Associated Press file photo
For just a moment, former Denver Broncos standout Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin didn’t think about the open-heart surgery he underwent a few weeks ago or the cancer that has spread throughout his body.
For a brief instant, the American Football League All-Star almost felt like a safety again, transported back to a time when he used to make interceptions like this: The 74-year-old Gonsoulin had just woken from a nap on the couch when he caught a flash across his television screen – Denver cornerback Chris Harris stepping in front of a pass and racing down the sideline for a 98-yard touchdown against Baltimore last Sunday.
Gonsoulin gawked at each step, his chest hurting from sitting up so suddenly and his heart thumping with enthusiasm.
“I remember exactly what that feels like,” said Gonsoulin, who’s known around the Mile High City as an “Original Bronco” after being acquired in a trade before the team’s first season in 1960. “Such a great feeling when you’re in the open like that.”
Gonsoulin broke into a robust laugh as he chatted on the phone from his home in Beaumont, Texas.
“Only, I couldn’t have run that far,” he said. “That’s a long, long way.”
These days, Gonsoulin feels pretty good, even with all his health concerns.
Just last month, he had a heart attack that led to quadruple bypass surgery.
Nearly a year ago, he went in for an exam, and there, all over the X-ray, was the return of his cancer. Only this time it appeared in his collarbone, ribs and shoulders. It was near his back, hips and knees. It showed up along his arms and legs, too.
“I lit up like a Christmas tree,” he said. “Doctors made it sound like I wasn’t going to last much longer.
“But I’m still here.”
And still enjoying the simple pleasures like gloating about his grandkids, hanging out with his wife of nearly 50 years and watching his beloved Broncos.
“That Peyton Manning is pretty good, huh?” Gonsoulin said.
And so was Gonsoulin back in his day.
After a standout career at Baylor University, Gonsoulin was picked in the AFL draft by the Dallas Texans, who then shipped him to the Broncos for fullback Jack Spikes in the team’s first trade. Gonsoulin showed up at his first camp in 1960 along with 120 other guys, some of whom were truck drivers and oil field workers, and he was concerned about making the roster.
He instantly shined as he had 11 interceptions his rookie season, which remains a Broncos’ record. Gonsoulin also played in five All-Star games – would’ve been six, but one of the games was canceled – and was enshrined in the team’s Ring of Fame in 1984.
His fear of being cut led him to pack up all of his clothes from his apartment for every road game.
“Just in case,” said Gonsoulin, who also played one season with San Francisco after seven in Denver. “If they ever said, ‘You’re not coming back,’ well, at least I had my stuff, right?”
Like he really had anything to worry about. He snared the AFL’s first interception against Boston and finished his Broncos’ career as the former league’s all-time leader with 43.
Only Steve Foley has more interceptions (44) in a Denver uniform, but Champ Bailey is closing with 34. As he works his way up the all-time list, Bailey is learning more and more about Gonsoulin.
“From what I understand, he was a great pro,” Bailey said. “Obviously, he’s one of the best to play here.”
Very true. Gonsoulin once had four interceptions in a game against Buffalo and another three off Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson.
“Lenny was so mad. He walked by at halftime and swore at me,” Gonsoulin said.
Dawson wouldn’t be the only quarterback cursing Gonsoulin’s name. The durable defensive back also picked off the likes of George Blanda, John Hadl and Jack Kemp.
The toughest receiver he ever faced? Easy, Lance Alworth of the San Diego Chargers: “Especially when he was in the slot,” Gonsoulin said.
Over his career, Gonsoulin dished out plenty of bone-jarring hits.
He took a few, too. Like when he tried to tackle Houston Oilers running back Billy Cannon on a swing pass. Gonsoulin went low and hit his helmet on Cannon’s knee. Not only was Gonsoulin knocked out, he swallowed his tongue.
He was choking on the field, and yet no one could pry open his jaw.
Just when trainers were ready to break his teeth to save him, teammate Bud McFadin rushed over and forced his mouth open enough to retrieve Gonsoulin’s tongue. When Gonsoulin woke up in the ambulance a while later, he still was in uniform and wondering what happened.
Two days later, Gonsoulin was back on the field.
He’s got quite a few ailments from his playing days. His collarbone juts out from an injury that didn’t heal properly, and his knees constantly ache.
Oh, and then there are the concussions.
“A lot of times you hit someone hard, and you’d be dazed on sideline,” said Gonsoulin, who operated a construction company after his football career. “They’d be like, ‘What’s your name? Where are you from?’ You simply take some smelling salts and go back in.”
That’s why he got involved in a lawsuit against the NFL. He said he’s joined a suit that claims the league concealed and misrepresented the neurological risks of concussions.
“More than anything, I don’t think (the league) really took care of us back then,” Gonsoulin said. “My memory is fading, and I don’t know if it’s because of the concussions. Having this cancer doesn’t help, of course, but I think playing football did hurt my memory.
“Still, I’m lucky to be in the shape I’m in now.”