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The life, and final days, of Stuart Gaussoin
Former PSU receiver had his troubles, but never lacked for friends
Sometimes, it’s not just the losers who are lost.
The end for Stuart Gaussoin came on April 29 in a Beaverton hotel room, on a day when he felt he could no longer face the world in which he was living.
The pint-sized guy with the colossal heart, who lived to make his friends happy, cashed out with a lethal combination of booze and pills.
The tears of his loved ones, the many whose lives he touched in his 49 years, will flow for a while.
“These have been the toughest two weeks of my life,” long-time pal and former teammate Roger Daniels says, “knowing I won’t be getting another call from Stewey.”
A record-setting receiver, Gaussoin heard the cheers from the stands at Lake Oswego High and Portland State and took his football skills all the way to the professional ranks. Once an expert sales rep with a quarter-million-dollar annual salary, he was regarded as one of the top employees in his company. His young daughter, Olivia, made his rich life complete.
Friends? The man piled them up like chips on a blackjack table.
“Stuart had more love in his heart than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Frances Baker, his closest friend the last year of his life.
But Gaussoin, the ultimate competitor, could not win his toughest battle. Alcohol cost him his career, tore away at his core and fueled the decision to ensure that there would be no tomorrow.
“Maybe it was pre-destined,” says Cynthia Darling, his former wife and the mother of their daughter, Olivia. “He told me when we were dating that he wouldn’t last past 50. I said, ‘That’s creepy. How can you say that?’ And he said something about James Dean … ‘Play hard, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.’ “
Gaussoin probably thought he was being funny. It was his way.
“When things were good, they were really good with Stuart,” says Darling, whose six-year marriage to Gaussoin ended in 2003. “We would laugh and laugh and laugh. We used to joke that we could have fun in a closet, or in a jail.”
Ironically, that’s where Gaussoin ended up for a short time after his second DUI arrest in 2004.
“He hated that,” says Terry Dischinger, the former Trail Blazer forward and Lake Oswego dentist who had known Gaussoin since childhood. “That was a great embarrassment to him. Yet with the addiction, he couldn’t break away from it.”
Following an alcohol-induced single-car accident on April 22 in which Gaussoin suffered injuries that left him in the hospital for five days, he faced the possibility of more jail time. His temporary job as a night auditor at a hotel provided some income but little career satisfaction. In his mind, which was distorted by painkillers and a closed head injury suffered in the crash, there was no way out.
“Stu was a great guy who could not stop the tornado in his brain,” says Don Fox, a close friend of Gaussoin’s over the past three decades. “It’s just a tragedy.”
“It was easier for Stuart to be there for everyone else than for himself,” says his younger sister, Amy Burger of Redmond, Wash., the closest family member to Stu. “I don’t believe he knew how to deal with his trials and tribulations in life, and it reached a point where it was just too much.”
The unspeakable is just too much for his many friends to comprehend.
“A terrible, terrible thing,” says Mouse Davis, his coach at Portland State and in both the Canadian Football League and U.S. Football League. “We all look back and ask, ‘How? Why?’ “
Gaussoin’s parents, Roy and Shirley Gaussoin, were unavailable to comment for this story.
“They are working through their grief with the support of their close friends,” Burger says.
Burger, two years younger than Stu (they also have a sister, Karen Scott, of Portland), devoted much of her recent life to helping her brother.
“In the last year, he and I worked together so closely with a lot of his issues,” she says. “Stu was my brother, my hero. He was larger than life.”
Sports was Gaussoin’s first love since childhood. It was what brought him together with Neil Lomax, the All-America quarterback who teamed with him at Lake Oswego High and Portland State and lived with him during their college years.
“We started getting competitive on the basketball court — that’s when I first got to know Stuart,” Lomax says. “We were best buddies. We Batman-and-Robined it for a bunch of years. Roy and Shirley took us down to Oregon State football games all the time.”
Gaussoin was attractive to the opposite sex.
“He was a cute guy, and all the girls liked him,” Lomax says with a laugh. “I kind of got his leftovers. I didn’t mind that at all.”
