For the past decade, fans of the New York Jets and Giants have not had much to cheer about.
Since the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2011, they have only made the playoffs one time, in 2016.
In the past ten years, the Jets have barely sniffed the postseason (their last appearance was 2010).
It hasn’t always been this way of course.
Back in the 1980s, both teams played good football (for the most part) and were known for their colorful characters.
In particular, the Giants had superstar linebacker Lawrence Taylor while the Jets were led by terror Mark Gastineau.
Mark Gastineau's football aesthetic >>> pic.twitter.com/FwAAkyYBK7
— Jack (@actionjack69) March 29, 2020
Gastineau would play ten years in New York.
Along the way he built up a reputation as a wild man.
While he never experienced a Super Bowl title like Taylor did, he was responsible for returning Jets football to respectability.
Only years later did the world find out that, beneath that rough exterior, was a man full of pain and suffering.
This is the story of the life and career of Mark Gastineau.
Marcus “Mark” Dell Gastineau was born on November 20, 1956, in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
When he was seven, Gastineau and his family moved to Springerville, Arizona after his father bought a ranch.
As a child, Gastineau broke his leg in an accident.
The injury was so severe that doctors believed he would not walk again.
However, in a testament to his future success, the young Gastineau did not listen to the doctors and slowly but surely recovered.
As he got older, Gastineau’s father built his son a rodeo ring and Mark began entering team roping events when he was 12.
Gastineau also found delight looking for Indian artifacts in the White Mountains of Arizona.
As a student at Round Valley High School, Gastineau got involved in sports.
After years of trying, he finally talked his father into letting him play football.
Despite the fact that he showed ability as a player, there was no college interest in Gastineau by the time he graduated.
Gastineau Becomes a Force in College
Undeterred by the fact that he had no college football offers, Gastineau enrolled at Eastern Arizona Junior College in 1975.
He improved so much over the course of the season that he was named an All-American.
The following year, Gastineau transferred to Arizona State University and a higher caliber of football.
However, he lasted only a season in Phoenix and eventually moved on to East Central Oklahoma State University (now East Central University) in Ada, Oklahoma.
In two years at East Central, Gastineau brought down opposing quarterbacks 27 times.
He received Outstanding Defensive Lineman honors for the North squad at the 1979 Senior Bowl.
After his collegiate career, his professional prospects looked dim because he played at a small school.
However, everything changed when Connie Carberg (the first female scout in league history) got involved.
— Gotham City Crew (@GothamCityCrew) January 15, 2019
The ‘79 Senior Bowl North team was led by the New York Jets coaching staff.
In the weeks leading up to the game, the coaches needed another defensive lineman to round out their roster.
Enter Carberg, who by 1979 had figured out how to find diamonds in the rough.
“There were no computers, no combines, no pre-draft physicals, no Pro Days, no cell phones and no interviews,” Carberg said in an April interview. “And getting films of players was not easy. Scouts had to really get to know college coaches, trainers, friends of players – anything to get extra info when visiting schools.”
Carberg called around and eventually spoke to Gastineau.
After her conversation with him, Carberg recommended Gastineau to the New York coaches.
Gastineau’s play in the Senior Bowl, coupled with his strong pre-draft performances, propelled him up the 1979 Draft watch list.
In a matter of weeks, Gastineau went from a prospect with an eighth round grade to a Day 1 pick.
With the 41st pick in the second round of the ‘79 NFL Draft, the Jets selected Gastineau.
1979 and 1980
Unfortunately, the NFL did not always keep stats for some categories like they do today.
Looking at Gastineau’s career stats, one will find very little for his first three seasons.
However, Gastineau made enough of an impact during his rookie year (when he started only one game) that he became a starter in his second year.
The Jets were also starting to build for the future.
After winning Super Bowl III in 1968, the team returned to the playoffs the following year, then entered into a decade of futility.
In Gastineau’s rookie year (1979), the team went 8-8.
His sophomore season (1980) saw the team regress and finish 4-12.
Despite the constant losing, Jets fans had reason for optimism.
Rise of the “New York Sack Exchange” and Return to the Playoffs
1981 was a special season for the Jets.
That year the team finally came together and began winning games they lost in the past.
Gastineau became part of a New York defensive line that became one of the most feared in the league.
