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Imagine you're a linebacker—25 years old, curly-haired, single, built along the lines of a lean Arnold Schwarzenegger—and you've just signed what may be the biggest contract in NFL history: $1 million up front, $500,000 per year for five years to play for the Cleveland Browns. You've purchased a $295,000, three-story, eight-bedroom, 78-year-old house on Lake Erie and the 120-foot-long driveway needs repaving. The question is: Do you repave it yourself?
If you're Tom Cousineau you do. Ankle-deep in cement, Cousineau wields a rake while his father, Tom Sr., and three helpers shovel and trowel. Wouldn't a man who just spent three years as the highest-paid player in Canadian Football League history, who' once bought a $25,000 Pantera sports car and then grew so disgusted with it after an hour's use that he sold it and got back his money plus a '55 Chevy, prefer to hire somebody for a job like this?
"Sure," says Cousineau, wiping away the sweat that has trickled past his rolled-up bandana and down his cheek. "But I don't mind working. And I want this done right. Plus it's a good way for Dad and I to spend some time together."
Ah yes, Dad—another specimen. Fifty years old, 6'2" and 220 pounds of Nautilus-trained muscle, Tom Sr. is the head football coach at Pompano (Fla.) High School and a former Marine heavyweight wrestler. Occasionally Dad drops his shovel and throws a hammerlock on his son, and the two men grapple through the muck in play. Tom Sr. played college football at Indiana, tried out for but never made the pros. Like his son, he wears a bandana around his head. Bandanas, seemingly, are a Cousineau family hallmark—Tom Jr. even wears one under his helmet during games.
The whole driveway scene, loaded as it is with work-ethic integrity, should make Cleveland owner Art Modell, a conservative man who nevertheless opened up the bank for Cousineau, rest easier. "I debated long and hard with myself before making the deal," says Modell. "I know that if Cousineau performs, nobody will care what I signed him for. If he doesn't, it'll be Modell's biggest boner ever."
Right now the Browns believe Cousineau is worth the extravagant price. Two years ago the team seemed on the verge of greatness, finishing the 1980 season with an 11-5 record and missing a shot at the Super Bowl by a single play. Down 14-12 to Oakland in an AFC divisional playoff game, the Browns had the ball second-and-nine on the Raiders' 13-yard line with 49 seconds left. They could have kicked a field goal and won. Instead, Quarterback Brian Sipe underthrew Tight End Ozzie Newsome in the end zone and Raider Safety Mike Davis intercepted. Oakland ran out the clock and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Despite the frustrating finish, that 1980 season seemed to portend a bright future for Cleveland. Five Browns were named to the Pro Bowl. Sipe was picked Most Valuable Player in the NFL. But last season the Browns staggered to a 5-11 record. The offense that had averaged 22.3 points a game in 1980, averaged just 17.2 in '81. The Browns' scoring efficiency from within opponents' 25-yard line dropped from 82% to 62%.
But the inside feeling was that the defense had failed most. Committed to a 3-4 alignment that demands superior linebacker play, the Browns were getting by with average talent. "We'd been dodging the bullet for three years," admits Coach Sam Rutigliano. "We were aware of our problems—that we hadn't been drafting well defensively and that we weren't getting big plays from the defensive line and linebackers. A team's turnover ratio is the most important factor in pro football. We were minus 18 in turnovers last year [53 lost balls to 35 take-aways], last in the whole league."
To shake things up Rutigliano traded or waived five players during the off-season, including starting Defensive End Lyle Alzado and starting Inside Linebacker Robert L. Jackson. Looking for "impact players of the Lawrence Taylor-Ronnie Lott type," Rutigliano drafted 6'4", 235-pound USC Linebacker Chip Banks in the first round of the 1982 draft. And Modell emptied his wallet for free-agent Cousineau.
"By impact player, I mean a demonstrative person with the hallmark of talent, somebody who makes everybody around him play better," says Rutigliano. "Cousineau is that kind of player."