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Tony Siragusa Made Being Big His Business

The former star defensive lineman, who died yesterday at the age of 55, wasn’t just larger than life, he put all that size to work — on the football field certainly, but also as a sideline reporter, pitchman and even bit player on the ‘Sopranos’

They’d write folk tales about someone like the late Tony Siragusa if the 6-foot-3, 340-pound former NFL defensive tackle hadn’t already made those tales a reality. Because somehow, “the Goose” packed as much unexpected fame as he did plates of chow into his 55 years of life. 

Let’s take stock: champion multi-sport athlete in high school, rising star on the defensive line in college before being waylaid by injuries, undrafted to the NFL yet somehow a rock in the middle on the greatest defense of all time, best personality on HBO’s long-running Hard Knocks preseason NFL reality show, recurring character on The Sopranos (arguably the greatest television series of all time), one of the best interviews of all time, almost certainly the worst-prepared sideline reporter of all time, heaviest adult diapers pitchman of all time and dead well before his time. That’s a run-on sentence for sure, but only that sort of expansive verbosity, that width and breadth of language, could capture the legacy of a man who not only consumed but contained multitudes.  

Growing up in New Jersey, Siragusa was an all-everything big kid — a beefy natural whose own brand of “guy-from-the-block” levity was tempered by his father’s intensity. “You’re painting a portrait, and you have to sign your name to it… my father used to tell me that,” Siragusa said in a revealing 1996 Indianapolis News interview in which he reflected on how his upbringing had transformed him into an immovable road grader capable of powering the Colts to the 1995 AFC Championship Game.

It was in high school that Siragusa realized he relished individual combat. “I won the state championship in wrestling,” he reflected. “You’re out there all by yourself and when you win, it’s something you did. It’s a special feeling.” That feeling led Siragusa to the dead center of the defensive line, the tackle position in the trenches. There, he could experience individual combat in a team context — often fighting two offensive linemen at once. 

Following his graduation from high school in 1985, Siragusa chose to attend the University of Pittsburgh — still a strong program only few years removed from quarterback Dan Marino’s glory days — because, he said, “I want to kill people on the football field. If I wanted to learn a school song, I would’ve gone to Notre Dame or Penn State.”

This was the sort of brawny one-liner that would distinguish Siragusa throughout his career. At Pitt, he excelled when he was healthy, exploding onto the national scene in his sophomore year with 78 tackles and 7 sacks before dealing with nagging injuries and an ACL tear in 1987 and 1988. During his junior year, his father died of a heart attack. “He never knew I was going to make it to the NFL,” Siragusa told the Indianapolis News. “He hoped, but he never knew.”

Despite a strong senior season in which he recorded 60 tackles and 5.5 sacks, Siragusa didn’t know, either. Once considered a prime NFL prospect, he was now 30 pounds heavier than he had been in 1986 and was widely considered an injury risk. He went undrafted in 1990, wound up in camp with the Colts, and made the team. He started six games apiece in each of his first two seasons, proving to be a tackle-for-loss force and a training-camp steal. The game was evolving, and Siragusa — who was lighter than he would be in later years and still possessed surprising short-burst explosiveness — represented a crucial stage in that evolution, a very wide point on a line of run-stopping sumos that led from him to future Ravens teammate Sam Adams to his Ravens successor Kelly Gregg and Patriots stalwart Vince Wilfork

The line of defensive tackles inaugurated by Siragusa all shared one thing in common: Whether in a formation with four down linemen or, as with blimp-sized Casey Hampton of the Steelers, a mere three, these men waddled forward and consumed offensive linemen like Irvin Yeaworth’s movie blob. The Indianapolis incarnation of “Goose” was an absolute beast, particularly in 1994 and 1995, racking up tackles for loss and sacks on two surgically repaired knees at a pace he wouldn’t match in later years.  