Lomax admired the grit in Gaussoin, only 5-9 and 165 pounds during his time at Portland State.
“He got the crap knocked out of him in games,” Lomax says, “but he kept getting back up and playing.”
And Gaussoin could really play. But nobody recruited him after a senior year in a run-oriented Lake Oswego offense in which he caught about 10 passes all season. Davis recruited Lomax but told Gaussoin he was too small and too slow.
After a year at Clackamas Community College, the Cougars dropped their program. Left in the cold, Gaussoin walked on at PSU. As a sophomore, “the Spider” caught 41 passes and showed he was dangerous in the open field.
As a junior in 1979, Gaussoin had the greatest season for a receiver in Viking history, catching 90 passes for 1,132 yards in Davis’ run-and-shoot offense despite missing two games with an ankle injury. He had two 200-yard games and six 10-reception games that season. His 16 receptions against Northern Colorado ranked as an NCAA Division I-AA record.
Gaussoin remains the school record-holder for single-season receptions, is third on the receiving yardage list and is one of three players in school history to have had two 200-yard receiving games.
“He wasn’t a bonafide burner, but he was fast enough, had good quickness and soft hands,” Davis says. “He was our guy that year.”
The first game that season, Gaussoin made 10 catches in a loss to Northern Arizona. Afterward, teammate Robin Pflugrad — another member of the receiving corps — congratulated him.
“I said, ‘Stuart, you had a great game,’ “ recalls Pflugrad, now an assistant coach at the University of Oregon. “And he looked at me very seriously and said, ‘Robin, I’m just getting started.’ He was good for everybody else’s confidence as well. He’d come over and tell you, ‘You’re going to have a big game today.’ “
Gaussoin didn’t have as many big games after that season. A knee injury forced a redshirt year, and he caught only 13 passes as a senior under coach Don Read (Davis had left for a job at California).
Gaussoin was good enough to spend a season each in Canada and the USFL — both playing for Davis — but his injury-shortened career ended in 1984. It was something he never really got over.
“I’ve probably talked to 50 people since this happened,” says Daniels, who lives in Anthem, Ariz., owns a sushi/martini bar and is vice president of a gift-card company. “One of the things that resonates, Stu couldn’t get past that knee injury. Football is what he was good at.”
“Had he been able to recover from that better, who knows what would have happened?” Pflugrad asks. “That took a big chunk out of his life.”
“I remember being so concerned about him when he was in Houston (with the USFL Gamblers) and his career was over,” Burger says. “That was a difficult time in his life.”
“When the cheerleaders stopped cheering,” Darling says, “he really had a hard time.”
Yet Gaussoin thrived in life, and with his career, for the longest time. His outgoing personality served him well in a series of sales rep jobs. He was one of the top salesmen in the region for Siemens Health Services, for whom he sold CAT scan, MRI and other medical equipment from 1999 to 2004.
Gaussoin had met Darling, a United Airlines flight attendant, in 1994, and they wed in 1997. Three years later, a daughter, Olivia, was born.
“Stu was the best,” Darling, a Beaverton High and University of Oregon grad, says of their early years together. “He had a heart as big as Dallas. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He could charm the skin off a snake. He cried for his friends. He thought the world of them. He didn’t accept responsibility very well, but he thrived on attention from his friends.
“He wasn’t a serious kind of guy. Ask him to describe himself, he’d say he was passionate. He was about one-100th Italian, but you’d think he was full-blooded. We went to Italy on our honeymoon, and you’d have thought he was a native.”
Gaussoin indoctrinated his daughter into the sports world right away.
“When Olivia was two weeks old, he had her propped up in bed, in the crook of his arm, reading the sports section, watching football,” Darling says. “ESPN on was 24 hours a day.”
Olivia, now eight years old, was the be-all, end-all for Gaussoin.
“He loved pictures of he and his daughter,” Burger says. “He lived for Olivia. (Toward the end), that’s what kept him going.”
