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SportAn N.F.L. Star Hit Rock Bottom at Rikers Island. Now, He’s a Different Person.

LEBANON, Pa. — Narrow evergreens tower over the split-level house, lining the long driveway. Arborvitae, they are called. There are 145 of them, and not one has a branch out of place.

When Mark Gastineau and his wife came to see this property for the first time a few years ago, he stopped at the trees that are the color of the uniform he once wore. The realtor told them to come inside and look around, but Gastineau didn’t need to go inside. All he needed to see were the trees.

“They’re the most beautiful trees in the world,” he says. “I love them.”

Gastineau was one of the most accomplished pass rushers in NFL history. But more than that, he was a star. After games ended and his teammates left, he sometimes stayed on the Shea Stadium field so he could feel the crowd’s roar in his chest. He sat on talk show couches for David Letterman, Oprah and Dick Cavett. He won the 1985 “Superstars” competition in Miami and was featured in a six-page spread for “Playgirl” magazine titled, “Mark Gastineau: Out of Uniform.”

Gastineau still is the kind of person who turns heads at the grocery store, with thick black hair slicked back into a mullet that would stick out from the back of a helmet if he still wore one. But he’s 67 now, living with the reverberations of the life he led.

Like many of yesterday’s football heroes, Gastineau has cognitive issues. Headaches come and go, and he tires more quickly than before. At one point he thought he had Parkinson’s, but he says two neurologists have ruled that out.

Gastineau survived Stage 3 colon cancer in 2019 — he wore a colostomy bag for a year — but the chemo left him with neuropathy. If offered, he’ll take a hand when getting out of a chair.

As he gazes out at his Arborvitae, what’s certain is Mark Gastineau isn’t Mark Gastineau anymore.

In his dreams, he was a rodeo cowboy, but as a child growing up on his family’s ranch in the White Mountains of Arizona, Gastineau lacked confidence. Other kids bullied him.

In 2019, Gastineau told the New York Post he had been repeatedly raped as a child, starting when he was 11, by a worker on the ranch. Terrified for his family’s safety, he explained to the Post, he had repressed the memories for more than four decades.

Gastineau repressed nothing else. Everything was a plea for acknowledgment. He was labeled an attention seeker. Really, he was an attention needer.

He performed his first sack dance at Round Valley High School in Arizona, then began a college experience that settled at East Central Oklahoma, an NAIA school. He had 27 sacks there and danced plenty.

Speed was his gift, so he worked to enhance it by running downhill in his driveway over and over in an early adaptation of overspeed training. When an NFL scout timed him in the 40-yard dash, Gastineau ran 4.6 seconds at 265 pounds. In disbelief, the scout told him to do it again. After another 4.6, the scout said his watch must have been off. He tried another, and Gastineau ran a 4.59.

Jets coaches were in charge of the North team at the 1979 Senior Bowl and needed a last-minute replacement player. New York’s Connie Carberg, the NFL’s first female scout, researched the possibilities. She phoned Gastineau to feel him out and was impressed by his determination and enthusiasm, so she recommended him.

His performance was so impressive that he was voted the most outstanding defensive lineman on the North team, and the Jets drafted him in the second round.

Mark Gastineau was a pioneer of both the quarterback sack and the post-sack celebration. (Tom Berg / Getty Images)

Gastineau rushed the passer like fire on a trail of gasoline.

“Dominant is the first word that comes to your mind,” fellow Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko says. “In his best days as a pass rusher, I don’t think there was any better.”

Weighing as much as 290 pounds, Gastineau bench-pressed 400 and squatted 600. With the hunting instincts of a big cat — and an edge from the steroids he admits to taking — Gastineau went after quarterbacks with bloodlust.

“If the quarterback got up, I didn’t do my job,” Gastineau says.

In his third season in 1981, he had 20 sacks, one-half less than the league-leading Klecko. The NFL made sacks an official statistic one year later, and Gastineau led the league with 19 and 22 in 1983 and 1984, respectively. Fans started calling the Jets’ D-line of Gastineau, Klecko, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam “The New York Sack Exchange.” Team publicist Frank Ramos used it in press releases.

After sacks, Gastineau celebrated by pumping his arms, jumping and punching a fist to the sky. “I’d just go nuts,” he says.

“He was like a young colt, full of energy, enthusiasm and passion,” Carberg says.

“I’d have to believe that Mark singlehandedly made the sack a glamorous play and made the NFL start keeping the sack as a meaningful statistic,” Jets coach Joe Walton once said. “He brought attention to it like no one before.”

The look-at-me wasn’t always well received, however. In 1983, Rams offensive tackle Jackie Slater took offense and went after Gastineau, precipitating a melee that saw 37 players fined.

It was the first of two brawls that week for Gastineau. Early one morning at Studio 54, the New York nightclub where celebrities and trouble always could be found, noses were broken and arrests made. Gastineau was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to 90 days of community service.

Klecko, the throwback, and Gastineau, the throwforward, were a fierce tandem on the field but an uncomfortable one away from it. “I didn’t like what he was doing at all,” says Klecko, the leader of the defense. “But he liked that spotlight.”

