By Ben Baskin
“Get ‘em Goose. Get ‘em.”
That’s what Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin’s Denver Broncos teammates would tell him when they were scouting an upcoming opponent. The refrain could be heard coming from the film room when the Broncos coaches began talking about an opposing player they needed to shut down. It was a plea to their hard-hitting, 6’3,” 225-pound strong safety to do what he did best.
“Goose was going to hit you, and he was going to hit you hard,” Lionel Taylor, Gonsoulin’s teammate for six seasons with the Broncos, said in a telephone interview. “If you came near Goose, if you caught it or not, you were going to get hit…That’s a fact. That was Goose’s game.”
One of those opponents was the Houston Oilers’ running back Billy Cannon, the Heisman Trophy winner out of LSU known for his unparalleled combination of strength and speed. When the two teams met, it was Goose’s job to stop him.
“I said ‘that’s Billy Cannon, he’s an All-American, he’s a big guy,’” Gonsoulin, 75, said in a phone interview. “They just said, ‘Get ‘em Goose, get ‘em.’ ”
Gonsoulin still remembers the play, at least as much of it as he can. The Oilers ran a swing pass out to Cannon near midfield, and when Cannon caught the ball, Gonsoulin immediately took off in his direction, only one thought lingering in his mind.
“Get ‘em Goose. Get ‘em.”
Both players were going full speed when they collided, an unstoppable object meeting an immovable force. At the last second, Gonsoulin instinctively decided to duck his helmet down low, connecting squarely with Cannon’s knee. And that is all that Goose remembers.
“When I woke up I was in the hospital, in full uniform,” he said.
Taylor, watching from the sideline, remembers more. He remembers Gonsoulin lying unconscious on the field in Denver, choking on his tongue which had slipped into the back of throat. His jaw was locked closed and the Broncos trainers didn’t have the necessary equipment to pry it open. Luckily, Bud McFadin, one of the team’s linebacker, came over and pushed Gonsoulin’s jaw bones on each side with his thumbs, and somehow was able to force open his mouth.
“Goose may not have been here if it wasn’t for that,” Taylor said.
Gonsoulin took two days off. Although his head was still throbbing on the Tuesday after the game, he was back at practice, going full contact.
“We had team doctors but they didn’t say not to go back. So I just went back,” Gonsoulin said.
It wasn’t the only time he suffered a head injury during his seven year career, which ended after the 1967 season due to an accumulation of injuries, including numbness in his arm and hand and a collarbone dislocation. Gonsoulin still has a protuberance in the middle of his neck, what he calls “a knot,” since the collarbone never set properly.
“The thing about Goose that set him apart is that when he came up to make a tackle, he hit as hard as any linebacker,” Mickey Slaughter, Gounsoulin’s teammate for three seasons in Denver, said in a phone interview. “And in doing so sometimes he would injure himself.”
While Gonsoulin said he has no way to tell how many concussions he suffered in his career, over time the various head traumas may have caused damage, he said. Gonsoulin said that he now suffers from memory loss, crippling headaches, and often finds himself confused. As a result, he is one of the more than 4,000 former players who have joined in a lawsuit against the NFL accusing the league of concealing information that linked football-related head injuries to brain damage. While a settlement of $765 million was agreed upon in August of 2013, judge Anita Brody recently rejected the proposal, asking for more financial analysis from both sides due to concerns that the amount would not be able to indemnify all retired players.
During a nearly two-hour phone interview, Gonsoulin was discursive and would at times repeat himself. Frequently he would have to call out to Nickie, his wife of 50 years, for help remembering specifics, such as names and dates. Gonsoulin said Nickie has to help him when they go out so that he doesn’t “wander off.”
“It’s very rough for him,” Nickie Gonsoulin said, referring to all of Gonsoulin’s ailments, which also includes recent open-heart surgery and prostate cancer that has forced him to undergo chemotherapy treatments. “I make him get out certain days just to make him feel good.”
Gonsoulin said that when he played, players didn’t “really think about concussions, or think they were harmful.”
Taylor added, “[the doctors] were hardly working on the sidelines” and that the word “concussion was never used in our day.”
“You just got knocked ‘cuckoo’, you got knocked out,” Slaugher said. “Concussion, I don’t think anybody knew what the word meant.”
“They’d always just say that you got your bell rung,” Gonsoulin remembered. “You’d go to the sidelines and the trainers didn’t know what to do. They would ask, ‘When were you born? What’s your name? How many fingers am I holding up?’ When you got one right they’d send you back in.”
But the injuries couldn’t stop Gonsoulin, whom Slaughter remembers as a “fierce competitor and a great teammate.” Gonsoulin started a remarkable 61 consecutive games while playing for the Broncos. “I was playing, no matter what,” he said. “I just felt if you get paid you better play.”
And it wasn’t like the players were getting paid very much in those early days. Gonsoulin said if you made “$15,000 a year, you did good.” He, like most players of his era, had to look for offseason jobs to supplement his income, often choosing to work in the oil refineries in his hometown of Port Arthur, Tx.
The Broncos at that time were known more for their parsimony than they were for winning football games. Players remember having to share clothes and equipment, not being given the right sized shoes, and the team’s general manager, Dean Griffing, chasing down fans to retrieve footballs that went into the stands after field goals and extra points.
While the Broncos didn’t finish above .500 in any of Gonsoulin’s six seasons in Denver, he was a star in the league, making six consecutive AFL All-Star Games. It wasn’t just resiliency and sledgehammer hits that defined Gonsoulin as a player, either. He totaled 11 interceptions in his rookie season, still a Broncos team record, including the first interception in AFL history. He had seven picks in the team’s first three games— four against the Buffalo Bills, also a Broncos team record — his pace slowing down only because opposing quarterbacks stopped throwing near him, Gonsoulin said. When he retired, he was the AFL all-time interception leader with 43 in his career.
Gonsoulin, who was drafted by the Broncos out of Baylor in 1960 and was in the team’s original training camp, said that he always worried about losing his job, no matter how well he played. He said that sometimes early in his career he would bring three suitcases with him on road trips, packed with all his belongings, because the Broncos were known to cut players while they were traveling, forcing them to take a bus back to Denver to collect their things.
After the 1966 season, Gonsoulin, a team captain at the time, was cut by the Broncos new head coach Lou Saban. Gonsoulin said he was hurt by the decision, and by the fact that Saban didn’t speak to him in person. He then decided to try out for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, and became one of the first players to make the switch across leagues.
“When I went [to the 49ers] I went with the idea that I’m going to show them that the AFL is just as good as the NFL,” Gonsoulin said. “I’m going to make this team, some way or another.”
And he did. Gonsoulin displayed his trademark toughness in that season, fighting through various injuries to play in all 14 games for the Niners, picking off three passes. Gonsoulin retired after that one season because, even though he still loved the game, his body could not handle the sport anymore. In 1984 the Broncos honored Gonsoulin as one of the four original members of the team’s “Ring of Fame.” His name is emblazoned on the facade inside the stadium, and there is a bronze bust of his face outside of it.
Gonsoulin represents a different era of football players. The ones who played before football was the nation’s most popular sport, before the league was generating $10 billion a year. Gonsoulin said he joined the NFL concussion suit not just for himself, but also in hopes that it would help to inform future players about the potential dangers of, what he calls, the “brutal sport I love.”