August 06, 1979 12:00 PM

Tom Cousineau, 22, an All-America linebacker from Ohio State, and the Buffalo Bills, who picked him as the No. 1 choice in this spring’s pro football draft, seemed made for each other.

The wooer was NFL ne’er-do-well Buffalo, which finished with a 5-11 record in 1978 and now is in desperate need of a media-savvy star like Cousineau. (In fact, the Bills got the No. 1 choice in compensation for the loss last year of O. J. Simpson.) The wooee was Cousineau, a Woody Hayes-inspired Cleveland boy whose whole life had been dedicated to becoming all-pro. As a college senior he bulldozed his way to such OSU records as the most tackles in one game (36 against Penn State) and the most career tackles (647). As the draft neared, Cousineau marveled, “I’ve been playing this game I love for 14 years and now I’m going to get paid?” When a sportswriter asked if he might wind up in Canada, he shot back, “No. I want to play with the big boys.”

Then, in a stunning turnabout two weeks ago, Cousineau signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, becoming the first top NFL draft choice to snub American ball and head straight north since Iowa quarterback Randy Duncan in 1959.

Why? Well, for one thing, Tom is of distant French-Canadian descent (his last name is pronounced coo-zee-NOH). There were also charges—not to his face—of getting cold feet. “Some reporters in New York,” he says, “made the allusion that maybe I was afraid I couldn’t play in the NFL. That is horse-shit. I played against people who are now excelling in the NFL and I held my own. I’m my own man and I do what I want.”

That includes wearing a diamond earring, having a shark and a sun tattooed on his right calf—and demonstrating a lot of mad-dog bravado. He once dove 50 feet off a lighthouse into Lake Erie in midwinter (“very cold”) and has leapt out of a jet boat at 70 mph—twice. As for his courage on the ball field, Cousineau says matter-of-factly, “I’d rather play, and then deal with the pain later.”

His defection to Canada so chagrined Buffalo fans that they burnt him in effigy. Cousineau shrugged it off: “Simple-minded asses.” The Bills, Cousineau notes, offered him a measly million over five years (the Bills say it was $1.2 million) and declared: “Here is the standard scale. We can’t break it. Go check the market.” Cousineau discovered, he says wryly, that “Canadian football happens to be part of the market.”

Cousineau signed reportedly for a $1 million (U.S.), three-year deal with no deferred payments. While few American players have become stars in Canada—Joe Theismann, Johnny Rodgers and Terry Metcalf, to name three recent examples, were only middling successes—the Alouettes expect Cousineau, as a defensive player, to adjust more easily to the unfamiliar turf. (Canadian football, whose ’79 season has already started, uses 12-man teams, a larger field and only three downs, among other differences.) Going for Cousineau is size (6’3″, 227 pounds) and speed (40 yards in 4.7 seconds). OSU experts calculated that his freight train of a body contained only 3.7 percent fat, while the average for their football players is nine to 10 percent. “Like a Ferrari,” said one awed trainer, “a beautiful machine.”

That aside, the rookie Cousineau, who is the highest-paid player in CFL history, knew he faced a savage welcome in his first game last week. “They’re going to test me, see what I can and can’t do,” says Cousineau. “I’m going to get knocked on my ass. But hell, it happens to everybody. I’m just going to try as hard as I can.” His box office appeal will also be tested. His astute agent, Jimmy Walsh—who, with another client, Joe Namath, is negotiating for a piece of the Alouettes—suggests there might be an income surge for a league where TV rights to games go for as little as $250,000 a season per team. (Each U.S. team pulls down $5.2 million for TV annually.) But can a defensive back have that sort of quarterback-like impact? Well, suffice it to say that Sly Stallone (and alter ego Rocky Balboa) named his famous dog not Namath but Butkus, just like the Chicago Bear linebacker.

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