There was never much doubt around Buffalo or anywhere else that Cousineau would be the No. 1 choice, although it wasn't until April 28, less than a week before the draft, that the Bills made that firm decision. Knox called Cousineau and said, "You're our man." Says Cousineau, "I informed him he was making a wise choice."
People in Buffalo already love Cousineau, partly because he hasn't made fun of the town (one critic sneers, "How could a guy from Cleveland make fun of Buffalo?"), and Tom professes delight with his new team. He jokes that there's only one way he can fail in the pros, and that's "if the snow and bitter cold make me arthritic before my time."
Cousineau's relative anonymity is easy to explain. First, he is a linebacker, not a running back or a quarterback. Then, Ohio State has been slipping in recent years—three losses in 1977, four losses and a tie last year. And finally, Woody Hayes not only insisted on being center stage, but he also seldom let anybody even stand on the stage with him. On his television football show, Hayes not only asked the questions of the players, he answered them as well. Thus, a number of Buckeyes who would have gotten more publicity at another school have been similarly unsung.
Although Hayes was fired for slugging a Clemson player at the end of the 1978 Gator Bowl game, he routinely hit his own players, who accepted the punishment in relatively good spirits. Cousineau says the maddest Hayes ever got at him was in the spring game of his junior year, an affair attended by a number of pro scouts. The defense was under orders not to tackle Quarterback Rod Gerald, but in his thoroughgoing exuberance, Cousineau did. Says Cousineau, "Woody came racing across the field hollering, 'You goddam stupid s.o.b.' He had his arm cocked, then he saw it was me, and he knew I wasn't one of the players who needed to be motivated by being hit. So he lowered his aim and hit me in the stomach. I laughed. The pro scouts laughed. Woody didn't laugh."
Nobody laughs at Cousineau's Ohio State statistics. "I wanted to set the records high enough so that they'll never be broken," he says. Maybe he did. In 1978 Cousineau set a record for tackles in one game (36 against Penn State), solo tackles in a season (142), total tackles in a season (244) and career tackles (647). The old career record was 320 by Randy Gradishar in 1973. Dave Adkins, another former OSU linebacker, who played with Cousineau for several years, says, "He was pretty good."
Buffalo is counting on that and a lot more. The Bills had the fifth-worst defense in the NFL last season, and were the poorest in the league against the run. They gave up 354 points, and had a 5-11 record, good for a last-place tie with Baltimore in the AFC East. Knox was instrumental in signing Joe Namath when he was an assistant coach of the Jets in 1964, and he sees a lot of Namath in Cousineau. "Tom has the same star quality about him," Knox says.
Buffalo's director of college scouting, Norm Pollom, saw Cousineau against Penn State, and after that the Bills had a bead on him. Ideally, the pros like their middle linebackers at about 6'2", 225 pounds; Cousineau is 6'2?", 232 pounds. With 4.7 speed for 40 yards, he's also about .2 faster than most fast linebackers. However, like most college linebackers, Cousineau must learn how to play the pass better. On the whole, though, Pollom says, "Everything about him is positive."
It always has been. Growing up in the Cleveland suburb of Fairview Park, he was in the Fairview Park High School district, but St. Edward's High, a parochial school, was the football power. When he mentioned that he was thinking of transferring to St. Edward's, the Fairview Park coach said, "I'd sure hate for you to go over there and get lost in the shuffle." Says Cousineau, "That was enough to send me there immediately." He helped St. Edward's to four years of glory.
Tom's father, Thomas Richard Cousineau, was the football and wrestling coach at Lakewood High, another public school, but Tom couldn't go there because the family didn't live in that district. Thus Tom, who once was the state's second-ranked heavyweight wrestler, although he hated the sport, would sometimes find his own father sitting across the mat and cheering against him. But nothing deflates Cousineau.
"It's all in the way you look at things," Cousineau says. "Somebody asks, 'How are you?' They say, 'Not bad.' I say, 'Pretty good.' "