaps the most revealing thing that can be said about the NFL today is that it is the only league in pro sports that prohibits dancing. Or needs to. You have to admire the courage of the NFL—a league whose fields were once roamed by men like Big Daddy Lipscomb and Ray Nitschke, Night Train Lane and Dick Butkus—for admitting that its game is being overrun by adagio artists.
The NFL seized the moral high ground on this one by passing a rule in March that forbids all premeditated expressions of exuberance. The rule was aimed partly at the Washington Redskins' Fun Bunch, players who jump around a lot and hold hands in the end zone, but its primary target was New York Jets' defensive end Mark Gastineau. Gastineau, who had been doing a controversial sack dance every time he dumped a quarterback, got the NFL rule makers so lathered up that they ordered future offenders' teams to be assessed a five-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Players caught dancing during the anthem are subject to ejection, and anyone signing up for Arthur Murray classes will be shot.
The sack dance was cleverly named, always colorful, and certainly it had its rhythmic moments. But was it dancing? No. If eliminating the sack dance had any redemptive value at all, it wasn't because Gastineau's moves were bad for the game, so much as it was that they were bad moves. In full flight, he looked less like a man dancing than someone who had just set fire to his clothes.
September 4, 1984
Some offensive linemen felt Gastineau's dance was being directed at them and took exception. One took a swing. Last fall at Shea Stadium, Jackie Slater of the Los Angeles Rams saw Gastineau doing his dance after sacking Ram quarterback Vince Ferragamo, rushed over and shoved Gastineau from behind. There are ways to cut in on a man who is dancing, and Gastineau found this one objectionable. The ensuing brawl resulted in 37 players being fined a total of $15,750.
The fight cost Gastineau $1,000, but at least one good thing came of it as far as he was concerned. "There were guys on our bench who might not have liked me much, but they all came out on the field," he says. "It was a good feeling to see them come out for me during the fight." As displays of brotherhood go, however, this one may have left something to be desired. Bill Bain, an offensive tackle for the Rams, remembers that while the brawl was still in full swing, he told one of the Jets that Gastineau was a "hot dog," to which Gastineau's teammate replied, "Yeah, he's an ass." Suddenly, Bain realized that at least some of the Jets were on the field hoping to see Slater clean Gastineau's clock. "I loved it," Bain said. "I almost fell down on the field laughing."
There have been other signs like that along the way, subtle clues that told Gastineau as far back as his rookie season of 1979 that not all of his teammates held him in the highest esteem. "Little things would happen," Gastineau recalls. "Like I would sit down at a dinner table, and six people would suddenly get up and leave." Gastineau didn't need a building to fall on him; he knew it had something to do with him. But what? Well, put it this way. If Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were in search of the perfect dip, they'd find him in Gastineau. "I went through a lot of major problems when I was coming into the league," he says, "with people not liking me and me not knowing why they didn't like me. They didn't treat the other rookies that way."
Gastineau began to get an inkling of what was causing his problems when several teammates—he won't say which ones—stopped by one day in his rookie season to talk about his sack dance. "After the first couple of times I did it," Gastineau says, "about six guys came over with their arms folded and said, 'We don't do that stuff on this team. We're not going to let you dance.' Well, that was a wild situation. I'd never had anybody except a coach tell me I couldn't do something."
But Jet defensive tackle Marty Lyons, who was once outspoken in his criticism of Gastineau, now says, "We all had to learn who Mark Gastineau was and accept him for what he was. That was harder to do at first than it is now."
Says Gastineau, "My teammates have come to realize that I'm not such a bad guy."
If Gastineau had been an ordinary player, his dance card would have been torn up long ago. The NFL is, at bottom, a conservative institution that has always reserved its ugliest treatment for nonconformists. A kind of groupthink exists that does not make many allowances for individualism. Ram coach John Robinson, who obviously understands that better than Gastineau, says, "You tend not to see the champion do it [show off] as much as you see the guy who sees himself as an individual. If a successful offensive line danced every time it protected the quarterback, it would look like a disco out there."
Gastineau presented a different kind of problem simply because he was so good. In 1981 he finished second in the league in sacks to linemate Joe Klecko, and last season his 19 sacks were tops in the NFL. Still, he was constantly rebuked by his own teammates, reviled by the rest of the league, and eventually legislated out of his toe shoes and into submission by the new rule, which prohibits "any prolonged, excessive, or premeditated celebration."
Almost from the time the ban was passed, it became known as the Gastineau Rule—an honor, sort of. "I've never had a rule named after me," he says. The rule does have a provision permitting "spontaneous expressions of exuberance," and it will be interesting to see how the league's officials distinguish between one man's expression of exuberance and another's premeditated celebration. "We don't want to curtail enthusiasm," insists Don Shula, a member of the league's Competition Committee, which formulated the rule. "Gastineau could take one jump." Considering that Gastineau has danced on the Dolphins eight times in the past three seasons, it isn't hard to figure where Shula would like to tell him to jump.
Every year the league explains its new rules in a film shown to all players, coaches and officials during the preseason. Gastineau appears twice in this year's flick. "In one of the film clips," says Art McNally, the NFL's supervisor of officials, "Gastineau makes a sack and immediately raises his arm in the air. That would be fine. But if he goes into his dance...." McNally's voice trails off morosely. "We had a near riot in Shea Stadium when the Jets played the Rams last year," he continues. "And it's not just Gastineau. The ill feeling had been spreading through the league, and the clubs wanted to put a stop to it." The Jets voted with the majority when the owners passed the rule by a 26-2 margin.
