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Smoking with Siragusa

Larger-than-life football star, TV commentator and man-cave creator Tony Siragusa always speaks his mind
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, May/June 2013

(continued from page 3)

"Charlie smokes these killer cigars. If the cigar is under $100, he doesn't want to smoke it. He gave me a box of Cubans." He stops to light the cigar and a flame, set high enough to weld alloyed steel, lurches upward. "You wanna talk about a guy who knows sports-he's just a great guy. He gets a bad rap. But listen: he's living the dream everybody wants to live. All of a sudden he's gotta be some great guy and he can't party? Fuck that! You know what I'm saying?"

We do indeed. Siragusa shares a love of frankness with the famously libidinal actor—and a consequent loathing of political correctness. He retired in 2002, a year after he won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. His post-football life is head-spinningly abundant. In-season he is a Fox sideline analyst. Year round he cohosts "Man Caves," a kind of home makeover show for guys. He and his wife Kathy are raising three children in northern New Jersey. He owns a restaurant called Tiffany's, watches over his philanthropic Tony Siragusa Foundation, does TV commercials and has acted in a Spike Lee movie and in "The Sopranos."

Through it all he lives—and curses—with few restraints. As anthropologist Ashley Montagu argued in his book The Anatomy of Swearing, cursing is a relief mechanism "whereby excess energy is allowed to escape without doing anyone any serious injury." So what if Siragusa cursed about 20 times in the course of an interview? It's one of his ways to let off steam.

Siragusa came of age in Kenilworth, New Jersey, which he called "a little dot of a town" in his autobiography Goose. There he grew to be competitive at baseball, football, wrestling, even shooting pool. A trophy of his state wrestling championship sits in a case at David Brearley High School, next to one with his wife's all-around gymnastic score—still a school record more than 25 years later.

Despite his rounded athletic prowess, Siragusa has referred to himself as a "grinder," compared to the "stud athletes" of the Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister and Peter Boulware. Goose didn't flourish on the gridiron due to blinding speed and agility. There was talent, but his story is more one of will than skill.

His father Peter was also a grinder. "My dad was a blue collar guy—a tool-and-die man. He drove a cement truck and drove a limo, too." Peter also played high school football and owned an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. Tony was making pizzas there by the time he was 12. "I told my father I wanted to be the manager the first day I worked there." His father had other plans. Tony ended up washing the dishes for six months, then making cold sandwiches, then dinner, then pizzas. Later, when the elder Siragusa told his son he could finally manage, the father explained why it took so long. "He said, 'Listen, you have to work your way up in life. If you go right to the top you don't enjoy everything.' " And, explained the elder Siragusa, if anyone who works for you leaves, you know how to go and fill in when needed.

Siragusa grew up watching the New York Giants with his family, and he excelled on the football field at David Brearley High, not only playing the defensive line but punting and taking kicks. Life was looking up as he started looking at colleges. He visited the University of Miami, Iowa State, Boston College, West Virginia, then Penn State. He found the Nittany Lions cheap-they charged his father a dollar for a couple of cookies. "They want me to come here, and I'm going to make millions of dollars in television money for them, but I have to pay a dollar for cookies?" Siragusa decided to pass. He told his father, "These guys can kiss my ass."

He settled on the University of Pittsburgh, a five-hour drive from New Jersey, close enough that his father could afford to come see a game. He made 78 tackles in his second year and the buzz around him began to build, but in his junior year, in the fifth game against Boston College, running back Eddie Toner rolled over his right knee and tore Siragusa's medial lateral ligament, medial collateral ligament, and lateral collateral ligament. Thanks to Dr. Fred Fu, a leader in ACL surgery in the country, he was back on the field by the following April, but while practicing Siragusa shredded the ACL in his left knee. This time the repair was more difficult and he missed the whole season while rehabbing.

Before he graduated, Siragusa would face another challenge. Tony was at home visiting his parents after a summer backyard party. Everyone went to bed. In the middle of the night his mother was screaming that his father had a heart attack. Tony tried CPR, but Peter died at the hospital. Tony was 22.

Now he had to rehab and finish his senior year without his father. "I felt I had to do something with football to support the family," he says.

Six years after his father died, he and Kathy were driving down the Garden State Parkway, and he told her he wanted to stop at the cemetery to see his dad. He got to the headstone and his eyes welled up. He started to speak, but the words refused to come through the tears. "She looked scared," he says. "She told me later that she thought I was about to break up with her. But I had bought a diamond for her and I asked her to marry me right there in the cemetery. She started crying and said yes."

In 1990, Siragusa endured the horse auction better known as NFL Draft Day. His mother had invited everyone in earshot to the house to watch the drama unfold on television. They sat and waited. And waited. They watched as 12 rounds were completed. All told, 331 players had their names called out. Six of them were from the University of Pittsburgh, but none were named Siragusa. As it turned out, he had a better chance of being drafted by the Army in peacetime than being drafted by the NFL.