Siragusa’s WWF-style on-field character was that of an ignorant Italian bruiser, a man who barked insults at rookies and kicked opponents while they were down. Behind the scenes, he was a family man who married his high school sweetheart after a 12-year courtship and raised two daughters and a son with her (his shockingly slender namesake Anthony bucked the family tradition of excessive size and played defensive back in college). But on the field, he wanted to show off and he wanted to get paid. When the Colts wouldn’t oblige him with regard to the latter, he took his talents to Baltimore.

From 1997 to his retirement after the 2001 season, Siragusa helped the Ravens reach the pinnacle of team defense. He wasn’t quite the player he had been in Indianapolis, but he was a big mouth and a big body smack-dab in the middle of a defense that in its fullest and most refined form during the 2000 season would include the likes of Rod Woodson, Ray Lewis, Rob Burnett, Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister and fellow mastodon defensive tackle Sam Adams. That 2000 defense carried a below-average offense fronted by quarterback Trent Dilfer to a 34-7 shellacking of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. That Super Bowl appearance was partly made possible by Siragusa’s shoulder-separating illegal hit on Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, which kept the Pro Bowler sidelined for most of the first half and rendered him ineffective for much of the second during a 16-3 victory for the Ravens. Incurring a $10,000 fine for that hit represented the fulfillment of Siragusa’s monstrous potential, the mountaintop of meanness for the man-mountain. 

The twilight of the Goose saw him continuing to cast a long shadow. He looms large throughout the 2001 debut season of the HBO preseason documentary series Hard Knocks, providing both on-field chatter and pranks as he prepares for his last year as a player. His contributions during the season were below his usual par, but still significant, as he tutored the 6-foot, 320-pound Kelly Gregg to take his spot in the middle — a spot that Gregg, another former high school heavyweight wrestling stalwart, would secure for a decade. 

From there, much like the pro boxer Butterbean — another inexplicable athletic success story by a man of size — Siragusa kept turning up. He played a major role in Spike Lee’s well-regarded 2002 movie 25th Hour, chewing scenery as a minor Russian mobster whose betrayal is the reason that Edward Norton spends the entirety of the film waiting to go to prison. In 2004, he landed a part — fittingly for the New Jersey native — in The Sopranos as Tony Soprano’s driver and bodyguard Frankie Cortese, appearing in four episodes of the show’s fifth season. He generated no small amount of controversy because his character puts Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), a “made man,” in a chokehold in the episode “Irregular Around the Margins,” prompting some fans to wonder how a mere “associate” could do bodily harm to a higher-ranking mafioso. 

The answer, of course, is clear: All bets are off when it comes to Siragusa. Why would you cast this man and not have him put someone in a chokehold? He certainly had a commanding presence, but unlike distant defensive tackle predecessor and long-time Webster dad Alex Karras, the silver screen didn’t hold the Goose’s interest.

Sideline reporting for the NFL on Fox, not acting or serving as a pitchman for a line of adult diapers to destigmatize the product for prostate cancer survivors, would prove to be Siragusa’s main post-playing gig. In that role, which spanned 10-plus seasons, finally ending with his termination in 2016, the Goose focused on wearing outrageous outfits (like a peacoat and bowler at a game held in London), spewing lame one-liners (“It’s going to be a blue Christmas for the Jets if they can’t contain the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul”) and only occasionally providing detailed game analysis. As in his playing days, the cerebral Siragusa preferred to perform as a clown — perhaps because it was easier, given how infrequently he appeared to be paying attention either in his final season in Hard Knocks or for most of his time as a cliche-spouting sideline reporter. And on the field, his aggressive side — the side that made him a worthy predecessor of future dirty-tricks defensive tackles like Ndamukong Suh — masked or obscured the devoted family man he was off it. For all these Jekyll-and-Hyde efforts, he placed 71st on the NFL’s list of its “100 Greatest Characters.”

Siragusa’s final years proved unusually quiet for such a loud, bumptious man. He popped up here and there, pitching products or delivering politically incorrect opinions (his last tweet mocked Joe Biden’s recent bicycle mishap). His own father had died at a relatively young age due to a heart attack, and Siragusa referenced this fact frequently in interviews throughout his career. Blessed with bigness, he understood that it was his destiny to live large and well, not long.