“I had brunch with Stu and his daughter last summer,” says former Trail Blazer Jim Paxson, friends with Gaussoin since 1980. “He always talked about how much he loved her. She meant the world to him.”
“Olivia was the apple of his eye,” Davis says. “He talked about how good that was. We never had a conversation where somehow we didn’t get to that little girl.”
Gaussoin always liked to drink, and sometimes it got the best of him. Darling dealt with it through the course of their marriage.
“I liken it to him being in a lifeboat, and I’d let the line out a little bit, and when I saw he was going bad, I’ll pull it back in,” she says. “He always drank a lot, but he always said he loved me enough to stop. He tried, he really did.”
In 2003, they divorced. A month later, he was arrested and charged with his first DUI. The next year, he got a second DUI, did some jail time and was fired from his job with Siemens.
“I really noticed a downward spiral,” Darling says. “A girlfriend left him, and I think he truly loved her. That was another chink in his armor — and losing his job and never getting back what he had.”
Gaussoin worked for a short time as a telemarketer but hated it. A month or so before his death, he began work as a hotel night auditor.
By that time, Burger was spending more and more time trying to help her brother.
“Amy was his angel,” Darling says. “When things got bad, she went into action.”
Stuart and Amy were both adopted, a special kinship they shared. When Gaussoin successfully tracked down his birthparents, he urged Burger to do the same. They were inseparable, even while living three hours apart.
“He called me every day, all hours of the night,” she says. “He had so much to say. When my daughter, Allyson, moved to Portland last year to play basketball at Portland Community College, he took her under his wing. When she got hurt, he took her to medical appointments and made sure she had the best medical attention.
“After his divorce, Stu and I went on a cruise. People assumed we were married, especially since we don’t look alike. He would flirt with women and they would say, ‘Why are you doing that with your wife here? He’s say, ‘That’s my sister.’ They’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good one.’ We had so much fun with that.”
Gaussoin kept in contact with his friends, including Don Fox, the best man at his wedding.
“We didn’t have the typical guy relationship,” says Fox, a Portland chiropractor. “We always embraced, gave each other a bear hug. Stu was the world’s greatest salesman, an upbeat, fun, smart guy. He was the life of the party, but not in an obnoxious way. He had a magnetism, and it it was genuine.”
Though Daniels was living in Arizona, he talked regularly via telephone with Gaussoin, “sometimes daily,” Daniels says. “Stu was one of my best buddies.”
At the time when Daniels’ father died, Gaussoin’s driver’s license was suspended. Gaussoin boarded a bus and attended the memorial service in Eugene. Last fall, he watched Oregon beat Fresno State in his first visit to Autzen Stadium.
“Stu was so alive that day,” says Daniels, who lived with Gaussoin his senior year at PSU. “Whenever he was around the game of football — the excitement, the crowd, the energy — he came to life. He had so much to offer people, you really wanted what Stu had. He was a guy who would walk in and light up a room.
“The only thing that troubled you was he had a disease. Every time he seemed to have success, the disease took him back a few steps.”
After the UO-Fresno State game, Gaussoin got together with Pflugrad, whose son, Aaron, was a freshman receiver for the Ducks. They visited with Pflugrad’s father, Roy, now 91.
“Stu was one of my dad’s favorite guys,” Pflugrad says. “Stu said, ‘That made my day, seeing your dad.’ He was in great spirits. He was so complimentary of what I was doing and being able to coach at Oregon, and he was so fired up for Aaron. He kept saying, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ It was such an upbeat day.”
This was the Gaussoin whom Pflugrad had known when they were living together while at PSU.
“Stu was the most charismatic person I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of charismatic people in this profession,” Pflugrad says. “He was so gregarious. I’ve never known a person as on top of things as Stuart Gaussoin was. He was just so fun to be around.”
“Stu had that bubbly personality, always with a smile on his face,” Davis seconds. “You always wound up wishing you could have spent more time around him.”
Nobody loved Gaussoin more than Fox, who recognized a growing problem with alcohol addiction.
“That was his dark side,” Fox says. “I’d read enough about alcoholism and that side of things to know that it had him by the cojones.”