The silver lining was that drafted guys do get cut. Just as some Broadway shows close after a week, even No. 1 picks can turn out to be flops. And some of the greatest players—including Johnny Unitas, Kurt Warner, and Tom Brady—are either drafted late or not at all. Siragusa's agent Gus Sunseri was fielding calls. Indianapolis called. After Sunseri explained where it was (Siragusa, who hadn't yet left the Northeast, thought he meant "Annapolis")—Tony called an old mate from Pitt who assured him that he would be the best defensive lineman on the team.

He got a $1,000 signing bonus and a rookie salary of $75,000, with another 10 grand coming if he made the team. And just in case Goose had another knee problem or suffered some other injury, language in the contract made it clear that the Colts were not liable for a dime.

No matter. A persistent edginess, fueled by people who underestimated him, always carried Siragusa. If overlooked or cut from his position, he snapped back and sought a "I'll-prove-you-wrong" brand of revenge.

He needed it. "I made the NFL on hustle. When I first got to Indianapolis I really didn't know anything. I just knew that if I tackled that son-of-a bitch with the ball behind the line it's going to be a good job." A college coach taught him how to watch film, and he used craft and guile to figure out how an offense really thinks. "I made believe I was an offensive lineman and sat in the offensive meeting rooms," says Siragusa. "I was listening to the offensive line coach and how he was telling his guys how to block a defensive guy. And then I used that against him. So it was almost like being at war with Patton, and being on the other side, and sitting in a room and picking Patton's brain and being able to screw him up."

In Indy he also met Ted Marchibroda, who he would play for again in Baltimore. "He just handled things differently. He didn't get in your face. He treated you like a man. He confided in me, which I really liked. He asked me what I thought about certain people," says Siragusa. "Even though he was gone after the 1998 season, he was a vital part of the camaraderie and the guys who got together and won that Super Bowl."

Siragusa was playing for Marchibroda with Indy in the game he will never forget, a 20-16 loss to the Steelers in the AFL championship game in January, 1996. "It was the most memorable game I ever played in, with Jim Harbaugh being our quarterback and a bunch of nobodies," says Siragusa. They fell short one play from getting into the Super Bowl.

"I never wanted to be in that situation again," explains Siragusa. "I never wanted to be at the tip—you know, feel it, taste it, but not getting there. I carried that feeling into the Super Bowl with the Ravens. I said 'I'm not leaving here without a win.' "

The Colts asked Siragusa back, but he wanted out. "We would have killed for Ted Marchibroda, and our ownership comes in and fires him! And then they hire Lindy Infante." Infante had doubted Siragusa when he said he had a knee injury, and even kept him off the active roster for the first playoff game. He was a free agent. Siragusa once thought of living in Indiana, but the quintessential Jersey guy living in Indiana makes about as much sense as Woody Allen relocating to Nebraska.

One call came from the Raiders. "[Oakland owner] Al Davis brought me in and he offered me a deal and then he
decided he was going to go $50,000 lower the next day. He said, 'Every day is a new day.' I said, 'You're absolutely right. Give me my fucking plane ticket. I'm outta here.' "

He settled with the Ravens. His fourth year there felt special, even though the team started out with a 5-4 record. "We needed to get better. We went five weeks with no [offensive] touchdowns with Tony Banks as our quarterback. It was like, 'Alright, we have to get better.' "

The Ravens calling card was a smothering defense, with Siragusa and Sam Adams on the defensive line, and linebackers Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper and the unstoppable Ray Lewis. The city that once boasted one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Johnny Unitas now enjoyed a whole other identity, rolling off 11 straight wins to conclude the season.

"We shut someone out, but we [felt we] can do it even better, we can hold them to less yards. If we hold a team to 105 yards, then we can hold them to 100. It was a pride thing," says Siragusa. "And we had more fun. We busted more balls. But when we went out to practice and they blew the horn, everyone would turn from the biggest jokesters ever, messing around, to the most serious motherfuckers you ever met in your life. It's almost like when you look at the military and everyone is joking around and all of a sudden this general comes in. And the whole attitude completely changes. We didn't have a general, but we knew when it was work time, everybody would flip that switch. You didn't want to be in front of us. It was a freight train coming."

Over the 11 straight wins, only three opponents scored 10 points or more against the Ravens. In the conference championship game against Oakland, they held the Raiders to just 24 yards on the ground and stifled them 16-3. Weighing in at 340 pounds, Siragusa leveled Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon, separating Gannon's shoulder. The league fined him $10,000 for "an illegal hit." Gannon went on ESPN, describing the pain.