He partnered with line mates Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons, and Abdul Salaam to collectively sack opposing quarterbacks 66 times in ‘81.
Klecko led the team with 20.5 sacks and Gastineau was right behind with 20.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) December 21, 2016
Their fearsome style led to the nickname “The New York Sack Exchange.”
New York Jets legend Joe Klecko. The only player in NFL history who was a pro bowler at 3 different positions. Part of the famed Jets defense known as the New York Sack Exchange with Marty Lyons, Abdul Salaam and Mark Gastineau #JoeKlecko #NewYork #Jets #NYJ #NewYorkSackExchange pic.twitter.com/VHFe3kWPYx
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) September 26, 2020
“What was created here was this system of defeating opponents by the sack,” said Salaam at the time. “That is how we functioned. We would stop the run, put them in a second-and-long, third-and-long, and that would change the attitude of the offense.”
At first, the media focused the moniker only on Gastineau and Klecko.
However, Klecko insisted that all four be included in the name.
“They (media) originally wanted two of us, and I just put an axe on that,” said Klecko. “I said, “Listen, if it’s going to be a sack exchange, there’s going to be four of us, because without Abdul and Marty, Mark and I are nothing.”
In November of ‘81, Gastineau and his line mates were invited to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, which was the inspiration for the crew’s nickname.
Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons, Abdul Salaam and Mark Gastineau pose on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images). #Jets
— Jets X-Factor (@jetsxfactor) July 12, 2020
This quartet would plague the league for the next few years as the team began to return to respectability.
The defense played lights out and the Jets offense began moving the ball behind quarterback Richard Todd.
Although the 1981 season got off to a rough start when losses to the Bills, Bengals, and Steelers dropped them to 0-3, New York eventually turned things around.
Beginning with a victory in Week 4 over the Houston Oilers, the Jets reeled off a 10-2-1 record the rest of the season.
The team finished second in the AFC East division and made the playoffs for the first time since 1969.
During the Wild Card round of the ‘81 playoffs, New York faced off against the Buffalo Bills.
By the end of the 1st quarter, the Bills were in complete control and led 17-0.
This was significant because the Jets defense had only given up 37 first-quarter points the entire season.
However, things appeared to turn around late in the quarter when Gastineau hit Buffalo quarterback Joe Ferguson and caused him to fumble.
While trying to pick up the loose ball, Gastineau ended up accidentally knocking the ball forward twice.
The Bills Ken Jones finally recovered the ball and the New York bench groaned.
Not long after, the Jets found themselves in a 24-0 hole when Ferguson connected with receiver Frank Lewis.
New York then answered by scoring 10 points to close out the first half.
In the second half, the Jets outscored Buffalo 17-7.
It wasn’t enough, though, and New York’s season ended with a 31-27 loss.
The Jets get to the Doorstep of the Super Bowl
In 1982, the NFL Players went on strike for 57 days, causing the season to be shortened to nine games.
The Jets were 1-1 when the season was halted.
When the players returned from the picket lines, the Jets won their first four games on the way to a 5-2 finish.
That was good enough to help them return to the playoffs as the sixth seed in the NFL’s postseason tournament.
Gastineau did his part and finished the year as the team leader in sacks with six and was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Mark Gastineau enjoyed sacking QBs… pic.twitter.com/1bSwKLIhwY
— 80s Sports N Stuff (@80sSportsNStuff) March 7, 2019
The Jets first-round game against Cincinnati did not get off to a great start.
In a repeat of the 1981 playoffs, the team found itself behind after the first quarter 14-3.
Fortunately, New York rebounded and outscored the Bengals 41-3 the rest of the game.
The following week brought the hated Oakland Raiders.
After the Jets blanked the Raiders 10-0 in the first half, Oakland scored 14 unanswered points to begin the second half.
Then, with 3:45 remaining in the game, Jets running back Scott Dierking punched the ball over the goal line to beat the top-seeded Raiders 17-14.
New York suddenly found itself in the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1968.
The game itself was difficult to watch.
Playing in subpar conditions due to a wet and muddy field in Miami, the Jets and Dolphins slipped and slided to a zero-all score at halftime.
Todd particularly found the going tough while completing only 15 passes in 37 attempts and being picked off five times.
The Dolphins eventually found enough footing to find the end zone twice in the second half.
The 14-0 score ended New York’s dream season.
