Gastineau, King of Sack

Updated: April 21, 2005, 11:07 AM ET
By Mike Puma | Special to ESPN.com

"Mark made the defensive end position a glamorous position. You didn't get a sack and go back to the huddle. You got up and did that Gastineau dance, the sack dance, the crazy man dance," says Giants defensive end Michael Strahan on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Mark Gastineau turned self-promotion into an art form with his dance ritual that accompanied quarterback sacks in the early 1980s. His antics played a large part in the NFL making such celebrations illegal in March 1984.

But that didn't stop the New York Jets defensive end, who helped revolutionize the position with his blazing speed. In 1984, Gastineau recorded 22 sacks, an NFL record that stood for 17 years until Michael Strahan broke it in 2001.

The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Gastineau made the Pro Bowl five straight seasons (1981-85) and finished his 10-year career with 107 sacks, a Jets record that won't be broken anytime soon. He was the most high-profile member of the "New York Sack Exchange," a title given to the Jets' fearsome defensive front that was composed of Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam. The foursome combined for 54 sacks in 1981.

Off the field, Gastineau was no saint. He used anabolic steroids while playing for the Jets and was convicted for drug possession in 1993. He has a history of domestic violence against women. He served 11 months on Rikers Island for violating probation after assaulting a girlfriend who became his second wife.

In 1988, while still married to his first wife Lisa, Gastineau announced his engagement to actress Brigitte Nielsen, with whom he later fathered a son. But the couple split amongst hushed talk that Gastineau physically abused her. Gastineau later attributed his problems with women to his abuse of steroids.

"He had self-destructive tendencies," said Lisa Gastineau, who married Mark in 1979. "Sometimes he didn't realize his own size, his own power, the magnitude of his temper." Marcus Dell Gastineau was born on Nov. 20, 1956 in Ardmore, Okla. When he was seven, the family moved to Springerville, Ariz., where his parents, Ernie and Lou, owned a ranch. Ernie built his son a rodeo ring, and Mark began entering team-roping events at 12. Mark's other passion was collecting Indian artifacts in Arizona's White Mountains.

At Round Valley High School, Gastineau needed urging from his father to play football. Gastineau showed promise, but not enough to attract attention from major colleges. He entered Eastern Arizona Junior College in 1975 and earned All-America honors in his first season. He then transferred to Arizona State. After one miserable season, he transferred again, this time to East Central University, an NAIA school in Ada, Okla., that had never produced an NFL draft pick.

"After I signed the scholarship, I was walking across campus crying," Gastineau said, "because I knew my pro ambitions were probably down the drain."

Although he reduced his time in the 40-yard dash to 4.8 seconds, he was barely on the NFL's radar. His break came when he was a late addition at the 1979 Senior Bowl, where the Jets coaching staff was in charge of the North team. Gastineau saw it as an opportunity and emerged as the North's outstanding defensive lineman.

On draft day, the Jets didn't forget. They selected Gastineau in the second round after using their first pick on Lyons. "I didn't want [Mark] going to New York," Lou Gastineau said. "[He] couldn't even hardly handle Phoenix, so what's he going to do up there?"

He started only one game for the Jets as a rookie; he was primarily used on passing downs and registered only two sacks. He established his presence in 1980, when he led the team with 11 sacks and a career-high 122 quarterback pressures. Then came his first Pro Bowl season as Gastineau recorded 20 sacks in 1981 and finished second to Klecko in UPI's defensive player of the year balloting.

An injury to Klecko in 1982 resulted in Gastineau often being double-teamed, and that showed in Gastineau's sack total: He finished with only six in nine games in the strike-shortened season.

Gastineau returned strong, signing a reported five-year, $4 million contract extension before reducing his time in the 40-yard-dash to 4.55 seconds in training camp, making him unofficially the fastest lineman in football.

But Gastineau couldn't run from the law. In October 1983, he and quarterback Ken O'Brien were arrested and charged with assault for a brawl that left a patron with a broken nose at Studio 54 in Manhattan. Gastineau, who claimed he was trying to break up the fight, was found guilty of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to 90 hours of community service.

Gastineau's best season was 1984, when his record-setting 22 sacks earned him NFL defensive player of the year honors. He also was voted MVP of the Pro Bowl after recording four sacks, a safety and seven tackles. Gastineau, however, wasn't the most popular player with his teammates as he finished second to running back Freeman McNeil in the team's MVP voting.

A broken right thumb suffered in training camp slowed Gastineau for the first two months of the 1985 season, but he still managed to finish second in the AFC with 13 sacks. The next year, an abdominal/groin injury ended Gastineau's consecutive games streak at 108. He played only 10 games and had just two sacks.

In January 1987, the Jets seemed on their way to the AFC Championship game as they led the Browns by 10 points with less than four minutes remaining.

But Gastineau's late hit on quarterback Bernie Kosar kept alive a Cleveland touchdown drive that preceded a late field goal. The Jets lost in the second quarter of overtime and Gastineau was fined $2,500 by the NFL for the hit on Kosar.

Gastineau didn't help his standing with teammates by crossing the picket line during the 1987 players' strike. Teammates spit on Gastineau's car as he tried to pass through their picket. He left the car swinging and later said offensive lineman Guy Bingham had spit at him.

On the field, Gastineau was unproductive, managing only 4 sacks. Six weeks after the Jets' season concluded, Gastineau announced his engagement to Nielsen. He and his first wife Lisa had been separated since 1986, but their divorce wouldn't become final until 1991.

Seven weeks into the 1988 season, Gastineau was leading the AFC with seven sacks when he stunned teammates by announcing his retirement; he said he wanted to spend more time with Nielsen, whom he feared had uterine cancer.

It proved to be a false alarm. Years later, Gastineau admitted another reason he quit was that he was concerned that he would fail another drug test and that the public would learn he used anabolic steroids.

Gastineau tried a comeback, in the Canadian Football League in 1990. He signed a two-year contract with the British Columbia Lions, but got injured and was released after only four games.

With job prospects dim, Gastineau gave professional boxing a shot. Fighting a lineup of heavyweight chumps, Gastineau won his first nine bouts by knockout before losing to Tim Anderson in June 1992. It was later reported that some of Gastineau's fights were fixed in his favor. Gastineau fought until November 1996, compiling a 15-2 record.

On Aug. 25, 1998, Gastineau fought again. This time the opponent was his girlfriend, Patty Schorr, whom Gastineau would marry a month later. She told police that Gastineau beat, choked and threatened to crush her with a coffee table. Schorr didn't file any charges, but Gastineau was sentenced to three years probation in January 1999.

After repeatedly violating his probation he spent 11 months on Rikers Island.

In the wake of his beating of Schorr, Gastineau said he found religion. He was released from prison in July 2001 and five months later moved to suburban Phoenix to work for his brother-in-law, a vice president for a chain of health clubs.

"Peace, that's what I want out of life," Gastineau said. "I want to be happy with all these new things happening in my life. It's nothing but peace and happiness."

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