"I'm lying in bed with my wife and we're watching TV, and she comes up with the best line," says Siragusa. "My wife is all of about five-foot-one and 100 pounds. She hears Gannon complaining and says, 'You jump on me twice a week and I don't complain about it. If I complain, do I get $10,000?' I started laughing and I said, 'I'm using that one.' "

On the day of the Super Bowl, Siragusa arrived at the stadium six hours before anyone else. "Because I played with emotion-my adrenaline would get flowing and I just had to calm myself down. Stay calm, stay collected, stay relaxed. I was reading through the program and it had the picture of all the different Super Bowl rings. I went around with a razor blade and cut it out and stuck it in everyone's locker. So everybody had one. So they knew that when they came the first thing they saw was this ring. I said, 'This is the reason why we're here. Not for any other reason. Not for national television, the biggest spotlight,'" he says. "We're here to get a ring. If we get that ring, we'll be together for the rest of our lives because they will also bring us back as the group that won the Super Bowl."

The game itself was an anticlimax to the dominant three months that had preceded it. The Ravens won 34-7, not even allowing the Giants an offensive touchdown. It was fitting: the 2000 Ravens' defense holds the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, 165. That is more than two points per game less than the 1985 Bears, who allowed 198 points.

Siragusa got his ring, and since his retirement at the age of 34 in 2002, Siragusa has eased seamlessly into his new life. One steady gig has been with "Man Caves" on the DIY Network on cable, a show where Siragusa and cohost Jason Cameron build rooms where guys can be guys and enjoy cigars, pool or whatever their favorite hobby might be. "My agent called me up and said, 'Do you want to do this show? It's almost like "Total Home Makeover," but it's for guys.' I said 'Yes—we're gonna give guys their nuts back.'"

In one instance a guy wanted a fantasy football headquarters room for him and his buddies to watch the NFL draft. He wasn't allowed a glimpse of what was happening until the work finished. Jason Cameron and the "Man Caves" crew built him a sports ticker, put in a conference table with a surface like a football field, mounted a fish tank, added a leather couch and chairs, a bar, a 46-inch and two 26-inch televisions. Other projects have included golf simulators, poker tables and, yes, smoking rooms.

Siragusa is known for his tough side, but his Tony Siragusa Foundation raises money for terminally ill kids. He has also given money to the Make-a-Wish program, the American Cancer Society, and other things too, such as Little League.

Siragusa's acting career got an unexpected start when he was shopping at Home Depot. "Someone calls me up and says, 'Hey Goose, this is Spike Lee.' So I thought one of my buddies is fucking with me. So I said, 'Yeah, yeah—I'll call you later,' and I hung up." Undeterred, Lee phoned him back. He wanted Siragusa to be in a mob movie. Siragusa saw a natural fit.

"He meets me at my agent's conference room. He comes in and doesn't say anything about the goddamned movie. He says, 'Hey man, you did a great job in the Super Bowl.' Then he said, 'It's not going to be an Italian mob movie, you're going to be a Russian and I'll call you later, I gotta go.' " 

A confused Siragusa called his agent. Acting in a mob movie but playing a Russian? Then Lee sent a person to teach the former NFL star how to speak Russian. "I had to speak with my tongue on the roof of my mouth," he says. The movie was The 25th Hour and it included Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton and Anna Paquin.

"The Sopranos" acting experience wasn't nearly as smooth. He played Frank Cortese, Tony's driver and bodyguard, but he disliked spending 18 hours on the set and being filmed for two minutes. "I said to this lady, 'You're wasting my life.' With Spike it was like 'Goose, you're on. Be here at this time.' Boom. You're done. But these guys were making up "The Sopranos" as we were sitting there. They're saying, 'Oh, what do you think he should do?' 'Oh, I think I should go over here.' 'Alright, you go over there and what do you want to do?' 'I'm going to go over there. Uh, let's talk about it,' " he says. "They had four writers, so it was a little bit crazy." The spot ended when they wanted him to shoot during a planned vacation.


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Comments   2 comment(s)

Kenny Braun — Barnhart, Missouri, U.S.,  —  October 4, 2013 10:38am ET

Great article! Love the fact that he's a "what I would call" normal smoker. Whenever he feels like he needs to relax he has a smoke, nothing to grab attention or chain smoke. I had a chance to chat with Goose at a benefit dinner about 3 years ago... how he spoke in this article is 100% spot on. Absolutely genuine, and no holds barred. One of the most sincere former professional athletes I have ever spoken with.


ernie brambert October 5, 2013 10:06am ET

I agree. A great article on Tony. I had the pleasure of meeting him in 1990 when he and another Colt rookie stopped one night in the department store I was working part time. I was trying to pitch an expensive leather coat to him and while unsuccessful effort in my effort, it was a fun experience. I realized he is the real deal. That carrys over to his brodacasting too. Such a refreshing personality. And fellow cigar aficionado as well.


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