After a year-long battle with stage 3 colon cancer in which he endured surgery, months of exhausting chemotherapy and weeks of daily radiation, New York Jets great Mark Gastineau has finally emerged cancer-free.
Now it is time to free himself of other burdens.
His latest health ordeal has made him more reflective about a colorful life that saw him go from Southwest farmboy to the toast of the Big Apple, where he became a cornerstone of the Jets franchise and an NFL lightning rod. Long before today’s constant, contrived on-field celebrations, Gastineau’s exuberant, never-before-seen “sack dances” ignited the fans — and a national debate on sportsmanship.
As he approaches his 63rd birthday later this month, he is unpacking emotional baggage, not gridiron memories.
“I was raped,” Gastineau reveals almost matter of factly. “But I held it in for so long. Maybe cancer has made me confront it.”
He says it started when he was only 11. His abuser was a man from Mexico who worked as his father’s right hand on the family’s 80-acre ranch in the White Mountains of Arizona.
“Can you imagine, somebody like myself, a football player, a big bad guy, getting raped at that age? He scared me to death,” says Gastineau, recalling being “passive” and afraid of his own shadow as a kid. “You would never believe I was going to grow up to be a football player.”
He says the abuse lasted until he was 14, and he buried the horrific memories until he met his third wife, Jo Ann, whom he married 12 years ago.
“I didn’t even think about it until I married her and I could trust someone to tell,” he says, sitting across from Jo Ann in the living room of their suburban home, just outside of Trenton. “But I held it in for so long.”
The five-time Pro Bowler and former member of the fabled “New York Sack Exchange,” Gastineau doesn’t blame any of his off the field troubles — which included anger-management and drug-abuse issues — on the trauma he experienced as a boy.
“I didn’t think about it. God blessed me with a short memory,” he says.
In addition to his battle with cancer, the death last year of his beloved mother, Lou, just two days before his colon surgery, liberated him to talk about this harrowing part of his childhood.
“If my mom were alive, this story would never be out there,” he says. “I would never, never be telling this story because it would kill her. My dad still has a hard time believing it.”
He told his father only last year, and he has no intention of confronting his abuser. “I don’t know where he is and I don’t want to know.”
Gastineau, who declined to go into detail about the abuse or his abuser, says he will be writing more about the ordeal in his memoir, which he is currently working on with a ghostwriter.
The tome will be published with the help of his pastor, Carter Conlon of Times Square Church, where the now devout Christian has worshiped for close to two decades and where the Gastineaus were members of the choir for seven years.
He said he is going public for the first time to raise awareness about sexual abuse and to stress that parents need to be cautious about who they bring into their children’s lives.
“I might as well get used to talking about this. I am sure people will be shocked,” he says. “I really need people to watch what goes on around their kids.”
Echoed Jo Ann: “If something like that can happen to a football player, you really need to pay close attention to what goes on and who is around your kids.”
Gastineau’s cancer diagnosis may have helped him exorcise old demons, but it has also put him and Jo Ann, 58, in a precarious financial situation.
For years they have been fighting to keep their modest two-bedroom, two-bathroom home in an over-55 community, which they have owned since 2003. But with mounting medical bills they found themselves drowning.
Gastineau, who once held the NFL record for most sacks in a season, is no stranger to money issues. During the peak of his storied nine-year career, he earned $800,000 annually, but the AP reported that he lost all of his assets in 1991 during a contentious divorce battle with his first wife, Lisa Gastineau (star of the 2005 reality show, “Gastineau Girls”).
“Our plate got full,” Gastineau says. “It’s to the point where we don’t know what to do.”
They currently live on Gastineau’s NFL pension and money from appearances and autograph signings.
At the suggestion of Pastor Conlon, the couple created a GoFundMe to help with both home and medical bills.
Jo Ann — who retired from working in real estate sales and is now her’s husband’s full-time caretaker — set up the crowdfunding page in May.
So far, they have raised $33,328 of their $75,000 goal.