In his final two weeks of life, Gaussoin reached out to Davis.
“He called me probably 10 times,” says Davis, now the PSU offensive coordinator. “I knew something wasn’t going well, but I didn’t know how bad it was.”
“Stuart adored Mouse,” Baker says. “He never stopped talking about him. One of the things Stuart taught me was, ‘Catch, tuck and get to real estate, boy.’ I learned that from Stuart. He taught me a lot about football. We watched a lot of sports together. I loved that about him.”
Baker had become acquainted with Gaussoin a couple of years earlier at a neighborhood deli in the Westlake area of Lake Oswego, where both lived.
“A group of us met there, and Stuart and I got close,” she says in her native Louisianian drawl. “He became my best friend. We were like brother and sister.
“He made me laugh hysterically. He made me put on his football helmet, and I couldn’t get it off, and I’m claustrophic, and he thought that was hilarious. He loved the Godfather. He made me watch all the Godfather movies multiple times. He was so outgoing and engaging. We could end up in a conversation with anybody, anywhere, because of Stuart. He was just that way. And he had a generosity and a sweet spot that was just amazing.”
When they met, Baker wore braces. The thing she missed most during that time was eating corn on the cob. The day she got them off, Gaussoin called and said to meet her at a local restaurant, that he had a surprise for her.
“When I got there, the waiters presented me with a whole platter of corn on the cob,” she says. “That was Stuart.”
Baker was growing increasingly worried about Gaussoin, though.
“I’ll be very honest,” she says. “He was extremely depressed the last two months. He felt like the second DUI was keeping him from getting jobs, and he’d paid his dues. Now 3 1/2 years later, it was still haunting him.
“He had intense anger, from depression turned inward. The ironic thing was, he wouldn’t do antidepressants. He’d say, ‘I don’t want to take something that alters my mind.’ Yet he was doing it through alcohol. I could not get through to him.”
More than once toward the end, Gaussoin brought up the possibility of suicide in discussions with Baker.
“The minute I’d show him Olivia’s picture, he’d say, ‘You’re right, we’re going to get through this,’ “ she says. “He absolutely adored her. He showed her picture to everybody, went to her every soccer game. She adored him, too. I went to dinner with them several times. She is the spitting image of him. No question who her daddy is. The most important thing is his life was to be a hero to Olivia.”
Burger and Baker kept Gaussoin going.
“Frances was incredible with him,” Burger says. “She was very close and very spiritual with him. I couldn’t have helped him as much as I did at the end without Frances.”
Burger attended Al-Anon meetings on her own to learn more about her brother’s illness.
“He made his own choices, but he wanted help so badly,” she says. “He’d say things to test you, but he wanted you to be right there.”
Things seemed to be looking up. Gaussoin was a finalist for a marketing job with a Portland-area company. Baker owns a three-story house in Mountain Park and had offered Gaussoin the third level, “a whole suite to himself, basically,” he says.
But on April 22, after a heavy bout of drinking, came the car accident. He suffered a broken clavicle and multiple rib fractures among other injuries and was lodged in Oregon Health & Science University. Burger immediately arrived from Washington and spent the week with him at his hospital room. On April 27, Gaussoin moved to a recuperative care center in preparation for being placed into residential treatment for alcohol abuse.
“The ultimate irony was, we were trying to get him into treatment for addiction, and they wouldn’t let him in because he was on medically prescribed pain pills because of the accident,” Baker says. “They wouldn’t take him and wean him off it. I don’t know how many places we called. Nobody would take him.”
Gaussoin wanted to move directly into Baker’s house. She wanted him to go through treatment first.
“He was very upset with me, but the head injury had him extremely confused about things,” she says. “He thought I’d turned against him. The hardest decision I’ve ever had to make was to say no, but I had to work during the day. We didn’t know if it was safe for him to be alone in a three-story house, wandering around on pain pills.”
Baker says Gaussoin was discharged from OHSU on April 27 with 150 tablets of a drug used to treat moderate to severe pain.
