Bill Dupler is the proprietor of the Crest Tavern, Columbus, Ohio's original dart bar, which was established at the end of Prohibition and has not suffered from refurbishing in the ensuing years. It's a neighborhood joint, Archie Bunker's kind of place, where the drinking is hard, with elbows firmly planted on the bar, and the talk is of sports. One day last week Dupler was idly mopping up spilled beer when his attention—and everyone else's—shifted outside. "Look at that damn fool," Dupler says. "Just bounced his Jeep right up over the curb and parked. With things like that, I don't have to provide any entertainment here."
Immediately the door is darkened by the driver of the Jeep Renegade with the orange and yellow stripes, hulking Tom Cousineau, who is wearing a vest and no shirt, sloppy trousers, untied sneakers and a smile that lights up the saloon. All eyes fill with admiration. For while Cousineau, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft a fortnight ago, may not yet be a hot autograph in Buffalo, he writes his own ticket in Columbus. Right now, in fact, he is perfectly parked at the edge of a financial bonanza and national-celebrity status.
Megabucks will soon flow into the pockets of the Ohio State linebacker, courtesy of the Buffalo Bills, who picked Cousineau No. 1. Celebrity will probably take a bit longer. Not since 1965, when the old AFL Houston Oilers selected Baylor Wide Receiver Lawrence Elkins No. 1, has a first choice from a major school been so little known. Equally unheralded in recent years were Tennessee State's Too Tall Jones (1974) and Tampa's John Matuszak (1973), but they had played for smaller schools.
Curiously enough, since the pro draft was initiated in 1936, Cousineau is the only Ohio State player ever to be picked No. 1, and only the second linebacker so honored—the first being Texas' Tommy Nobis by Atlanta in 1966.
Even in football-crazed Columbus, where the fans are knowledgeable, there is some ignorance concerning Cousineau. Like the other night, when a man walked up to Cousineau and said, "I know you, you're an All-American here. Wait, yeah, Tim Cazzini. Hiya, Tim." Said Cousineau, "Right, that's me." Another guy approached, looked and said, "Hey, you're Cousineau. Wait, no you're not." Said Cousineau, "Right, I'm not."
But in the Crest, where Cousineau feels comfortable, there's no identity crisis. The customers like to slap Tom around, grinning and offering their opinions on how great he is. Sometimes, they go on to explain how they, too, would have been equally great "if only...." Cousineau is assailed on all sides. One man tries to make conversation by saying he's a "free-lance sportswriter," although it comes out "free-sance lortswriter" on the first try.
Tom gracefully squirms away and plugs a jukebox for Luckenbach, Texas. Another patron, Dave Korodi of Columbus, approaches Cousineau and says, "Boy, Tom, I guess this being No. 1 is something you have to get used to." Cousineau drains his bottle of Stroh's and says, laughing, "Well, you can get used to anything."
When Cousineau can slip off into a corner, he props his feet up on a chair and reflects on being No. 1. "How many times in most people's lives does someone walk up and say, 'You're the greatest'? " he asks rhetorically. "That would make anybody feel good—and I feel good. I'll tell you exactly how it feels. Remember how in school two guys would choose up sides, and what it felt like when you were the first one picked? That's it, exactly." He falls silent, thinking, tapping a beer bottle on a table, then adds softly, "I worked awful hard."
A case can be made that nobody anywhere ever worked harder. But because hard work doesn't pay off for everybody, how can he explain his success? Says Cousineau, "I was dropped on my head as a baby."
Gil Brandt, the player personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, says that more than half of the NFL's 28 teams would have drafted Cousineau No. 1, if given the chance. Buffalo Coach Chuck Knox says, "We had Cousineau rated as the best athlete in the draft, regardless of position."