A few months later, Cousineau became the fourth player not to play a down for the team that drafted him first overall (now there are six). Cousineau balked at the salary offered by the Buffalo Bills and in a move that shocked the NFL establishment and ruffled many egos signed a three-year deal with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
"Decisions have consequences," said Cousineau, the top overall pick in 1979. "I don't know if it's the smartest thing I ever did. It was a good, solid financial decision, is what I can say. It was very hard emotionally. It, practically, was hard to live with that choice those three years. What I didn't realize was that it would follow me."
Because it changed the perception of him -- from hard-working Ohio State Buckeye to a money-grubbing maverick as a professional. He laughs at the monikers, but admits they've stuck. Now 52, Cousineau's shoulders hurt and knees ache and he needs double hip replacement. Still, he states of the sport: "I love football."
At Ohio State, Cousineau was a tackling dervish, using rare speed to move sideline to sideline to drag down runners and receivers. He set records for tackles and talked when he left about setting the bar so high nobody could catch him (he still holds the single season record). He was a captain as a senior, an honor he still calls a privilege. Nowadays, he will discuss his football career, but says it is simply part of his past. His focus, he says, is his wife Lisa and raising his two daughters, Kyle, 16, and Kacey, 13.
"If you walked in my house, you would never know I played football," he said.
"Some of it was I had a little bit of a chip about how things ended," he said. "I don't think I deserved it. I don't think I earned it at all. So I was ready to really move past all that. The other part is I didn't really want it to influence my kids. They knew I had a career in sports. But this is their time. I had my time. I wanted to give them space to be who they were going to be with their choices of sports or activities, just be without having this thing hovering around them."
Cousineau is far from the stereotype jock. He speaks thoughtfully, carefully. He is introspective, analytical. He seems to reflect as he speaks. It's part of why folks considered him "different." The macho jock is not supposed be sensitive, and is not supposed to dress different or act different. He's just supposed to be.
Cousineau also was not the typical football player. He was an immensely talented linebacker who played at 210 pounds -- lighter than today's safeties. And rather than follow the normal path once he was drafted, he went his own way.
To this day, he chuckles at the thought that he's considered a trail-blazer, a malcontent.
"A weirdo," he said, smiling. He feels all he did was make a sound financial decision, which he considers far from weird. He grew up the son of a coach, was a standout high school player at St. Edward in suburban Cleveland, and was a strong enough teammate to be Woody Hayes' captain.
"The fact of the matter was we sat with financial people and we talked about what Buffalo's deal meant for me and what Montreal's did," Cousineau said. "These people had no knowledge of football; they just had an interest in doing the right thing financially. This game ... one thing I knew was that it could be very short-lived. On one hand, you say it's a great blessing to play a game you'd probably play for free. But that's if the profession didn't exist. So when the profession exists, when the money gets thrown in, it becomes important."
Cousineau remembered spending draft day at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, then going to Buffalo where he went through some physical tests and answered questions at a news conference. Bills officials said they would take Cousineau back to his hotel, then pick him up for a casual, get-to-know-you dinner -- these were the days before the draft was an industry.
"I was waiting at the hotel (for dinner) and they never showed," Cousineau said. "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."
His agent, Jimmy Walsh (who also represented Joe Namath) took it more personally.
"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.'"
Less than 12 hours after Cousineau had been the first overall pick, Walsh disappeared, returned and said the pair had an appointment in Montreal the next day. By the end of that day, Cousineau said he had an agreement with Montreal for a three-year deal -- but the deal would void if he decided he preferred Buffalo.
He tried to negotiate with the Bills, but Buffalo's best offer was five years and $1.2 million. Montreal offered, with the signing bonus, a little more than $1 million for three years, Cousineau said. As talks bogged down, Cousineau said he remembered then Bills-coach Chuck Knox visiting him at Cleveland Airport and being near exasperated at the pace of negotiations between Walsh and GM Stew Barber.
"Going to Canada was never my first choice," Cousineau said. "And the Bills didn't have to match, but we told them, 'You need to do better. You know it and I know it.' Just compared to the guys downstream in that draft year who had already signed. I said, 'Why did you guys draft me? Did you draft me because you thought I would work for something that was not equitable? Is there something in my personality that led you to believe ... let's be fair. That's all I'm looking for.'
"And (Knox) was beside himself. He said, 'I'm doing everything I can.'"
It never became enough. Cousineau went to Montreal, and is still not sure why Buffalo did not come closer to the money the Alouettes offered.
"(Barber) was sort of the old guard," Cousineau said. "I think he resented the growth in salaries and where the game was going. I would imagine he'd have huge problems today."
The Bills at that time were known for their spendthrift ways, and the team was not a good one. In the five seasons between 1975 and 1980, the Bills won 17 games. It was not until Bill Polian took over in 1985 that the Bills started to win consistently. Was the Bills' offer fair? A Sports Illustrated story prior to the draft said Cousineau could expect an offer in the five-year, $1 million range, but Cousineau heard players taken after him made more.
"At the end of the day, it was their ball," Cousineau said.
The notion of being the first overall pick did not seem to enter Cousineau's thinking. He was grateful, honored, but felt no extra pressure to be paid or perform because of it.
"Clearly it's a wonderful distinction to be selected as the first player out of an enormous pool of really talented guys; I don't mean to discount it," he said. "But did I lie awake and covet that? No. As we started looking at it, truthfully I played pretty small my whole career. If I kept my fingers crossed for anything I really was wanting to be with a team that employed a four-three scheme, because of my size, or lack of. Buffalo was not one of those teams."
Montreal was, but Cousineau soon learned his decision did not sit well with many.