Gastineau swears that the sack dance is never done to taunt the quarterback he has just knocked down or the lineman he has beaten on the play. "I've never done anything directly over the quarterback," he says. "I go off on my own and dance." But after Slater shoved Gastineau, he claimed linemen from all over the league called to thank him. And Gastineau weakened his own case last season when he did only a brief pirouette after a sack in Baltimore and later explained that his show of restraint was out of respect for Colt tackle Jeff Hart. "He's one of the nicest offensive tackles I've ever played against," Gastineau said. "To rub it in on a guy like that, to dance in front of his home crowd—I respect him too much."
Being respected too much is not a condition Gastineau has had much experience with. Just how high his peers' level of resentment is became apparent last season when he wasn't voted by the players to a starting spot in the Pro Bowl despite leading the league in sacks. "A lot of people don't like me, so they won't vote for me," he says. "They're allowed to vote for a third-stringer if they want to, and that is not right.
"But I think I've proved myself, and the dance has paid off for me. I signed the biggest contract in history for a defensive player this year." That contract was reportedly worth $4 million over five years. His off-field earnings are in the $200,000 range, so Gastineau pulls in about $1 million a year—certainly enough to keep him in leotards and leg warmers.
What Gastineau truly takes pride in is not his dancing but his body. "I don't call it the average body of a football player," he says. And indeed it is not. Gastineau's face is the only part of his body that is not rippling with muscles. It is, in fact, rather pudgy. He has flowing black hair that tumbles down what would be the nape of his neck if he had a nape, or for that matter, a neck. This summer he was sporting a gold earring, in the shape of a thunderbolt striking a fist, in his left earlobe, which meant that you could also call it not the average ear of a football player. A gold chain dangles in the cleft of his bosom, where only muscles are allowed to grow—he shaves his upper body. "I've been gifted with a great body," he says. "I want people to be able to see all of it."
"We go through razors like most people go through toothpaste," says his wife Lisa. Nevertheless, Gastineau feels he is a model of restraint. "Hey, I could shave my arms and legs," he says, "but I don't."
Gastineau spent his last week before reporting to this year's training camp working out at Gold's Gym in Venice, Calif., pumping iron with his personal trainer, Richie Barathy, then heading over to legendary Muscle Beach for some "cosmetic tanning," as he called it, so he would look good in the pictures for his upcoming book, The Body You Want. Gastineau feels that after football he might even pursue a career in bodybuilding. "Maybe not competitive bodybuilding," he says, "but I would like to go on and do some guest posing. I'm very proud of my body."
Bodybuilding is just one of the many career choices Gastineau has considered besides football. During the players' strike in 1982 he spent several weeks training to become a professional boxer and was briefly considered part of actor Sylvester Stallone's stable, but when his trainer, Jimmy Glenn, had to go to Europe for a fight, Gastineau says he became "depressed" and retired from the sport undefeated and untouched by human hands. This summer he worked out for four weeks with Gerry Cooney, whose muscles are also shaped by Barathy. "A lot of people in football think because they have big bodies they can get in a ring and go rounds with these guys," Gastineau says. "But when you think about it, you don't see a lot of boxers going out and trying to be football players."
He also had what appeared to be a promising future on the rodeo circuit. He grew up on a ranch in Springville, Ariz., and his father built him a rodeo ring shortly after Mark began entering team roping events at the age of 12. He still occasionally enters rodeos with his dad when the football season is over, but Gastineau says there are no parallels between punching dogies and punching quarterbacks. "A quarterback and a steer are two completely different animals," he says. "I've never danced on a steer."
Gastineau has also spent a lot of time poking around in caves in the White Mountains of Arizona looking for Indian artifacts. Over the past 10 years he has accumulated an impressive collection of Navajo bowls, Show Low duck pots, Tularosa corn grinders, and Big Mesa tomahawks, some up to 1,200 years old. Gastineau gets so excited after successful excavations that he does a dance right there in the ruins.
When Gastineau wasn't out digging things up, he was burying quarterbacks. After making All-America at Eastern Arizona Junior College, he spent one unhappy season at Arizona State before dropping out. From there he went to East Central University in Ada, Okla., an NAIA school that had never produced an NFL draft pick. "After I signed the scholarship, I was walking across the campus crying," Gastineau says, "because I knew my pro ambitions were probably down the drain."
It wasn't until after his junior season that Gastineau realized what an asset his speed was. He had run a 4.8 40-yard dash that year. (In the pros he has reduced his time to 4.56, probably the fastest ever for an NFL lineman.) "If your strength is speed, get faster," he says. "While all the other guys were out at the disco, I would be out under the streetlight at midnight, practicing my 40. That's how I made it to the NFL—total dedication."
Gastineau might not have made it at all had he not taken part in the '79 Senior Bowl, where the Jets staff was coaching the North team. He had expected to be an eighth- or ninth-round draft choice that spring, but he played so well that New York took him in the second round. After a rookie season distinguished primarily by the fact that hardly anybody liked him, he moved into the starting lineup and led the Jets in sacks with 11½ in 1980. That was also the season that he tried dancing after some sacks, and not dancing after others, hoping to please his teammates. When it became obvious that they still didn't like him, Gastineau said, "Gotta dance."
The truth of the matter is that away from the field, Gastineau never goes dancing. Ever. "Neither my wife nor I dance," he says.
Gastineau spent the summer thinking about the new NFL rule, and finally hit upon his answer to it. "You're allowed one spontaneous reaction, so here's what I'm going to do," he says, sounding as if he might not have a full grasp of the concept of spontaneity. "After I sack the quarterback, I'm going to draw back one fist, take a step forward, then shoot my arm up in the air in a martial arts stance. Then—freeze frame—I don't move. That's the end of it. And there's not a bleeping thing they can do about it."
In other words, he won't dance. Don't ask him.