Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It was a privilege to have known Kent Hull

Kent Hull was, without a doubt, the greatest center in Buffalo Bills history.

The three-time Pro Bowler anchored the line that gave Jim Kelly the time to complete all those passes to Andre Reed and opened the holes for Thurman Thomas to run from Orchard Park to Canton.

As Thomas eloquently said today: “I owe a lot of that stitching in my Hall of Fame jacket to Kent Hull.”

So do Kelly and former Bills coach Marv Levy.

Without Hull’s instant analysis of defensive alignments and blocking calls, the Bills pedal-to-the-metal, no-huddle offense would have been stuck in neutral. He quarterbacked Buffalo’s O-line as adroitly as Kelly quarterbacked the entire offense. And he was one tough hombre in the trenches. Just ask any of the condo-sized nose tackles or snarling linebackers who were on the receiving end of Kent’s crunching blocks.

Equally impressive was the work he did in the locker room. He and Darryl Talley helped keep in check a roster filled with massive egos. Everybody – and I mean everybody – on those Bills teams looked up to and respected Kent. They took heed when he offered advice.

Kent was one of the wisest and most accommodating guys I and my fellow ink-stained wretches ever dealt with. In a drawl as thick as Mississippi mud, he would provide folksy insight and perspective. And the thing we admired most about him is that he was a stand-up guy. Win or lose, Kent would face the music, and tell the unvarnished truth. He was our go-to-guy.

To be honest, a lot of people we cover in big-time sports are phonies. But not Kent Hull. The cattle-rancher was as genuine as they come.

Those of us who chronicled the Bills back in the glory days thought so much of him that when he retired following the 1996 season we took him out to lunch at Illio DiPaolo’s restaurant and presented him with a newspaper page containing tributes from each of us and the corny headline reading: A Hull of a guy. I’ve never heard of this sort of thing occurring before or since. It was a clear indication of just how much we thought of him. I remember him being touched by the gesture.

In the commemorative paper we gave him, I wrote the following blurb:

“Our copy editors used to razz us about quoting you so much, but we told them we couldn’t help ourselves. You always told the truth, always lent perspective, often in a humorous, entertaining manner. In 19 years of covering sports for a living, I’ve never encountered a classier, more up-front, down-to-earth athlete. I wish you nothing but the best in your retirement. We’ll miss you.
“By the way, would you mind if we call you for a quote or two after games next year?”

I remember how choked up Marv was at the press conference announcing Kent’s retirement. He said he was honored to be able to tell people he once coached Kent Hull.

Well, as I reflect on Kent’s passing yesterday at age 50, I’d like to say that I was honored to be able to say that I once covered Kent Hull.

RIP, my friend.

***

Here is a feature I wrote about Kent that appeared in the Jan. 18, 1991 edition of USA Today:

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - The story was buried deep in the sports section in 1986, the headline rather small.

On any other day, news of Kent Hull's signing with the Buffalo Bills might have received better play. But not on this day.

Not with Jim Kelly finally coming to town. Bills fans had waited three years for the flamboyant quarterback to leave the USFL. And when he agreed to terms, the city greeted him with a welcome normally reserved for heads of state.

''I guess my timing was kind of bad,'' Hull joked. ''I guess you could say I followed Jim's limo and police escort into town. Buffalo was shut down by the time I got there. Everybody was at Jim's press conference.''

Five years later, Kelly remains headline king, but you no longer have to go deep into the sports section to find stories about Hull. He's headed to his third consecutive Pro Bowl and in a Sports Illustrated midseason poll of personnel directors, Hull was named the NFL's best center.

Not bad for a lanky farm boy from Pontotoc, Miss., who grew up thinking he'd make a living blocking basketballs instead of linebackers.

''My dad had been an All-American basketball player at Mississippi State, and I took to the sport right away,'' the 6-4 Hull said Wednesday. ''But there came a point where the game got too tall for me.''

Hull didn't draw much interest from the NFL scouts because he had spent four seasons playing for a wishbone offense.

Another hurdle awaited him when he arrived at the Bills' training camp complex in August 1986. During his first pass-blocking drill, Hull found himself face-to-face with a snarling 300-pounder by the name of Fred Smerlas.

''I looked at him and his mustache was twitching and smoke was coming out of his earholes,'' Hull recalled. ''I could tell that he was thinking he was going to absolutely rip this 260-pound guy apart. I hung in there and fought pretty good for a while. When we were done, he patted me on the butt and said, 'You are going to be all right, little boy.' ''

Although he is a country boy from the South, Hull has developed an affinity for hockey. He attended his first game at Buffalo Auditorium five years ago, and grew to love the sport after watching the Sabres and Boston Bruins go at each other. He now owns season tickets.

Hull also retains his love for basketball. He enjoys playing for the Bills' barnstorming team in the offseason and still wonders what might have been if only he were a few inches taller.

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