"My dad was mad at me," he said. "A lot of people were really mad at me. A lot of people didn't understand. I made a lot of enemies here, in the league, in the NFL structure."
He was viewed as a money-grubber, someone willing to buck the system. He shrugged that off, but the rift with his father was especially bothersome. Tom Cousineau was a high school coach and best friend to his son, and for a good part of the first year the two barely spoke.
"He groomed me," Cousineau said. "He was a lifelong football coach. I was living his dream. And it just devastated him. It was not how he had written it, not what he had in mind."
Cousineau added, though, that the rift (thankfully) did not last.
"Could I have done it another way? Maybe," he said. "If I'd have sat tight for a little bit ... let the season start ... work it out ... if I can't work it out with Buffalo, maybe I could have effected a trade. Which ultimately probably would have been the best thing that could have happened. But short of that ..."
When his third season in Montreal ended -- Cousineau had tried unsuccessfully to buy his way out of his contract after two years -- he pointed to the NFL, and tried to find the best 4-3 fit for a middle linebacker whose strength was running sideline to sideline but whose size meant he needed the protection two tackles provided.
He settled on Houston, which was coached by Jerry Glanville and had a running back named Earl Campbell. Cousineau signed a five-year, $3.5 million deal, at the time the richest in NFL history. Cousineau knew the Bills could match the offer, but never felt they would.
"We were on our way to Houston," Cousineau said. "Then ... it was ... not so fast. You're kidding me. You've got to be kidding me."
"I thought, 'Three years, I did this ... like ... for nothing," Cousineau said. "That was really my first thought. But obviously I didn't do it for nothing. I was just very disappointed that I wasn't going to Houston."
He also learned a lesson about life in the NFL at that time.
"We had no control over this," he said. "We thought we had control. But you do until you don't."
The Browns were his hometown team, but he had not researched them because they used the 3-4. When he looked into the team he heard that playing for Sam Rutigliano would be a joy. It was. "We're still very good friends, to this day," Cousineau said.
But defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer and Cousineau did not hit it off.
"The first time I walked onto Cleveland Browns property and was introduced to Marty Schottenheimer, he didn't say hello," Cousineau said. "He looked me dead in the eyes. He didn't shake my hand. He said: 'Too damn much money for one person.' That's the honest to God truth. That's my welcome to the team."
Cousineau believes Schottenheimer's anger came because he was not consulted about Cousineau's signing. The decision was made by owner Art Modell, who thought bringing the prodigal son back home was a good thing. But that day was the high-water mark of the relationship between Cousineau and Schottenheimer, and it really turned sour after Rutigliano was fired and Schottenheimer was hired to replace him.
"The second two years when Sam was gone, we did not have a speaking relationship, and I'm calling the signals," Cousineau said. "You take a look at my numbers with the Browns, first two years and second two years. I didn't fall off. But there's a trend. I led the team in numerous categories my first and second year, but my third and fourth year, they were just horrific."
Horrific is relative. In a strike-shortened 1982 season (nine games), Cousineau led the Browns with 72 tackles. He led the team with 138 in 1983. In his third and fourth seasons, he had 170 and 145 tackles, which put him second and third. The knock on Cousineau, though, was that because of his size he could not take on bigger, stronger NFL players directly. He had to run and chase to make tackles. (Cousineau pointed out that two years after he was released Schottenheimer drafted Mike Junkin, one of the biggest draft busts in team history.)
Cousineau now volunteers in a program called Coach for Life, a national outreach that stresses character and the importance of good decisions to kids and coaches. He is working with a business group to develop and market software that will focus on a person's complete health. He spends a lot of time with his daughters, and fights through the physical maladies to remodel his wife's OB/GYN office. He has coached at his high school, and at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron.
He rarely sits and talks about his past, not because he's avoiding it but because he doesn't see himself as "just" a football player. The son of a coach whose dream was to play in the NFL wound up spending three years in Canada, then four with a coordinator who didn't want him in a system he didn't fit. His NFL career was six years, his professional career nine.
One of the draft picks the Bills acquired from Cleveland for Cousineau wound up being quarterback Jim Kelly, a Hall of Famer. Kelly chose to play in the USFL his first two years, but returned to Buffalo when the USFL folded and led the Bills to four Super Bowls. It would be hard to find anyone in Buffalo unhappy with acquiring Kelly for a linebacker they felt did not want to play there. As for Cousineau, he said he loved much about the Browns, but his strongest notion of "team" came at Ohio State.
Was it worth it, all the negativity and struggle and dealing with circumstances within and without his control?
"It has to be, because that's how life is" Cousineau said. "Nobody is guaranteed anything. The longer I'm around I see things that are so unfair happen to people with their health, their finances. It's not easy for anybody. You have to have a perspective. It has to widen and deepen to understand that there's nothing that God can't or doesn't use if you'll let him -- and listen and learn to make you a better person."
Cousineau's wider perspective then took him to tell another story. A Browns teammate, Marshall Harris, invited him to a party at Sea World in Aurora, Ohio, southeast of Cleveland. Cousineau went, and met a woman named Lisa. Lisa and Tom Cousineau will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary this year.
"That would have never happened had I not been here," he said. "Life would have been different in some ways, but in the most important way if I hadn't been here I would not have this marriage and these two kids.
"So when I look at it in the big picture, I don't have a chip on my shoulder. Yes, some of it was a little frustrating. I wish I had a better relationship with one coach, but that didn't ruin my life at all. Every game I played in Cleveland, I had 20 or 30 guests. That was fun.
"But in the big picture, I gained the most important part of my life."