At one point, Klecko led Gastineau into trainer Bob Reese’s office. He closed the door and locked it. Then he pounded his thick index finger into Gastineau’s shaved chest.

“Your sack dance is killing us,” he told him. “You have to cut this s— out.”

The point was made.

“I was definitely afraid of Klecko,” he says. “He was two years above me, strong as an ox and knew how to intimidate.”

It wasn’t just the sack celebrations that created rifts. The reviews on Gastineau’s run defense were mixed. His relentlessness and ability to penetrate often resulted in running backs being dropped in the backfield, but on other plays, his gap assignment looked like a wide-open highway.

“Mark worried about the statistics more than I or anybody else did,” Klecko says. “He always wanted to get to the quarterback right away, so we used to have to make coverups on the run.”

An opportunity arose for a New York Sack Exchange poster, but Gastineau’s agent tried to make it a Gastineau poster. Eventually, after hard feelings, he was talked into posing with the others.

When teammates took issue with how he drew attention to himself, Gastineau purposely drew more, wearing a mink coat and driving a Rolls-Royce, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini. “Just to get back at them and piss them off,” he says.

Walton, however, told Klecko to go easy on Gastineau. The coach acknowledged having two sets of rules — one for the rest of the players and one for Gastineau. He was the only one allowed to use the telephone in the trainer’s room. If he was late for meetings — and he often was — no one was to say anything. Gastineau’s father, Ernie, ran the 40-yard dash with players.

“That team was full of cliques and petty jealousies,” says then-Jets wide receiver Wesley Walker, who recalls one teammate spitting a wad of chewing tobacco in Gastineau’s soda cup when he wasn’t looking.

Walker didn’t have a problem with the sack dances — “Those are things I enjoyed,” he said. “He didn’t do it in a malicious way. He created something. A lot of guys do that now.” But before the 1984 season, the NFL passed a rule that said players who participated in prolonged, excessive or premeditated celebrations would be penalized 15 yards. It was referred to as “The Gastineau Rule.”

Despite his production, Gastineau’s New York Sack Exchange teammates Joe Klecko (center) and Marty Lyons (right) had little love for him while he was playing. (Focus on Sport / Getty Images)

With 22 sacks that year, Gastineau set a record that stood for 17 seasons. “I just remember him bringing it every play,” says Hall of Fame Houston Oilers offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, whom Gastineau beat for one of those sacks.

The sacks won him fans but not friends. Teammates voted running back Freeman McNeil most valuable player on the Jets after he rushed for 1,070 yards — 13th-most in the NFL. At the Pro Bowl that season, one of five he played in, Gastineau had four sacks and two forced fumbles on the way to being named MVP. Then Klecko swiped Gastineau’s helmet and gave it to Raiders Pro Bowler Howie Long as a souvenir.

In a 1986 divisional-round playoff against the Browns, Gastineau was determined to knock quarterback Bernie Kosar out of the game. In the fourth quarter, Gastineau hit him with such fury and force that he popped three teeth from his mouth.

The hit was gratifying but only momentarily. It was third-and-24, and Gastineau was assessed a roughing-the-passer penalty that kept alive a touchdown drive that enabled Kosar and the Browns to win in double overtime. Gastineau’s teammates refused to speak to him afterward.

When players went on strike the following summer, Gastineau crossed the picket line, saying he needed the money to pay his estranged wife. As he was entering the Jets facility, teammates spit on his car. He got out of the car swinging.

While he was still married to his first wife, Gastineau began seeing Brigitte Nielsen, the 6-foot-1 Danish model known for her roles in “Red Sonja” and “Rocky IV” fresh off relationships with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Nielsen had her people get in touch with his people after she saw him in a televised interview wearing nothing but a towel. They became the Taylor and Travis of their day. “People” magazine featured them on the cover, calling them “a pair of humongous lovebirds … unable to keep their hands or lips off each other.”

Through the first seven games of the 1988 season, Gastineau seemed revitalized. He was selected to serve as a game captain for the first time in his career, drew praise from teammates and was leading the AFC in sacks. He attributed his success to his happiness with Nielsen. But the relationship eventually became a wedge between him and the Jets.

Walker walked into an elevator at the team hotel and saw the two of them, expecting an introduction, but Gastineau never looked up, never said a word.

“I loved Mark and all my teammates,” Walker says. “But I think he did things that didn’t give a good indication of the type of person he really was. He got to be such a superstar that he kind of elevated himself over everybody.”

On Oct. 21, 18 days after Gastineau had three sacks in a game against the Chiefs, the 31-year-old stunned his team by announcing his retirement, citing Nielsen’s ovarian cancer diagnosis that was later discovered to be a precancerous condition.

After quitting football, Gastineau and Nielsen had each other’s names tattooed on their derrieres and partied from New York to Denmark to Scottsdale to Los Angeles. They broke up. She accused him of hitting her. They got back together. She got pregnant. Wherever they went, they saw spots from photo flashes. Gastineau says his drinking became a demon. It would be evident many times in the next dozen years or so.

