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NFL loses a true character in Bucko

Gordon Forbes is a long-time NFL writer who currently works for USA Today and as a freelance columnist for Patriots Football Weekly. He also was a long-time friend of Francis "Bucko" Kilroy, the former Pats executive who died on Tuesday at the age of 86.

How will we remember Bucko Kilroy, a big man born to play and scout in a big man's game?

Young New Englanders will remember him as a sharp mind for evaluating talent. Those close to him will remember his engaging laugh ("heh heh heh") and his twisted language ("Buckoisms" they called his funny words). An example: a veteran player from another team coming to the Patriots was a "re-thread." Sam Adams, a guard claimed on waivers who played nine excellent seasons in the Billy Sullivan years, was Bucko's best re-thread.

The National Football League family will remember him for his contributions to the annual draft process. Bucko designed the grading system, 0.1 for duds; 9.9 for all-world stars. He helped found the Indianapolis combine, where rookies are tested, measured, quizzed and briefed on the challenging year ahead.

The game that Bucko loved so much has changed over time. Few of those younger Patriots fans can ever remember how great Kilroy was as an All-Pro player on both sides of the ball for the Philadelphia Eagles. In those years, the 1940s and '50s, it was a tough, grinding game played in baseball stadiums, with bleachers and chopped-up grass fields.

"If you made $10,000, you were doing pretty good," once said Kilroy, who died on July 10 of heart failure in a Boston hospital. "Seventy-five hundred was the average. We didn't play for money. We played for fun."

Bucko played offensive guard and defensive middle guard for two championship teams. "It was smash-mouth, or what I called mash-mouth football in those years," he said. "The rules were different. First, you played two ways up to 1950. Another thing, forearms were legal."

Ah, those Bucko forearms. He would never actually say how many opponents he knocked out. But his laugh, "heh heh heh," told you it was a sizable number. "But it was perfectly legal," said Kilroy. Dick McCann, a Washington Redskins executive, fumed over Kilroy's violent style. "They should be bronzed," he said of those flying elbows.

*Life *magazine once ran a story titled "Savagery on Sunday." Bucko was identified as the dirtiest player in the league. Kilroy would only say that he sued the magazine and won his case.

Despite his reputation for mayhem, Kilroy was only fined once, for kicking Ray Bray, a Chicago Bears guard. "I got hit in the back and was on the ground," he said. "So I kicked my leg upward and got him. I got him in the right place."

The game that Bucko Kilroy played with what New Englanders would call "vig-ah" has been lost in time. They played for rent money and were known by their nicknames. Bruiser, Tuffy, Crazy Legs, Night Train and, of course, Bucko. There were no highlight films or replays, only stories of exhausting play handed down, generation to generation. And Bucko, as Patriots ownerBob Kraft has said, "was a legendary storyteller."

Yet, we will all remember Bucko Kilroy more for his engaging personality and his ability to evaluate college prospects, a very difficult part of the game. With his vision and purpose, Kilroy brought John Hannah, Sam Cunningham, Steve Grogan, Mike Haynes, Steve Nelson, Russ Francis, Julius Adams, Raymond Clayborn, Stanley Morgan and Sam Adams to Foxborough.

Hannah, a Hall of Fame guard, almost escaped. He and Pro Bowl tackleLeon Gray, unhappy with their contracts, walked out of training camp one year. Their demanding agent was Howard Slusher. "Slusher even accused me of collision," roared Kilroy, evoking laughs all around.

In the 1970s and '80s, Kilroy was part of a scouting group that includedBobby Beathard, George Young, Dick Steinberg and Art Rooney Jr. Eventually, they all owned homes in Key Biscayne, Fla., where they would winter.

"That was our vacation," Bucko has said. "We all hung out together at the beach club. We'd put our wives and kids up there, and we could take off."

Kilroy once told me of visiting a museum in Pittsburgh one weekend to kill a few hours. "There was a picture of Plato," he said. "George Young was always philosophizing. So when I looked at Plato, I thought he looked like George. He was a brain, very resourceful."

Steinberg died of stomach cancer in 1995. Beathard retired in 2000. Young died of a rare brain disorder in 2001. Rooney has become Pittsburgh's vice president. And now Bucko Kilroy has left us with only memories of those joyful winters in the Florida sun and distant trips to those tiny college towns with names like Towson, Weber State, Cal Poly and Boise State. Those Holiday Inns must have been something.

On one of those trips, Bucko found Sam Hunt, a linebacker from Stephen F. Austin, and plucked him on the 15th round of the 1974 draft. Hunt, who started 82 games for the Patriots, initially had a weight problem. "Maybe we'll send him down to Duke for that weight-reducing program," said Bucko, "heh heh heh." Hunt got the message and cut out the burgers and fries.

Tom Hoffman, a former publicist, spent many of Bucko's final days alongside his close friend. "About six or seven weeks ago, Bucko was having stomach pains," said Hoffman. "This is a classic. He drank a whole bottle of milk of magnesia. It turned out to be a hernia."

They performed heart surgery on Bucko, who later had to fight through pneumonia and his hernia. His final weeks were spent in a wheelchair, trailed by a portable oxygen tank. One of Bucko's final stories told to Hoffman recalled a dinner that Bucko had with Bill McPeak during a road trip to Miami in 1980.

"Bucko looked over the menu," said Hoffman. "He turned to McPeak and said, "I think I'll have some of that pele." Bucko, of course, meant paella, the popular Spanish dish, not the international soccer star. McPeak, howling with laughter, slipped to the floor.

Bucko was a personal friend for more than 25 years. I will miss his insight into a crazy game and his laughter and tales of other, simpler years when they played the game for fun.

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