With Gitte Facing a Cancer Scare, Mark Gastineau Quits Football in a Shocking Midseason Finale

updated 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was beginning to look as if love had brought out the beast in Mark Gastineau. After a season of mediocrity, in which the renowned sack dancer had found little reason to tango, the New York Jets' once terrifying defensive end was again inspiring fear and loathing among pro football quarterbacks. Romantics liked to think that Gastineau's statuesque fiancée, Brigitte Nielsen, had put the fire back in his belly. Then, suddenly, in the midst of a stellar comeback season, Gastineau, 31, announced he was retiring from football for "personal reasons." Almost at once a story began making the rounds that Gitte, 25, was suffering from uterine cancer and that Mark was sacrificing his career—and a large part of his $825,000 pay package—to look after her.

But the story didn't end there. As the couple remained in seclusion near his family in Springerville, Ariz., 200 miles from his home in Phoenix, the rumor mills were grinding overtime. Claiming Gitte's condition was not as serious as reported, some cynics saw the move as a publicity ploy. Others depicted Brigitte as a relentless schemer, repelled by football, who had duped Gastineau into playing the fool for love. Suspicion concerning Gastineau's motives was fueled by his remarks earlier in the week on ABC's Monday Night Football. Appearing with Brigitte during a taped half-time interview, the lovesick end declared, "She is all that matters to me. Football doesn't even come close. If she told me to give it up tomorrow, that's exactly what I would do."

After he did, Mark's Jet teammates reportedly claimed that Brigitte had been prodding her beau to quit for the past several months. A source close to Mark quoted him as saying, "Gitte told me I didn't have to do this anymore" and "Gitte said I have enough money." There was also speculation that Nielsen had tired of putting her screen career on hold while Mark hunted quarterbacks for a living. The Danish-born actress said she had passed up two movie roles in order to cheer on her man from the sidelines this season. And she was not overly enamored of the sport, once describing it as "40 helmeted men trying to reach that little pigskin ball. How dumb."

For their part, the Jets were hardly enamored of Brigitte, whom they considered a negative influence on a teammate already regarded as self-centered and arrogant. As for the fans, they had let their antagonism show with a nasty display at the rowdy Monday-night game—which the Jets, not coincidentally, were losing—shouting ribald insults at Nielsen.

Meantime, Mark's estranged wife, Lisa, weighed in enthusiastically to debunk Gastineau's story. "She's not gravely ill," Lisa told a reporter. "He's using it as an excuse—it's typical of Mark to exaggerate things." Raoul Felder, Lisa's lawyer, suggested that Mark's unexpected retirement was nothing more than a "primitive" attempt to scale down his income in order to minimize his divorce settlement.

Whatever the merits of this uncharitable speculation, there seemed little doubt that Nielsen was, indeed, facing a serious medical problem, if not necessarily one that would threaten her life. Her publicist, Joel Brokaw, reported last week that her Pap smear was "class 4"—usually an indicator of cervical cancer—and that she was about to undergo laser surgery. Doctors not connected with the case interpreted the decision to try laser surgery as meaning that malignant cells had not spread beyond the surface of the cervix.

Though Mark and Gitte weren't talking, Gastineau's sister, Kelli, 22, reacted angrily to reports that Nielsen's illness had been exaggerated. "That's bull," she insisted. "This is no publicity stunt. You don't joke about cancer. Her mother and grandmother both had it. She went to the doctor Monday and again on Tuesday. She is dealing with the problem now."

Kelli was equally vehement in denying rumors that Mark had left football to pursue a new career in movies or television. Both her brother and his fiancée, she said, "are down-to-earth people, they say what they mean. You should see how happy they are here in Springerville. We had a party for my mother's birthday and Brigitte really enjoyed herself. She even shops here. Besides, why would they come to Springerville if they wanted publicity? The same teammates who made nasty remarks about Mark when I was in New York are doing it again, and I don't know why."

—Paula Chin, and Linda Marx in Phoenix

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