After a year of fighting stage 3 colon cancer in which he underwent surgery, months of exhausting chemotherapy, and weeks of radiation every day, Mark Gastineau of the New York Jets finally got out of cancer.
It is now time to free ourselves from other burdens.
His latest health test made him think more about a colorful life that saw him move from the Southwest farmboy to the Big Apple toast, where he became the cornerstone of the Jets franchise and a lightning rod NFL. Long before today's artificial and constant celebrations on the ground, Gastineau's exuberant and never-seen "bag dances" have inflamed fans – and a national debate on fair play.
As he approaches his 63rd birthday later this month, he is unpacking an emotional baggage, not memories.
"I have been violated," Gastineau reveals in an almost factual manner. "But I kept it for so long. Cancer may have led me to confront it. "
He says it started when he was only 11 years old. His abuser was a Mexican who was working as his father's right arm on the family ranch in the White Mountains, Arizona.
"Can you imagine that someone like me, a football player, a big bad guy, gets raped at this age?" It made me very scared, "says Gastineau, remembering being" passive "and frightened by his own child shadow. "You would never think that I was going to become a football player."
He stated that the violence lasted until the age of 14 and that he had kept those horrible memories until he met his third wife, Jo Ann , with whom he married 12 years ago.
"I had not even thought about it before I married her and I could trust someone," he says, sitting in front of Jo Ann in the living room of their suburban home, just outside Trenton. "But I kept it for so long."
Pro Bowler, a former member of the famed "New York Sack Exchange," five times better, Gastineau does not blame any of his troubles off the field – problems of anger management and drug abuse – for the trauma he lived as a boy.
"I did not think about it. God blessed me with a short memory, "he says.
In addition to his fight against cancer, the death of his beloved mother Lou, last year, just two days before his colon operation, released him to talk about this heartbreaking part of his childhood .
"If my mother was alive, this story would never be released," he says. "I would never tell this story because it would kill her. My father still has a hard time believing it.
He did not tell his father about it until last year and he has no intention of confronting his abuser. "I do not know where he is and I do not want to know."
Gastineau, who refused to go into details about the assault or his attacker, said he would talk more about it in his brief, on which he is currently working with a Negro.
The book will be published with the help of his pastor, Carter Conlon of the Times Square Church, where the now devout Christian worshiped for nearly two decades and where the Gastineaus were members of the choir for seven years.
He stated that he was appearing for the first time in public to raise public awareness of sexual abuse and to stress that parents should be cautious about the people they bring into their children's lives.
"I might as well get used to talking about it. I'm sure people will be shocked, "he says. "I really need people to watch what's going on around their kids."
Jo Ann echoed: "If such a player can come this way, you have to be very careful about what's going on and what's going on around your kids."
Gastineau's cancer diagnosis may have helped him exorcise old demons, but he and 58-year-old Jo Ann were also in a precarious financial situation.
For years, they fought to keep their modest two-bedroom and two-bathroom home in a community of over 55, which they had owned since 2003. But, with increasingly large bills, they drowned.
Gastineau, who has already held the NFL record for most bags in a season, is no stranger to money problems. At the height of his nine-year career, he was earning $ 800,000 a year, but the AP reported that he had lost all his assets in 1991 during a disputed divorce battle with his first wife, Lisa Gastineau (star of reality show 2005, "Gastineau Girls").
"Our plate was full," says Gastineau. "It's to the point that we do not know what to do."
They currently live with Gastineau's NFL board and with the money of appearances and autograph signatures.
At the suggestion of Pastor Conlon, the couple created a GoFundMe to help with both home and medical bills.
Jo Ann – who has retired from the real estate business and is now the full-time guardian of her husband – created the crowdfunding page in May.
To date, they have raised $ 33,328 from their goal of $ 75,000.
"The last thing I want to do is talk to someone in my personal life. I do not like saying that. We just do not know what else to do. I just think, "Are we going to lose our house?" Says Jo Ann.
She says they're at most 24 months old at home before the bank takes it. "I look around and I think, should I pack these things? What should I do in addition to praying and asking for a miracle?
Like many of the main goalkeepers, Jo Ann is overwhelmed physically and emotionally. In 2017, her husband announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's, dementia and Alzheimer's. All medical care related to his neurological problems is covered by the NFL under Plan 88 of the league. (His treatment for cancer is not covered).
"Three years before cancer, the NFL was struggling with a concussion. We did not get involved because he was fine. I would see players in wheelchairs. And they needed help. The trial for concussion in the NFL was a class action. So they contacted us and said, "You're part of it, so get tested," said Jo Ann.
Gastineau had suffered headaches, but they never expected such a devastating diagnosis because he had none of the typical symptoms.
"Sometimes it could be his memory, but my memory is going too," says Jo Ann. "I'm with him every day so that you do not always notice everything."
And although they are entitled to compensation through the NFL Concussion Settlement, they have not received any money yet. "We are now focusing solely on cancer and we are working on neurological appointments. I just want to get through this. I do not expect a penny from the NFL. My concern is about other treatments.
Gastineau wants to help people by talking about his own battles.
"I want people to know about cancer and I want them to know that they need to be tested," Gastineau said. "I am weak. I do not have the strength to barely come to the door. I want to reach people so that they do not have to suffer what I experienced. "
He is far from the rumbling bag machine in which he was at his peak. He hastens to make a joke and laughs often.
And he is particularly proud of the relationship he has forged this year with his 29-year-old son Marcus, who he shares with former girlfriend Brigitte Nielsen. "When Brigitte got it, we were not married. She had it and went to Milan, "remembers Gastineau.
According to Jo Ann, Marcus' mother told him that his biological father was Mark Gastineau when the boy was 10 years old. The couple connected 10 years ago, but lost contact. They now speak frequently and Marcus – a 6-foot-6 blonde – visited them with her fiancée Fabiana in September. They hope to move to the United States full-time in April, a prospect that makes the Gastineaus dizzy.
"His hands are big, everything is like me. I like it. He will 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 his daughter Brittny, born of his first marriage, has long been tumultuous, but they speak. He and Jo Ann were in touch with her to wish him a happy birthday last week.
The couple was delighted by the love of his old friends, like Connie Nicholas Carberg, the assistant of the Jets in charge of surveillance, responsible for Gang Green who brings Gastineau to New York. They talk a few times a week. Their guest room, decorated with Jets memorabilia, is nicknamed "Connie's Room" and she stays with the couple during her visit to Florida.
And then there are former teammates, like Marty Lyons, who was the first to call Mark at the hospital. Abdul Salaam and Joe Klecko – who along with Lyons were the other three members of the "Sack Exchange" – and Jets special team coordinator Brant Boyer, frequently monitored him. And he said that the owner of the team, Christopher Johnson, had been "excellent support".
"Mark realizes, like all of us, that we are closer to the end than the beginning," Lyons told ESPN. "He was humiliated and grateful. Maybe he did not say "thank you" to enough people, but it's not too late. He has a long battle ahead of him, but the only thing he has now is his faith. "
And there are messages from those who donated to their fund.
"People will say two words. "It's important to me." It's amazing, "says Jo Ann.
"I was loved. I think I have two or three goals now. Take me as an example, "says Gastineau about his fight against cancer and childhood trauma. "But do not follow my life off the pitch when I play."
Additional report by Dean Balsamini.
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