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Cousineau Takes a Lucky Bounce : Cut by Cleveland, He Lands on His Feet in San Francisco

Times Staff Writer

Tom Cousineau’s first week in September was one of thunder and lightning, sunshine and rain.

On Monday he was cut, shockingly, by the Cleveland Browns. On Tuesday, he sold his house, and Wednesday the 49ers phoned to invite him to San Francisco Thursday so he could fly to Tampa with them Friday to play the Buccaneers Sunday. Whatever reasons the Browns had for waiving him, it couldn’t have been a lack of mobility.

“My body was a little confused,” Cousineau said. “I wasn’t sure what time zone I was in.”

Or what zone coverage. Playing at a new position--outside linebacker, instead of inside--in the last quarter of the 31-7 victory over the Buccaneers, Cousineau played on instinct and was the recipient of one of a record seven interceptions thrown by Steve DeBerg.

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This Sunday, he’ll play against the Rams at Anaheim.

Cousineau, 29, is still puzzled by the chain of events that led him to the 49ers. A starter at inside linebacker for five years, he was cut by the Browns, who then signed an older Brad Van Pelt, who had been cut by the Raiders, to fill an outside need. The 49ers also had an outside need. They intended to fill it with Cousineau.

The 49ers’ need was created by an injury to Todd Shell, the Browns’ by the holdout of Chip Banks, who finally reported last week. Cousineau hadn’t played outside since his rookie year of 1979 at Montreal in the Canadian Football League.

But he said: “I think I can play very well on the outside. Actually, I’m probably more suited to the outside . . . my range, pretty quick feet and hands--and I’m a pretty good blitzer, (although) I haven’t been able to work on it. We didn’t blitz at all from the inside in Cleveland, except my first year up there when I led the team in sacks.”

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Cousineau was the Buffalo Bills’ first-round choice in ’79 but chose to play in Canada. When he returned three years later, the Bills traded his National Football League rights to Cleveland rather than meet his salary demand.

This summer the Browns were shuffling linebackers, but Cousineau, who worked with the first unit right up to the end, didn’t think he would be affected.

“Matter of fact, I had the best camp I’ve ever had, and Marty (Coach Schottenheimer) concurred with that,” he said.

“But I think everybody was prepared for something to happen. We were looking at every available linebacker in the league. Chip wasn’t in camp, and (we thought) maybe they were gonna deal Chip. There had been rumors.”

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Instead, the Browns signed two United States Football League refugees, then unloaded Cousineau and his $500,000-a-year salary.

Cousineau doesn’t know if his salary was a factor, but the Browns probably got Van Pelt considerably cheaper.

“I’m not privy to that type of information,” Cousineau said. “Those things are decided by management. I’m just a laborer.”

Besides, he had to cope with the trauma of sudden unemployment.

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“It dents the ego a little bit, but I’m not in a small club,” he said. “A lot of great players have been waived, traded and moved around the league.”

Because any team that claimed Cousineau was obligated to pick up his contract, he made it all the way through the AFC and most of the NFC to the 49ers, who had one of the last shots at him because of their 10-6 record last season.

They apparently contacted him and reached an understanding that he would play for less--perhaps $300,000--if they claimed him.

Cousineau and 49er owner Ed DeBartolo Jr. renewed old acquaintances in the lobby of the 49ers’ hotel at Tampa last Saturday. Both are natives of Youngstown, Ohio.

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“His agent is my dentist,” DeBartolo said.

DeBartolo denied that there had been any behind-the-scenes maneuvering, but by the end of the week Cousineau had no complaints.

“It’s really odd to feel that low and then this high,” he said. “Your first instinct is to say, ‘Shoot, it’s over.’ And then to go to feeling as good as I did about being picked up by the 49ers . . . learning a new position is going to be really stimulating, as well.”

There was a rumor that Cousineau had a back problem. He was seen wearing a rubber girdle on the sidelines when the Browns played the Raiders at the Coliseum in the final exhibition game. Cousineau said he is fit.

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“I’ve had bumps and bruises, but nothing orthopedic. When we played the Raiders, I played the first half, and then I had the rubber thing on just to keep everything warm in case I had to go back in.”

Cousineau thought it might take time to get over being a Brown.

“I liked playing in Cleveland,” he said, admitting that it had been a difficult summer in the wake of the cocaine-related death of safety Don Rogers.

“It’s very difficult to measure the impact of losing a friend,” Cousineau said. “I can’t spread my hands apart far enough to tell you that. It’s very sad. We were all hurt because he was a good kid and a very good player.”

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But he didn’t think it will affect the team’s performance.

“In this game, if you look at how it works, players come and go. They get cut or traded. They get hurt and can’t play. Or, God forbid, they die.

“There was a moment for sorrow and where everybody really hurt, and we talked about it. Then we put it out of our minds. Somebody steps into the position, and the game goes on.”

Athletes, constantly adjusting to change, may be more flexible than most people. By the weekend, Cousineau was relaxing in his hotel room watching an auto race on TV from Ohio.

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He is a keen racing fan and one of the pace car drivers at Indy car events around the country when he isn’t playing football. He has done some endurance racing and would like to try some serious formula car driving, although his 6-foot 3 1/2-inch, 230-pound physique would not fit into the typical cockpit.

“I’d use Mazola oil and a very large shoehorn,” Cousineau said. “This (race on TV) is just down the road from me.”

He gave that a moment of thought, then added: “But I’d rather be here.”


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