The football world lost one of its most colorful characters this week when Tony Siragusa died unexpectedly at age 55.
“The Goose” played seven seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and five with the Baltimore Ravens, where he starred on the 2000 bruising defense that crushed the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. He became a presence on NFL sidelines as a commentator for Fox Sports from 2003 to 2015. He even had screen appearances through a recurring role as “Frankie Cortese” on The Sopranos and hosted shows on the Discovery Channel and DIY Network. He was an ideal choice to host DIY’s Man Caves series.
A New Jersey native, Siragusa played college football at the University of Pittsburgh from 1985 to 1989. He was a remarkable athlete, from the gridiron to the wrestling mat, where he was a state champion. He could punt, kick, run, and especially tackle. A standout defensive tackle, he stupidly went undrafted in 1990, doomed by a bad ACL injury that caused him to sit out his 1988 junior season. The Indianapolis Colts wisely signed him. It was a steal by the Colts.
He was also a steal for Pitt. He once told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review why he chose Pitt among the top-tier D-1 schools pursuing him: “I went to a lot of schools,” said Siragusa. “But they didn’t try to blow smoke up my butt or tell me I was going to be a star. [Pitt] said I had to work for everything. I liked the people who were there. I liked the city of Pittsburgh.”
The Steel City’s scrapping image appealed to him. During his first visit, a brawl broke out at a local establishment and the Goose was impressed to see his would-be teammates jump in to support their buddies. “I liked the camaraderie,” said Siragusa. “If you fight one of us, you’re going to fight us all.” He said: “If I wanted to learn a school song, I would’ve gone to Notre Dame or Penn State. I want to kill people on the football field. That’s why I came to Pitt.”
He and that Pitt defense did that very well.
Siragusa was my age and also my class at Pitt. The football players in that class were an eclectic bunch. I could tell stories, which many of those guys probably wouldn’t want to see in print. I’ll mention a milder one from another football classmate, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who in 1987 rushed for 1,791 yards and finished fifth in Heisman voting before being drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the 1988 draft. (His son Cam is today a veteran all-pro and team leader with the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
I recall going to “The O,” the iconic Original Hot Dog Shop on Pitt’s campus, with my friend Drew and Ironhead. Drew had promised Ironhead he would buy him two enormous O cheesesteak sandwiches if he could suck down both of them. It was a daunting task. Finishing only one of those monsters was hard enough, but, at 270 pounds, Heyward was up to the task.
I also mention Heyward because he likewise died early, much more so, at age 39, succumbing to cancer and other health problems. Siragusa, too, left this world too early. And the Goose was likewise known for his eating prowess. I remember watching him hoist a large turkey leg on Fox Sports on Thanksgiving Day, with John Madden narrating and admiring. Like Ironhead, the Goose knew how to handle a hunk of meat.
His teammate Sam Clancy remembers Christmas dinner feasts with Siragusa and his Italian family. “Seven fishes and 100 different kinds of pasta,” Clancy said. “I love the man because the invite was there every year. Not only me, but other players whose families couldn’t come down.”
I didn’t personally know Tony Siragusa. My wife did. She laughs at the prank he pulled with her on a friend at the Pittsburgh airport. Goose had come with her (the driver) and another girl, my wife’s roommate, who was a Pitt cheerleader, to pick up her friend Laura. Laura had no idea who Siragusa was, but this giant guy dashed to her with a smile yelling her name like a long-lost cousin from Sicily, picking her up and swinging her around. He pulled off the performance perfectly. Laura was certainly surprised.
It was a shame I never met him, because everyone who did loved the guy widely described as fun and funny at the time of his death. His social-media posts were being worked through the night of the announcement of his death. They included some shots at the likes of Joe Biden and forced vaxxers.
The cause of Siragusa’s death has not been disclosed, but the men in his family were susceptible to early heart attacks, and his great girth also probably made him susceptible — ironic for a man known for his big heart. Siragusa once told shock-jock Howard Stern that his father died of a heart attack and heart disease ran in his family. He also said that he wanted his wife, mother of his three children, to play Frank Sinatra when he dies: “If I die tomorrow, I told my wife, just put a smile on my face. Put a little Sinatra on.”
And perhaps play “My Way.” Tony Siragusa did it his way.
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