If pro athletes are honest, most would admit they would rather just play than worry about the business side of their sport.
It would be so much simpler if they could enjoy the game they love without the hassles of contracts, agents, holdouts and negotiations.
However, it is part of the package.
And, if the athletes are going to sacrifice their bodies and health to play a game, they should be compensated accordingly.
For a majority of athletes, they are limited in what they can negotiate for their compensation.
Depending on their draft position, injury history, the amount left on their current contract, or team needs, they may not see much (if any) pay raises.
However, there are those professional athletes who can demand a significant amount of money.
Their talent and promise is such that they can use those factors as leverage in negotiations.
If available, the athlete who doesn’t like an offer from their team can jump ship and go to a different league.
This has happened numerous times in the NFL when the USFL and other such leagues were in action.
In fact, this has happened more than a few times with the Cleveland Browns.
Another example of a player who spurned the NFL (at least temporarily) to play for more money elsewhere is former linebacker Tom Cousineau.
Though he would eventually return to the NFL with Cleveland, Cousineau bolted north of the border to avoid playing with the franchise that drafted him.
— Autograph Appearances (@cravetheauto) January 15, 2019
Cousineau experienced a moderately successful career in the pros and his belief in himself never wavered.
This is the story of Tom Cousineau.
Growing up in Ohio
Thomas Michael Cousineau was born on May 6, 1957 in Fairview Park, Ohio.
He was born into an athletic family and took to sports at an early age.
Cousineau’s father, Tom Sr., was the head football and wrestling coach at Lakewood (Ohio) High School.
When Junior came of age, his mother wanted to avoid any family drama.
Therefore, she enrolled her son at St. Edward High School and away from his father’s omnipresence.
At St. Edward, Cousineau excelled at football and wrestling.
A fun fact, Cousineau once wrestled future Browns teammate Bob Golic from a cross-town rival high school.
As a football player, Cousineau was such a natural linebacker that he became one of the most sought after recruits in the country.
He didn’t have to ponder too long on his college choice.
Cousineau stayed close to home and selected Ohio State to begin the next stage of his athletic development.
Cousineau may have made high school football look easy, but he soon realized college football was no joke.
This was the era of Woody Hayes, and football at OSU was tough and violent.
Cousineau witnessed this first hand during his first few practices for the Buckeyes.
After a week of two-a-days, Cousineau called home to tell his dad he had made a mistake.
Every day he was consistently going up against All-Americans, especially running back Archie Griffin and fullback Pete Johnson.
The result was a cracked helmet, broken shoulder pads and Cousineau’s bruised and battered body as well as his psyche.
In short, he believed he had gotten in over his head by choosing Ohio State.
“I said, ‘Dad, I don’t know, I think maybe I have made a mistake. I can’t seem to pick it up, adjust to the pace here,'” Cousineau recalls.
Tom Sr. was having none of the excuses and told his son to keep working at it.
Soon enough, Cousineau did start to adapt to the grind of top-tier college football.
Happy Birthday Tom Cousineau, 2X All American at Ohio St, Ohio St Varsity O Hall of Fame, CFL All Star 80, Grey Cup MVP, Montreal 79-81, 6 year NFL Career, Member College Football Hall of Fame; 62 Today… pic.twitter.com/hZxZVufeR6
— Larry in Missouri ( Leisure Suit Larry) (@LarryInMissouri) May 6, 2019
During one practice, Hayes called for Johnson on a running play.
Cousineau diagnosed it quickly and leveled the fullback.
The collision was shocking as Johnson had 35 pounds on the linebacker.
“I caught Pete coing out of his stance,” Cousineau says of that preseason practice. “I put him right on his back. That just never happened to Pete. Coach (Woody) Hayes was there. He went crazy. He was screaming and yelling, ‘God dammit!'”
Hayes had the offense run the play again.
The result was the same as Cousineau burst through the line and planted Johnson on his backside.
Hayes was so enraged that he threw the linebacker out of practice (although his position coach later told Cousineau that Hayes was happy with Cousineau’s play).
That was the beginning of an eventful career as a Buckeye for Cousineau.
1977 and ‘78
As an underclassman, Cousineau saw limited paying time in 1975 and 1976.
He spent most of those two years backing up starters.
However, he captured the attention of opponents and the nation during the latter half of ‘76.
In the 1977 Orange Bowl after the Buckeyes 9-2-1 season, Cousineau was named the top defensive player of the game.
Cousineau was a full-time starter in 1977 and was named a first-team All-American.
In 1978, he was voted as the team’s captain for the season.
Cousineau also set a program record when he collected 211 tackles during the year.
This was an average of 17.5 tackles per game.
Astonishingly, Cousineau had 29 total stops in a game against Penn State alone.
In a game against SMU, Cousineau had 16 solo tackles.
He would be named a First-team All-American again after the season.
— Brutus Buckeye 🌰 (@Brutus_Buckeye) May 6, 2015
After OSU struggled to a 7-4-1 record in ’78, they faced Clemson in the Gator Bowl in what would be Cousineau’s final college game.
With less than three minutes left in the contest, OSU was down 17-15.