1983 and 1984
The Jets crashed back to Earth when both the 1983 and ‘84 seasons saw them finish 7-9.
However, Gastineau continued to make news, both on and off the field.
During the early hours of September 30, 1983, Gastineau, rookie quarterback Ken O’Brien, and some friends were patrons at the famed “Studio 54” in New York City.
At one point in the evening, a bartender by the name of John Benson challenged Gastineau to an arm wrestling competition.
Bystanders and Gastineau himself were shocked when Benson defeated him.
A fight broke out between Benson and Gastineau’s crew and Benson and another bystander sustained broken noses.
Benson then filed an assault claim against Gastineau later that day.
Episode 199! He came from a tiny school & set the NFL sack record. He also went out with movie stars & models, wore mink coats, and started a brawl at Studio 54. All of that, and a ton of arrests & some time at Rikers Island. It’s Mark Gastineau!!https://t.co/IMy95c5Lbt pic.twitter.com/yZKu5caTha
— Crime In Sports (@CrimeInSports) March 10, 2020
A year later, the case went to trial and the court found in favor of Benson.
Gastineau was so distraught that he threatened to not play in that week’s game.
Jets coach Joe Walton eventually talked him into playing.
Meanwhile, on the field Gastineau was tearing up the competition.
In 1983 he brought down opposing quarterbacks 19 times to lead the NFL.
He also picked up a touchdown that year on a fumble recovery.
Three-fourths of the New York Sack Exchange. Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko and Marty Lyons in 1983. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) #Jets
— Jets X-Factor (@jetsxfactor) September 6, 2020
During a game against the Los Angeles Rams that season, Gastineau sacked quarterback Vince Ferragamo.
That led to his now infamous “Sack Dance” which offended LA tackle Jackie Slater.
Slater and Gastineau had to be separated when the two locked horns after the play.
New York Jets, Los Angeles Rams, Sept. 25, 1983. Jackie Slater pops Mark Gastineau while he's engaged in his oh-so-rhythmic and elegant sack dance.
— Jets X-Factor (@jetsxfactor) March 28, 2020
In March of 1984, the NFL instituted a new rule where such celebrations would receive an ‘unsportsmanlike taunting’ penalty along with a fine for the player committing the foul.
“There were times with Mark’s sack dance; it didn’t sit comfortable with us in the locker room,” said Klecko years later. “But I think the best part of it all was that, when we came on the field to play on Sunday, I don’t care what was between any of us. As a football team, we played.”
In 1984, Gastineau had his best season as a pro, picking up 22 sacks, 69 tackles, and another fumble return for a score.
He was then voted the UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year.
During the Pro Bowl game after the season, Gastineau had four sacks and a safety which led him to be named the game’s MVP.
His sack record that year stood until the Giants Michael Strahan broke it in 2001.
Today in 1985, Mark Gastineau dodged the giant turf seams at Aloha Stadium and won Pro Bowl MVP… pic.twitter.com/9Soqdhmt2K
— 80s Sports N Stuff (@80sSportsNStuff) January 27, 2019
1985 and 1986
The 1985 season brought New York back to the playoffs.
O’Brien was now leading the team and he put together a respectable year, helping the team finish 11-5.
Gastineau was switched from left defensive end to the right side of the line in new defensive coordinator Bud Carson’s 3-4 scheme.
Gastineau broke his hand early in the season but still put together 13.5 sacks and was voted an All-Pro.
In their Wild Card round game against the Patriots, Gastineau registered a sack, but the team fell 26-14.
As the 1986 season dawned, Sports Illustrated put both Gastineau and the Giants Lawrence Taylor on the cover of their September 29 issue.
Lawrence Taylor and Mark Gastineau on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (1986) 🏈 pic.twitter.com/kvK5TZntLf
— Groovy History (@GroovyHistory) May 13, 2019
New York football was undergoing a resurgence as both the Jets and Giants found success, making the postseason numerous times throughout the 80s.
Both teams reached the playoffs in 1986.
The Giants would win the Super Bowl after the ‘86 and 1990 seasons.
Meanwhile, Gastineau and Taylor were two of the most dominant defenders in the NFL.
Eddie with Mark Gastineau pic.twitter.com/JYyUKBGJnR
— Sam (@SamSaintSlam) August 11, 2020
However, during the ‘86 season, Gastineau would tally only two sacks.
