Tony Siragusa, the wisecracking wall of flesh known as “Goose” who anchored the middle of a record-setting Ravens defense during the team’s first Super Bowl run, died Wednesday, a team spokesman said. He was 55.
The cause of death was not immediately known.
The New Jersey native was an undrafted free agent who began his 12-year NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts before he became a fan favorite over five seasons with the Ravens from 1997 to 2001. He was a classic nose tackle, occupying multiple blockers and clearing space for Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis as the Ravens set a record by allowing just 165 points over a 16-game season in 2000.
But the 330-pound behemoth was known as much for his affable persona as his power on the field. He was a star of the first season of HBO’s documentary series “Hard Knocks,” wearing shirts that said “Big Daddy” across the chest and cracking jokes about how he would torture rookies. That paved the way for an acting career and a 13-year run as a pregame and sideline personality on Fox’s NFL coverage.
“He was just a huge personality,” recalled his teammate, linebacker Peter Boulware. “When he came into the room, he owned it. He was life of the room, life of the party. He was just the life of everything.”
“This is a tough one,” Mr. Lewis said in a statement provided by the Ravens. “I love ‘Goose’ like a brother. From the first day we met, I knew that life was different. I knew he was someone who would change my life forever. He was a one-of-a-kind person who made you feel important and special. You can never replace a man like that.”
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said he was heartbroken, calling Mr. Siragusa “a special person and clearly one of the most popular players in Ravens history.”
Mr. Siragusa loved to spin stories about his Italian roots, reinforced in his hometown of Kenilworth, New Jersey, where there was a road, Via Vitale, named after his grandparents and a seemingly endless supply of sausage, ravioli and cannoli. He had pals with nicknames such as “Big Nose” and “Hacksaw” as he grew into a defensive force at David Brearley High and then the University of Pittsburgh.
The father of three (Samantha, 25; Anthony Jr., 23; and Ava, 20) began dating his wife, Kathy, in high school, and she later told Baltimore friends, “I knew the whole package from the start.”
Mr. Siragusa was a free spirit, who, when he wasn’t smashing running backs, rode a Harley-Davidson, fished for marlin off his 30-foot boat and donned scuba gear for diving trips in the Bahamas.
He came to the Ravens in 1997, when the team was still struggling in its second season after moving from Cleveland.
Kevin Byrne, the team’s longtime spokesman, had watched Mr. Siragusa perform a sack dance during a Ravens loss to the Colts the previous year, so he assumed a prima donna was entering his world.
Instead, he met “one of the great and most popular characters in Ravens history.”
Mr. Siragusa famously disdained training camp. One year, he held out, only to arrive at the team’s training site in Westminster via helicopter. He had starved himself for days to make coach Brian Billick’s weight requirement and when Mr. Billick said he did not actually have to weigh in, Mr. Siragusa fumed.
Another summer, he showed up with a paintball gun and used it to torment the team’s rookies and the cleaning staff of the Best Western where the Ravens stayed. After coach Ted Marchibroda told him to cut it out, he fired a last shot a few feet from a custodian who was cleaning an upper floor. “You missed one!” Mr. Siragusa bellowed.
When the man climbed down to rant at him, Mr. Siragusa peeled off a roll of bills and handed them over, finally inspiring a smile. “At least he paid for his mistakes,” Mr. Byrne said.
Mr. Boulware was the team’s first-round pick in 1997. “If you were a rookie, he was going to let you know that you were a rookie. He would you let you have it,” he said. “Once you graduated from that, he welcomed you in.”
Mr. Siragusa was a full-time starter and leading voice as the Ravens’ defense gradually transformed into one of the most fearsome in NFL history. He and defensive tackle Sam Adams were the immovable forces up front.
“‘Goose’ was quite a character, but he was one of our leaders on the 2000 Super Bowl team,” former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “He was probably one of the best run-stoppers to play for our defense over the years.”
His impact went beyond the interior combat in which he specialized on the field.
“Some of us were immature and just didn’t really know how to be professionals, and having guys like ‘Goose’ kind of sit you down, having anchors like that all around the locker room, was huge to the success we had,” Mr. Boulware said. “Siragusa, he was always lightening the atmosphere, making training camp, or just hard times, easier. He would laugh at himself, laugh at us.”
During the 2000 AFC championship game, he drove Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon to the ground shoulder-first, a pivotal play as the Ravens held a high-flying offense to three points. Though Mr. Siragusa always maintained he had no intention of hurting Mr. Gannon, the hit went down as a prime example of the Ravens’ punishing style as they rampaged to the Super Bowl.
“We would not have won the Super Bowl without him,” Mr. Billick said flatly.
Once he reached the biggest stage in sports, Mr. Siragusa luxuriated in the spotlight. A reporter asked what job he would hate to have. “I would hate to be a plumber if my sewer backed up,” he said.
Baltimore Ravens Insider
As he moved on to act in the Spike Lee film “25th Hour” or in “The Sopranos” and to appear on Fox’s NFL broadcasts, teammates grinned at the character they all remembered. “People saw him and they assumed, ‘That’s theater or he’s just trying to act,’ but that was just him,” Mr. Boulware said. “Camera or no camera, that’s ‘Goose.’ That’s why we loved him so much.”
Mr. Siragusa’s antics obscured his tender side, Mr. Byrne said. When a fire wiped out a teammate’s apartment a few days before Christmas, Mr. Siragusa showed up with a car full of presents for the player’s displaced family. Over the years, he would alert the Ravens when a former teammate was down on his luck and needed support.
“Let’s just make sure he’s doing OK,” he would say.
When key players from the 2000 team gathered recently at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to film scenes for an upcoming ESPN documentary, Mr. Siragusa told the best jokes but also took time to check in with everyone, Mr. Byrne said. He was never just the class clown.
The Ravens did not release details on services and said in a statement “the Siragusa family asks that everyone respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
Mr. Siragusa said he always tried to retain his sense of humor and optimism, even in the face of tragedy. On a 2012 appearance with radio host Howard Stern, he recalled the night when he held his father, Peter, who was gasping for air as he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Mr. Stern asked Mr. Siragusa, who was 21 when his father died, if he worried about suffering a similar fate. “If I die tomorrow,” he responded, “I told my wife, just put a smile on my face, put a little Sinatra on.”