Buckeyes quarterback Art Schlichter threw a pass on third and five and Ohio State in field goal range.
The pass was intercepted by Tigers nose guard Charlie Bauman.
Bauman was chased and eventually knocked out of bounds on the Ohio State side of the field.
As he stood up, Hayes punched Bauman in a fit of frustration and rage.
That triggered a bench clearing brawl between the two teams.
As I’ve always suspected, it was the Ohio State fight song that inspired Woody Hayes to punch a player. pic.twitter.com/uQtfs6G0Av
— Dean Booth (@BoothDean) February 12, 2021
That was the final straw for OSU administrators.
They had put up with Hayes’ antics since 1951 and this time he had gone too far.
A day later, he was fired from the university.
“That was so unfortunate,” Cousineau said years later. “People who know football, that is the first thing they talk about when his name comes up. There is so much more about him than that final incident. While he never ducked, he never made an excuse and he was eventually held accountable for that action. I think it could have been held a little differently. For us, that was an extremely sad outcome.”
While Hayes was exiting the university for disciplinary reasons, Cousineau was leaving for the pros.
During his career as a Buckeye, Cousineau had tallied 569 tackles, set six program records, won three Big Ten championships, an Orange Bowl MVP and was involved in four bowl berths.
Snub by Buffalo leads to a short career north of the border
The Buffalo Bills loved what they saw in Cousineau at OSU and selected him with the first overall pick of the 1979 draft.
However, when the Bills presented their contract offer of $1.2 million over five years, Cousineau and his agent were upset.
They saw this as a low ball offer for a first overall selection.
On May 3, 1979 the first day of the NFL Draft was held in New York City. The Buffalo Bills picked linebacker Tom Cousineau first overall. Hall of Famers Kellen Winslow, Dan Hampton and Joe Montana would also be selected in this draft. #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/aoscEWz1sR
— 70’s Daily Dose (@70sDailyDose) May 3, 2021
It wasn’t just the money that irked Cousineau.
Apparently, there was another matter of a promised dinner from Buffalo that never materialized which really upset Cousineau.
The incident so enraged Cousineau’s agent, Jim Walsh, that Walsh took matters into his own hands.
“I was waiting at the hotel (for dinner) and they never showed,” Cousineau told the AOL News in 2010. “They never called. I’m not kidding. Hearing no or being turned down or snubbed was not a new experience, but it seemed … first of all very rude. And inhospitable.”
“Jimmy was mortified,” Cousineau said. “And then he got mad. And he sort of incited me, to be honest with you. I thought it was unusual, but Jimmy really took exception to it. So we just ordered something at the hotel.
“We sat there, and he said, ‘Listen, I’ll make a phone call if you don’t mind. I have a good friend, Sam Berger, he owns the Montreal Alouettes and he’s a wonderful, wonderful guy. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to give them something to think about.'”
The deal with Montreal came together quickly.
A day later, Walsh relayed the offer to Cousineau, three years and a little over $1 million.
The choice was easy and Cousineau walked away from the Bills.
“Personally I believe in free agency, because it worked for me. If I had not had an opportunity to play in Canada and get myself into a free agency position, I would have been a bitter man, locked in to playing for Buffalo. Their first offer to me was definitely not fair,” said Cousineau a few years later.
#OTD in 1979 fans of the Buffalo Bills are shocked when they find out that the Bills' 1st overall draft pick, Tom Cousineau, has signed with Montreal of the CFL instead of Buffalo. It will turn out perfectly fine as the Bills will trade his rights and use that pick for Jim Kelly. pic.twitter.com/GQCXZDY9eq
— ThisDateInBuffaloSportsHistory (@BuffSportsHstry) July 19, 2021
It wasn’t like playing in the CFL was a snap for Cousineau.
Yes, the sport is still football, but the game in Canada is slightly different.
For starters, the field dimensions are wider and longer and teams only have three downs instead of four.
In his rookie season, Cousineau was good, if unspectacular.
The Alouettes played in the Grey Cup after the ‘79 season and Cousineau was voted the defensive MVP of the game.
He improved in 1980 to the point where he was an East Division All-Star.
Injuries limited Cousineau to only four games in 1981.
Tom Cousineau drafted 1st overall @BuffaloBills in 1979, who acquired him as a package from @49ers in '78 that involved OJ Simpson. He chose @MTLAlouettes 1979-81, 1979 Grey Cup MVP. @Browns 1982-85, @49ers 1986-87. @CFL_Alumni Photos: Scott Grant https://t.co/x4QfHOBkbD pic.twitter.com/Vi3sxhLY78
— Scott Grant Photography 🇨🇦 (@quickshutterguy) December 5, 2020
At the close of the ‘81 season, Cousineau wanted to get back to the States and the NFL.
Looking back, he realized that he played fairly well in Canada, but he was ill suited for the CFL game.
“As an economic decision it made sense, but it broke my heart,” Cousineau said in 2002. “I wasn’t groomed to play in the CFL. That was not what I dreamed about as a child. In the rearview mirror, those three years were squandered.”
