The Buffalo Bills held the first and fifth overall picks in the 1979 NFL Draft. It was the third time in team history that the Bills picked first, and they wanted a similar home run to O.J. Simpson, Buffalo's first overall pick in 1969, and not a flop like DE Walt Putalski. Buffalo selected a linebacker from Ohio State named Tom Cousineau, and he never played a snap for the team.
Ironically, the Bills acquired the pick for Cousineau when they traded Simpson to the San Fransisco 49ers prior to the 1978 season. But Cousineau wasn't happy with the Bills' contract offer, and opted to sign for twice the money with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, where he won the Grey Cup MVP in his rookie season.
Cousineau claimed bad treatment from the Bills right from the start. He spent draft day in New York City before shuffling off to Buffalo, where he went through a physical and a press conference. Bills officials said they would take Cousineau back to his hotel, then pick him up for dinner."I was waiting at the hotel (for dinner) and they never showed," Cousineau told the AOL News in 2010. "They never called. I'm not kidding. Hearing no or being turned down or snubbed was not a new experience, but it seemed ... first of all very rude. And inhospitable."
Cousineau's agent, Jim Walsh, was angry about the slight and got the wheels moving to get his client away from a team that didn't respect him.
"Jimmy was mortified," Cousineau said. "And then he got mad. And he sort of incited me, to be honest with you. I thought it was unusual, but Jimmy really took exception to it. So we just ordered something at the hotel.
"We sat there, and he said, 'Listen, I'll make a phone call if you don't mind. I have a good friend, Sam Berger, he owns the Montreal Alouettes and he's a wonderful, wonderful guy. I don't know what's going on, but I'm going to give them something to think about.'"
The next day, Walsh had a contract from the Alouettes for three years and over $1 million. The Bills would later offer five years and $1.2M, a much lower average salary than Montreal.
"Going to Canada was never my first choice," Cousineau said. "And the Bills didn't have to match, but we told them, 'You need to do better. You know it and I know it.' Just compared to the guys downstream in that draft year who had already signed. I said, 'Why did you guys draft me? Did you draft me because you thought I would work for something that was not equitable? Is there something in my personality that led you to believe ... let's be fair. That's all I'm looking for.'"
Cousineau says it strained relationships with his family, friends, and many football people around the country when he jumped to the CFL.
"Decisions have consequences," Cousineau said. "I don't know if it's the smartest thing I ever did. It was a good, solid financial decision, is what I can say. It was very hard emotionally. It, practically, was hard to live with that choice those three years. What I didn't realize was that it would follow me."
This type of move was not and is not unprecedented in NFL history. At the time, Cousineau was the fourth player taken first overall that never played for the team that drafted him. Since then two more have joined the ranks in John Elway and Eli Manning.
Eventually, Cousineau played out his three-year contract up north and came back to the NFL, signing the richest contract in NFL history with the Houston Oilers. Buffalo still held the linebacker's rights and matched the offer, which forced Cousineau to be a member of the Bills - albeit briefly. He was traded to the Cleveland Browns for a first-round pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. After his stint in Cleveland, he spent one year with San Fransisco and retired after the 1987 season.
The Bills turned the Browns' first-rounder into Jim Kelly, who also chose another league over playing in Buffalo - at least initially. Kelly joined the USFL instead of the Bills, but came to Buffalo when the USFL folded. It might be better if we remember that the team turned O.J. Simpson into Jim Kelly without all those silly holdouts.