HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Mark Gastineau retired from football because his fiancee has cancer, and the New York Jets Friday began the job of replacing the defensive end who leads his conference in sacks, and possibly the league in controversy.
'My relationship with Brigitte Nielsen was the primary reason for my returning to football this year and for what success I have enjoyed,' Gastineau said in a statement.
'Her sudden illness, for which we are now seeking medical treatment, has caused me to put into perspective my career and the things that are most important in my life. I hope that everyone will understand why I made this decision and will wish us well.'
Gastineau, who has returned to his Arizona home, issued his remarks through Joel Brokaw, Nielsen's Los Angeles publicist.
Brokaw said Nielsen, a 25-year-old Danish actress and former wife of movie star Sylvester Stallone, has cancer and will undergo surgery within five days. The New York Times Friday quoted Nielsen as saying she has uterine cancer.
Brokaw did not specify the nature of the cancer, what kind of surgery will be performed or in what hospital. Brokaw said 'abnormalities' were discovered during routine tests last week.
Uterine cancer is found in the cervix or the upper portion of the uterus. Joann Schellenbach, director of press relations for the American Cancer Society, said patients with either kind have better than 90 percent survival rate if the cancer is detected early. If the cancer has spread, the rate drops to less than 25 percent.
Gastineau, 31, retired while leading the AFC with seven sacks. His strong performance comes after two disappointing and injury-filled seasons in which it appeared the skills that made him a five-time Pro Bowler and the NFL's most-feared pass rusher had vanished.
The Jets seemed to be holding out hope the 6-foot-5, 275-pounder would change his mind. They are planning to put him on the reserved-retired list, but not until next week.
If he is placed on such a list, he would have until Nov. 19 to decide if he will return this season. If he chooses to return, and the Jets want him back, Gastineau must clear waivers and 27 teams would have to pass on him, which is unlikely. Gastineau, whose 1988 salary was $825,000, will no longer be paid and the Jets maintain his rights.
Jets Coach Joe Walton has said the players would vote on whether they want Gastineau back, provided the defensive end wants to return. The players wished Gastineau well Friday and acknowledged he 'marches to his own drummer.' But some said they would be more understanding if Gastineau had addressed the team and explained his decision.
'I know a lot of guys are wondering what they would do,' Jets tackle Jim Sweeney said. 'But I think I'd give him a second chance. But, then, what if he did this again. Maybe his heart just isn't in this.'
At the Jets' Hofstra University practice facility Friday, Gastineau's locker was empty and the nameplate removed. Several cubicles away, rookie Paul Frase wrapped tape on his hands and explained how it felt to replace the star.
'Why does someone come to the NFL; they want to compete,' said Frase, an untested sixth-round draft choice from Syracuse. 'I don't dread this, I'm looking forward to this.'
The Jets started the season a surprisingly strong 3-1, but have since gone 0-2-1. They play AFC East rival Miami, 4-3, Sunday in a game that should determine whether New York can bounce back.
Gastineau first informed Walton he wanted to quit Tuesday, and the coach asked him to think it over. Gastineau and Nielsen told Walton Wednesday about the cancer. One day later, Gastineau announced his retirement.
In Gastineau, the Jets lose a player who in 1984 set the NFL season record for sacks (22). They also lose one of the league's most controversial figures.
His flamboyance was embodied by his Sack Dance over fallen quarterbacks, which bothered opponents and teammates, and moved the NFL to ban such antics. He was arrested in 1983 for fighting in a New York disco. He was the first Jet to cross a players' picket line during last year's strike and nearly came to blows with teammates.
Recently, Gastineau underwent a high-profile divorce from his wife, Lisa, and became a gossip-page item with the statuesque Nielsen.