As the news spread about Cousineau’s desire to return to the NFL, the staff in Buffalo were firm in their commitment to him.
Though he would technically be a free agent, Buffalo still had the right of first refusal.
“If Tom Cousineau plays in the NFL, he will play in Buffalo,” said Bills Coach Chuck Knox on numerous occasions.
“We’re going to sign Tom Cousineau,” declared owner Ralph Wilson. “We will match any offer.”
The Houston Oilers ponied up and offered $3.5 million over five years.
The entire league was flabbergasted.
That was a lot of money for a guy who hadn’t played in the league yet.
August 30, 1982: #Browns LB Tom Cousineau graces the cover of SI – awlays a thrill back then. The @SEHS_FOOTBALL and tOSU alum is 'Rough and Ready', led team in tackles 3 of 4 years in Cleveland. #CollegeFootballHOF #LB50 pic.twitter.com/drVCwvuQNx
— On This Day: Cleveland Sports (@CityfanC) August 30, 2021
However, the Bills matched the Oilers’ offer.
The Browns were interested in bringing Cousineau home and upped Houston’s offer to include three future draft choices.
Buffalo was interested in turn and made the deal (they would use one pick on future All-Pro quarterback Jim Kelly).
Cousineau was now a Brown and Cleveland owner Art Modell was busy justifying the agreement.
“No thinking NFL man can fault me for what happened,” he said at the time. “My middle name’s not Steinbrenner. I believe in the NFL. It was Houston that set the value; I want to make that clear. I’ll have to remember to send Bud Adams a Christmas card.”
Shortly into his tenure with Cleveland, Modell and head coach Sam Rutigliano liked what they saw in Cousineau.
“Tom’s got a lot to learn about our system, but he makes our whole defense into an impact defense,” said Rutigliano. “He can come in and BOOM! turn the games around. He’s going to create a whole lot of things for us.”
“On paper we might have the best linebacker group in the NFL,” said Modell of his starting four, which at the time consisted of Cousineau, eight-year veteran Dick Ambrose inside, Chip Banks and five-year veteran Clay Matthews on the outside. “Of course,” Modell continued, “in the NFL you don’t play on paper.”
Over the course of the next four years, Cousineau led the Browns in tackles for three of the four seasons.
He also added eight interceptions and 6.5 sacks.
Cleveland would make the playoffs after the ‘82 and ‘85 seasons but would lose in the first round both times.
Departure from Cleveland and controversy
Before the 1986 season, the Browns released Cousineau and he signed with San Francisco.
He was seen as an overpaid player who didn’t live up to his lofty expectations.
However, a year later, Cousineau opened up to the media and shared what he believed was the real reason Cleveland released him.
In a shocking statement, Cousineau explained that there was a rumor in the Browns organization that he was a homosexual.
He brushed off the rumors, but later believed they got worse because he did not directly confront the allegations.
“I got to the point where I had to take a shot and trust somebody. You guys (the media) can sit here by implication and turn me into a (homosexual), which is a very scary thing for me,” Cousineau said in August of 1987. “Should I have come forward earlier? No question about it. I heard the rumors the first time two years ago but I felt I had nothing to worry about. But then the Cleveland Browns started to investigate me. They spent a lot of time, used a lot of gas, incurred a lot of bills.”
“Homosexuality has no place in my life, never has and never will,” he added.
For his part, Modell denied the rumors.
“We released Tom for competitive reasons. In fact, two reasons – (linebackers) Anthony Griggs and Mike Johnson. And by that, I mean no offense to Tom Cousineau, because he gave the Browns a 100 percent effort,” said Modell.
After two seasons as a backup on the 49ers, Cousineau retired.
In six years with the NFL, he accumulated ten interceptions and 6.5 total sacks (the NFL did not keep track of tackles then).
Cousineau was also a Second-team All-NFL selection in 1983 and 1984.
Although he was a solid player, Cousineau was never considered an elite professional linebacker, though he was paid like one.
Cousineau may not have found the success he was hoping for in the NFL, but he sure seemed to find it in retirement.
Using his marketing degree from Ohio State and the money he made as a pro, Cousineau did well in the business world.
Not long after retiring, he worked in several business ventures including dabbling in real estate and highway construction.
Cousineau also helped fund and market a software product called Archestral, which helps keep financial records for hospitals.
“I had the good fortune of making a good amount of money,” he said in 2002. “Very few people, when given the choice of taking more or less, choose less.”
Cousineau has been married to his wife, Lisa, an Ob-Gyn, for over two decades and they have two daughters.
He became a member of the Ohio State Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 2016, Cousineau became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Cousineau has also stayed close to the game of football.
In 2009, he joined the staff at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio as their linebackers coach.
He later became the linebackers coach at his alma mater, St. Edward High School.
— WSYX ABC 6 (@wsyx6) September 22, 2019
Coaching young players gave Cousineau an outlet for his competitive side as well as tapped into his desire to work with youth.
“I love the esprit de corps that exists, not only in athletics but in all the extracurricular activities,” said Cousineau. “It is a great learning environment. The kids come prepared to be successful. It is not cool simply to be average.”
“I like helping the kids.”