Groin and stomach issues, along with a left knee that required arthroscopic surgery, limited him to just seven games that season.
When he returned for the playoffs, Gastineau picked up a sack in the team’s Wild Card playoff game against Kansas City.
After the team crushed the Chiefs 35-15, they faced the Browns in the Divisional round.
With a little over four minutes left in the game against Cleveland, the Jets led 20-10.
New York was playing so well at that point that team announcer Charlie Steiner announced that, “The Jets are gonna win this football game!”
That statement turned out to be a tad premature.
On the Browns next drive, they faced a daunting 2nd and 24 from their own 18-yard line.
As Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar went back to pass, he got rid of the ball just as Gastineau barreled into him.
He was then stunned to find a yellow penalty flag near him after the play.
The call was a ‘roughing the passer’ penalty against Gastineau.
The result was a 1st and 10 at the Browns 33 instead of a 3rd down and 24 situation.
Gastineau was incensed but continued to play on.
Kosar then drove Cleveland down the field and got his team into the end zone to cut New York’s lead to 20-17.
After getting the ball back, Cleveland quickly went the length of the field again.
This time, Browns kicker Mark Moseley kicked a game-tying 22-yard field goal.
In the first overtime, neither team scored, which led to a second overtime.
Not long into the next period, Cleveland traveled 59 yards to set up a 27-yard field goal try by Moseley.
The former Redskin great sealed the Jets fate when he connected and sent the Browns into the next round with a 23-20 victory.
Gastineau was still steaming after the game.
Talking to the media, he explained that he had not roughed the passer and that he was, “just following through.” Lyons defended his teammate by saying, “(Ben Dreith) is a referee who’s known to take care of the quarterback.”
Jets coach Walton remarked, “It was a very key play, Mark was just trying to do the best he could do.”
1987 and a Surprising Retirement in 1988
In a repeat of 1982, the players went on strike again in 1987.
This time, the NFL team owners decided to use replacement players until the strike was resolved.
Gastineau made headlines when he was the first Jets team member to cross the picket lines.
His reason for returning so quickly was because he had to pay alimony and didn’t want to miss any game check.
This did not endear him to his teammates.
“We expected it (crossing the picket line) from Mark,” said punter Dave Jennings. “He’s always put himself in front of the team.”
Jennings’ comment brought to light a longstanding feud between Gastineau and many of his teammates.
As it turned out, Gastineau had not been very popular in the locker room.
After arriving at the team complex early in the strike, he got into a fight with backup center Guy Bingham.
Weeks later, both Lyons and Klecko joined Gastineau and crossed the picket line.
It was a disheartening move by the trio as the public saw their actions as undermining the strike.
After finishing the strike-shortened ‘87 season 6-9, the Jets hoped to get back to the playoffs in 1988.
The team was 3-3-1 after seven games when Gastineau dropped a bombshell.
In a public statement, he revealed that his fiance, actress Brigitte Nielsen, had cancer of the uterus.
Because of her ailment, Gastineau announced his retirement.
Teammates and fans were stunned, particularly because he was leading the AFC in sacks at the time with seven.
In the aftermath of the announcement, the local newspapers began an investigation into whether Nielsen was actually diagnosed with cancer.
I remember when Stallone's wife, Brigitte Nielsen, left him for Mark Gastineau. pic.twitter.com/fAnPhAcLMR
— LiNC😷LN PARK (@linc0lnpark) January 20, 2017
This reflected a severe mistrust between Gastineau and the local media.
Gastineau held firm and committed to his retirement.
At the time, he was the NFL’s all-time leader in sacks with 74.
Gastineau ended his NFL career with five trips to the Pro Bowl, three All-Pro honors, NFL sack leader in 1983 and 1984, five-time All-AFC team, NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1982), and UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year (1984).
Comeback Attempt and a Second “Career”
Two years later, Gastineau attempted to return to professional football by signing with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.
However, after only four games, he was released after not showing up to a meeting with Lions coach Lary Kuharich.
“I don’t know where he is,” Kuharich said after practice. “It’s over, I guess.”
In 1991, Gastineau tried his hand as a boxer. In his first fight against Derrick Dukes, Gastineau knocked Dukes out in the first round.
However, Dukes later admitted he intentionally threw the fight.