After a tumultuous couple of years, Gastineau and Nielsen split for good in 1990. There was a comeback attempt in the Canadian Football League that lasted just four games, then a short-lived reincarnation as a boxer, where some of Gastineau’s opponents admitted throwing fights. He faced drug charges in 1993 after being arrested with 200 amphetamine pills at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix and was eventually sentenced to three years of probation.

Multiple women accused Gastineau of domestic abuse, including Nielsen and his second wife. He denies those allegations. In 1998, he was charged with misdemeanor assault, menacing and criminal possession of a weapon against his then-girlfriend, who became his second wife shortly thereafter (a year later, he was arrested for violating a protection order she obtained against him).

Gastineau pled guilty and was sentenced to undergo counseling. He failed to show up and was sentenced to serve weekends in jail. When he skipped a weekend, he was ordered to spend one year at a residential treatment center in the Bronx. He says his attorney wrongly advised him that he could leave the state. When he did, he was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

At Rikers Island, the Bronx jail known for violence, abuse and squalor, he says inmates tried to intimidate him and shake him down for money. “Sometimes it was really, really, really scary,” he says. One day a Jets game came on the prison television. And he saw a player wearing No. 99 — his number. “How did I get here?” he asked himself.

This was the bottom. Right where he was supposed to be.

Gastineau has found peace at home with Jo Ann and Gracie. (Dan Pompei / The Athletic)

After 11 months, Gastineau was released from Rikers. When he had been in the residential drug treatment program, he met congregants of Times Square Church who invited him to attend a service there.

Whenever Gastineau met people at the church, he introduced himself by saying, “Mark Gastineau, New York Jets.” He saw himself as who he had been, not who he could be, and this made him wonder if God — or anyone else — could love him. He met with Pastor David Wilkerson, who founded the nondenominational church. “You are not Mark Gastineau anymore,” Wilkerson told him. “You are now a child of God.”

In 2005, he met a realtor who didn’t know anything about him. “Wait until you read about me,” he told her. “I’m not in the Hall of Fame. I’m in the hall of shame.”

She read about him and then came to believe he wasn’t Mark Gastineau anymore. “I went by how he treated me,” says Jo Ann Gastineau, who became his third wife in 2007.

Mark led Jo Ann to Times Square Church, which was just what she needed. And she was just what he needed. They volunteered to scrub the church’s public toilets and joined the choir. For a weekly rehearsal, they drove from New Jersey, which sometimes took hours. They took the drive again on Sundays to perform at three services — 10 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

“He couldn’t sing that well, so we put him in the top row,” pastor Carter Conlon says. “He said he thought it was because he was tall. But it was because the top row was the farthest from the microphone.

“I didn’t know anything about sports, but the sports fans couldn’t believe the same Mark Gastineau who played for the New York Jets was wearing a robe, clapping his hands, crying and singing.”

But Gastineau was still struggling with something — he couldn’t forgive Klecko. Conlon told him unforgiveness would hurt him more than Klecko and implored him to let it go. The former teammates were together for an appearance in 2020 in New Jersey, shortly after Klecko had shoulder surgery. Gastineau suggested they pray for healing. Klecko was deeply appreciative.

“I was a young kid,” Klecko says now. “If I could go back, I probably would have been more accepting of his way and tried to talk to him more about it. Once the game is set aside, you have a different life. There is no confrontation between us anymore. I wish him all the best.”

These days, whenever they see each other, Gastineau asks about Klecko’s family, and that means everything to Klecko.

“I shouldn’t have done the things that I did,” Gastineau says. “The playboy attitude I had basically brought me into an atmosphere that was really wrong.”

He was once the highest-paid defensive lineman in the NFL, and players around the league envied “Gastineau money.” But during his cancer ordeal, money was tight. A GoFundMe effort helped. His old teammate Lyons organized a fundraiser, and some powerful people stepped up anonymously.

Gastineau gets by now. Paychecks from appearances help. He established a scholarship fund through Times Square Church that benefits at-risk youth with “passionate desire to serve Jesus through sports or music-related ministries.”

Gastineau finished his career with 107 1/2 sacks — 0.78 sacks per game played. The only players with a better sacks-per-game rate in history are T.J. Watt, Deacon Jones, Myles Garrett and Reggie White. Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman once ranked him history’s seventh-greatest pass rusher. Yet with his complicated legacy, Gastineau has never been a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“To me, he is equally deserving as Joe Klecko for the Hall of Fame,” Matthews says. “When you were preparing to play the Jets, you highlighted him, and he still produced. I think that’s the epitome of a Hall of Fame player.”

When Klecko was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, Gastineau attended. Klecko once said it would be an injustice if Gastineau was inducted. He thinks differently now, saying he would vote for him.

Being a Hall of Famer would be nice. But Gastineau doesn’t need a gold jacket. He doesn’t need to be noticed anymore.

“I have a wonderful life, a wonderful wife and this little dog,” he says, looking down at Gracie, their Golden Retriever who won’t stop giving affection. “They both love me, and that’s everything I need, you know?”

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Focus on Sport, Rick Stewart /Getty Images, Dan Pompei / The Athletic)


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