“Stu had a bad ankle from a football injury that had bothered him more the last year,” Baker says. “I explained to them he had a problem with alcohol and was used to taking pain pills.”
On April 28, Burger returned home to Redmond to tend to family duties, intending to return to Portland the following day.
On the morning of April 29, Burger and Gaussoin had their final phone conversation. He asked why she was coming back to Portland. She told him she was going to get him a cell phone and take care of some other things for him.
“His voice was so calm,” she says. “He said, ‘Amy, there’s too much to do.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He mentioned lost job opportunities, legal issues, treatment.
“And I knew at that moment,” she says. “Our connection was so close, I just knew. I said, ‘So, you don’t want me to come down and help?’ He said, ‘Not today, but tomorrow.’ “
Baker also had her final phone conversation with Gaussoin that morning. Normally he called her cell phone. That afternoon, he checked out of the recuperative care center and left a message on her voicemail at home.
“The message said I was go to on with my life, and he would do what he had to do,” Baker says. “I don’t think he’d decided yet. He said, ‘I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I can’t live this way.’ “
Late that night, Gaussoin’s life ended.
“I would have bet a million dollars he wouldn’t take his own life,” says Fox, who last spoke with his good friend three days earlier, while he was lodged at OHSU.
Baker feels the same way.
“Without the head injury, I don’t think he’d have done it,” she says. “I know he wouldn’t have. I knew Stuart so well. He was just so confused, so lost at the end.”
Gaussoin left notes for his parents, for Darling and for his daughter.
The note to Olivia “was lovely,” Darling says. “It was about how much he loved her and would miss her. She meant the world to him.”
And his friends and loved ones were left to mourn his passing.
When Paxson’s wife, Candice, was ill with cancer that eventually would take her life last September, Gaussoin had been there to comfort him.
“When I think of Stu, I think of a fun-loving guy with a big heart who unfortunately had some troubles in his life that took him down the wrong path,” Paxson says. “Hopefully, he’ll be remembered for the good things.”
Dischinger will remember taking Lomax and Gaussoin to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Ashland while they were in high school.
“He had a great heart, great passion in his life,” Dischinger says. “I loved Stuart a lot. It saddens my heart he’s still not around and doing well.
“He loved the Lord big-time, but addiction is addiction. I believe God has a plan even in these situations. Sometimes it’s hard for us as human beings to figure that hope. My hope is some day I’ll know all the answers.”
Lomax laments the effect alcohol had on Gaussoin.
“It’s a terrible disease,” Lomax says. “That’s the only way I can put it. Addiction is so strong. It takes over your life. I’ve seen it with others. It’s sad to see a loss in such an evil way, taking a life that had so much potential.”
Daniels has struggled with the loss of Gaussoin as much as anybody.
“It’s hard to come to terms with this,” he says. “People always thought Stuart was going to turn it around and do something great. You always felt like that. He reached out to some of us. I wish I could helped him more, but he had to help himself. I don’t think he had the ability to fight the disease.
“I’ve had a lot of different emotions, from anger to sadness. He has an 8-year-old daughter he’s leaving behind. The only saving grace is I know how much Stuart loved the Lord. My 30 years of knowing Stuart, no matter what he did, he was never angry at the Lord. … He’s at peace now.”
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. May 22 at Mountain Park Church, 40 McNary Parkway in Lake Oswego. Remembrances may be sent to a scholarship fund established in Olivia Gaussoin’s name at Wells Fargo Bank, Lake Grove branch.
(Kerry Eggers adds: I knew Stu Gaussoin for nearly 30 years, since I covered Portland State football while with The Oregon Journal. I was struck by how self-effacing he was about his abilities on the football field, but what an immense presence he was despite his diminutive stature. We hit it off immediately, and he played a couple of times in an annual summer golf tournament I host for friends. He was a salt-of-the-earth type of guy, with a disarming smile and a glass-is-half-full demeanor. I wish he could know how much he truly meant to the people around him. Like all of his friends, I will miss him greatly.)
By Kerry Eggers
The Portland Tribune