A few years later, the television show 60 Minutes interviewed many Gastineau opponents who were paid to “make dives.”
They claimed they were asked to do this to make Gastineau look good.
Gastineau’s career as a boxer ended after losing to former NFL player Alonzo Highsmith in 1996.
Gastineau’s record as a pugilist is 15 wins, two losses, and one no-contest.
Now watching Mark Gastineau v Alonzo Highsmith. To what depth have I sunk? pic.twitter.com/5sdxyItyOb
— Reggie Dunlop (@Kil787) July 16, 2020
Life in Retirement
By 2000, Gastineau and Nielsen had split, although they had a daughter, Brittny, together.
In September of that year, Gastineau was sentenced to 18 months in jail when he failed to complete an anger management course after hitting his second wife, Patricia (Gastineau’s first marriage with wife Lisa ended when his affair with Nielsen became public).
Upon being released from prison in 2001, Gastineau claimed to have turned his life around for good.
He appeared on faith-based programs such as The 700 Club to talk about his life and conversion to Christianity.
He then became a member of Times Square Church where he sang in the choir and eventually married his third wife, JoAnn, at the church.
In January of 2017, Gastineau revealed that he had been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
During subsequent interviews, Gastineau explained that he believed the cause of the brain issues stemmed from football.
In particular, he believed that poor tackling techniques were to blame.
He expressed a desire to teach young football players how to tackle properly.
When reached for comment after the story broke, his first wife, Lisa, did not hold back in her assessment of the situation.
“Maybe it’s karma,” Lisa said in 2018, before literally spelling it out, “K-A-R-M-A.”
Gastineau reached out to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for help after making his announcement.
“I want the NFL to treat people right,” Gastineau said in a radio interview. “They have to. The commissioner has to. … Hey, Roger Goodell, treat people right.”
It turned out that Gastineau knew Goodell when Goodell started in the league as a Jets public relations intern while Gastineau played for the team.
“I want to hold you to your promise, Roger Goodell,” Gastineau said. “When I was big, I treated him good. He’s big now, you know what? Treat us good.”
Unfortunately, Gastineau’s health and personal issues have not ended.
In March of 2019, he revealed that he was suffering from colon cancer.
Then, he released a startling statement in November of ‘19.
In an interview with The New York Post, Gastineau shared that he had been raped several times by a man who worked on his father’s ranch when he was young.
“I was raped. But I held it in for so long. Maybe cancer has made me confront it.”
Gastineau also said that he could not make the news public until his mother passed away in 2018.
“If my mom were alive, this story would never be out there. I would never, never be telling this story because it would kill her. My dad still has a hard time believing it.”
Gastineau’s legacy remains troubled.
Because of his off-the-field behavior, football insiders have a hard time putting his career in perspective.
Some believe that Gastineau belongs in the Hall of Fame while many others cite a lack of career consistency.
“The Hall of Fame is something that I will probably never be in,” Gastineau said in 2009.
Gastineau did make a case for his legacy in February of this year when he publicly stated that the single-season sack record should belong to him, not Strahan. Gastineau (and others) believe that Strahan only got the record because Packers quarterback Brett Favre took a dive to help Strahan get a full sack in the last game of 2001.
“It’s my record, and I want it to be known that it’s my record,” Gastineau told ESPN. “I’m not going to say, ‘I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.’ It’s my record.”
Gastineau was at the game that day and congratulated Strahan when he broke the record.
However, Gastineau claims he harbored bitterness for years about how Strahan got the record.
“Being nice and being a good sport, that’s good, but it’s not real,” Gastineau said. “In fact, I’m kind of a liar in a way. I feel like there’s just something wrong. This is on my head all the time. It goes through my head all the time. I want to clear things up.”
“I just want to be recognized for the record,” Gastineau continued. “You wouldn’t want your son getting a record like that. I don’t think it’s good for the NFL. It was never good for the NFL, and I’m surprised the NFL didn’t step in.”
Whatever happens in the future, Gastineau claims to have learned from his mistakes.
He also wants to help young people avoid the same mistakes he did, especially when it comes to women, football, and teamwork.
“If a football player is 16, 17 years old and he sees a tall blonde coming through the door, just don’t give it up. Don’t give up football. If you leave the team, you will regret it, and I do. I really feel bad, but at the time it was something that I did. There are consequences for everything you do in life.”