“The last thing I want to do is speak to someone about my personal life. I don’t like putting this out there. We just don’t know what else to do. I just think ‘Are we going to lose our home?’” says Jo Ann.
She says they have at most 24 months in the home before the bank takes it. “I look around and I think, should I be packing this stuff up? What should I be doing besides praying and asking for a miracle.”
Like many primary caretakers, Jo Ann is overwhelmed both physically and emotionally. In 2017, her husband announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinsons, dementia and Alzheimers. Any medical care related to his neurological issues is covered by the NFL under the league’s 88 Plan. (His cancer care isn’t covered).
“Three years before the cancer, the NFL was going through the concussion stuff. We didn’t get involved because he was okay. I would see players in wheelchairs. And they needed help. The NFL concussion lawsuit was class action, so they contacted us and said, ‘You are part of it, so get tested’,” said Jo Ann.
Gastineau had suffered headaches, but they never expected such a devastating diagnosis because he wasn’t exhibiting any of the typical symptoms.
“Sometimes it could be his memory but my memory goes too,” says Jo Ann. “I am with him every day so you don’t always notice everything.”
And though they are approved to receive compensation through the NFL Concussion Settlement, they have yet to receive any money. “We are now just focused on the cancer, and we are working on neurological appointments. I just want to get through that. I don’t expect a penny from the NFL. My concern is the other treatments.”
Gastineau wants to help people by speaking of his own battles.
“I want people to know about cancer, and I want them to know they need to get tested,” Gastineau says “I am weak. I don’t have the strength to hardly come to the door. I want to reach people so they don’t have to go through what I’ve gone through.”
He is far from the snarling sack machine he was in his prime. He’s quick to crack a joke and laughs frequently.
And he’s particularly proud of the relationship he has forged this year with his 29-year-old son, Marcus, whom he shares with former girlfriend Brigitte Nielsen. “When [Brigitte] had him, we weren’t married. She had him and went to Milan,” Gastineau recalls.
According to Jo Ann, Marcus’ mother revealed to him that his biological dad was Mark Gastineau when the youngster was 10. The pair connected 10 years ago, but lost touch. They now speak frequently and Marcus — a 6-foot-6 blonde — visited them with his fiance Fabiana in September. They are hoping to move to the United States full time in April, a prospect that makes the Gastineaus giddy.
“His hands are big, everything is like me. I love him. He is going to give me a grandson,” said Gastineau. “He sends me hearts every day. He tells me ‘I love you dad’. He takes care of me.”
His relationship with daughter Brittny from his first marriage has long been rocky, but they do speak. He and Jo Ann were in contact with her to wish her a happy birthday last week.
The couple has been buoyed by the love from old friends, like Connie Nicholas Carberg, the Jets scouting assistant who is responsible for Gang Green bringing Gastineau to New York. They speak a few times a week. Their spare bedroom, which is decorated with Jets memorabilia, is dubbed “Connie’s Room” and she stays with the pair when she visits from Florida.
And then there are old teammates, like Marty Lyons, who was the first to call Mark in the hospital. Abdul Salaam and Joe Klecko — who, with Lyons, were the other three members of the “Sack Exchange” — and Jets special teams coordinator Brant Boyer frequently check in on him. And he said team owner Christopher Johnson has been a “great support.”
“Mark realizes, like all of us, that we’re closer to the end than the beginning,” Lyons told ESPN. “He’s been humbled and he’s thankful. Maybe he didn’t say ‘thank you’ to enough people along the way, but it’s not too late. He has a long battle in front of him, but the one thing he has now that he didn’t have before is his faith.”
And there are the messages from those who have donated to their fund.
“People will say two words. ‘I care’. It’s incredible,” says Jo Ann.
“I have been loved. I think I have about two or three purposes now. Use me as an example,” Gastineau says of his battle with cancer and childhood trauma. “But don’t follow my life off the field when I was playing.”
Additional reporting by Dean Balsamini.