On Jan. 6, 2002, the New York Giants traveled to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers in the regular season finale.
The score was 34-25 with 2:46 remaining in regulation. It was 1st-and-10 at the Packers 42. The Packers’ Brett Favre took the handoff and appeared to just fall down. Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, the nearest defender, was given credit for the sack. It gave Strahan 22.5 for the season, setting a record that stands to this day.
Strahan broke a record set by former New York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau. Gastineau, who had 22 sacks in 1984, was present at Lambeau Field on that January day 18 years ago. He congratulated Strahan on breaking the record and never publicly commented on the controversy surrounding Strahan’s record-breaking sack…until now.
“Being nice and being a good sport, that’s good, but it’s not real.” Gastineau said in an ESPN interview. “In fact, I’m kind of a liar in a way. I feel like there’s just something wrong. This is on my head all the time. It goes through my head all the time. I want to clear things up.”
Gastineau, who battled colon cancer last year, is now is 63 years old. He said that age has changed his perspective on how he views the sack record. He also says he was inspired by Pete Rose, the baseball star with a Hall of Fame resume as a player who received a lifetime ban in 1989 for gambling while he was a manager. Rose, now 78, recently petitioned MLB commissioner Rob Manfred for reinstatement.
Like Rose, Gastineau believes he’s trying to claim what is rightfully his.
“It’s a good record and it took me a long time to get that,” Gastineau said. “It took a lot of work, a lot of work to get that record. So many years I worked my butt off to get it, and I finally got it, and it shouldn’t have been cheapened like it was. It’s like a tarnished record.”
Sacks didn’t become an official stat until 1982, two seasons before Gastineau’s record-breaking season. Unofficially, Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones tallied 22 sacks in 1968. This would have stood as the NFL record until the Dallas Cowboys’ Harvey Martin racked up 23 in 1977.
Gastineau said he’s so frustrated that he wishes “somebody would break it clean”. Only two have come close since Strahan: Jared Allen for the Minnesota Vikings in 2011 and Justin Houston for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014. Both Allen and Houston tallied 22 sacks.
Gastineau did mention that he harbors no ill will towards Favre or Strahan, who went on to win 2001 Defensive Player of the Year honors on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a career in media on two different networks.
“I just want to be recognized for the record,” Gastineau said. “You wouldn’t want your son getting a record like that. I don’t think it’s good for the NFL. It was never good for the NFL and I’m surprised the NFL didn’t step in.”
Strahan addressed the controversial sack in his appearance on the NFL Network’s “A Football Life”.
“The sack record is great, absolutely phenomenal, but I almost feel like in a sense it was diminished because everyone goes, ‘Oh, Brett Favre gave you a sack’,” Strahan said. “I caught so much flak over it…it’s not worth it because everyone looks as if one sack that they question is the defining moment of my career.”
Detractors still claim Favre, a friend of Strahan, handed him the single-season sack record. Supporters of Strahan contend the record is rightfully his as he led the NFL in sacks in ’01 and would have had more if some sacks weren’t taken away from him.
Nonetheless, Strahan still maintains a respect for Gastineau.
“I love Mark Gastineau. I appreciate him,” Strahan said.
At the time, Favre said falling to the turf was not intentional. Over the years, some of the Packers offensive linemen claim the original play call was a run but Favre changed it to a roll-out at the last second. Favre himself has never addressed the sack in any depth or length.