And in so doing, honor one of the truly great Bulldogs of his and any era.
Admittedly in my business we throw ‘great' around far too often. Yet no one with a genuine appreciation of Bulldog football and Mississippi State, what we are and are supposed to stand for, hesitates to call Kent great. Even if the man himself would have shrugged it off as easily as he once did SEC and later NFL defenders. If ever there was an all-time Bulldog legend who cared less for such attention, I can't recall. Of course he was an offensive lineman and as we who work football any length of time discover, blockers are the ideal athletes at not taking themselves too seriously. Centers, most of all.
I suppose I should state, do not look for an impartial opinion here. I met Kent first as a student worker for the sports information office in 1979 when he was a raw freshman center, not expected to play that year. His other three varsity years I was the assistant publicist for State. So I am blatantly prejudiced in his favor and that's that. I won't argue if my own elders proclaim Hal Easterwood or Tom Goode or Richard Keys as the best State center ever; for that matter Eric Allen and Lee Ford won All-SEC honors which Hull did not in his 1979-82 tenure.
But I can explain that easily enough. Hull played at the same time as guard Wayne Harris, who won consecutive Jacobs Blocking Trophies given back then to the best offensive lineman in the SEC. So Kent played in his classmate and teammate's sizable media shadow, and even went along to the USFL. Nope, not drafted by the NFL, either. Funny how things turned out, eh?
Because it was after the short-lived other league folded that Hull and Jim Kelly became a team picked up in 1986 by Buffalo, and the rest was history. Even as Kelly and back Thurman Thomas re-wrote offensive records, Hull was the key. It was common, and comic, knowledge how Hull was as much the ‘quarterback' calling plays as the guy taking his snaps. Not so coincidentally a reprise of his labors alongside John Bond in the Bulldog days, hey? What pairings. And what teams. And if Kent didn't earn a Super Bowl ring—something MSU teammate and title game opponent Johnie Cooks of the N.Y. Giants never let him or the rest of us forget—well, three All-Pro honors sorta offset the lack.
Today the public is reading all sorts of retrospectives, many handled better than this one, of Hull's deeds off the field. Such as the charitable work, most notably with the Batson Hospital for Children in Jackson for which he sponsored summer golf tournaments and brought professional friends to play. The public saw that, but wasn't as aware of lower-key outreaches to prisoners, and being a life-long fixture at church. And speaking of family, I wasn't aware until yesterday that only a weekend ago he was at son Drew's wedding.
And on and on and on we could go here, but that'd just hit the highlights. I prefer recalling the Mississippi boy and farming man of his post-football years. More than once our paths crossed as Kent was leaving the Bryan Building, truck decorated by pounds of Delta dirt and boots worn straight from muddy fields that morning. He'd have made the drive over to take care of some business or buy tickets or just visit with Strat. Then it was back to the spread outside Greenwood. And of course he could be found around the stadium on home game days, only his impressive physique hinting he was a former Bulldog himself. At least until recently. I'd heard the health was increasingly worrisome.
Even so it was still an emotional gut-kick to get the Tuesday news. It's one thing for an old p.r. guy to have a coach or staff member from back in the younger days pass on. It's entirely different for one of ‘your' players to leave so soon. Especially a guy who I literally watched grow-up as a Bulldog. I'm sure I could never have convinced any later-generation fan who only knew Hull as the 300-pound NFL bulwark, that he first set foot on a college field weighing all of 215 pounds.
It's true. Hull made all-state at Greenwood High, as a center, and was signed by Bob Tyler—part of arguably the second-best overall recruiting class in MSU annals—as a development project. Now it needs noting again for the youth among us that oncest upon a time a good-sized SEC lineman was 240 to 250 pounds. Today that is a quarterback. He was son of a State basketball star, Charlie Hull, too, and at 6-5 tall was assuredly going to grow into his frame and his future.
Well, the future came a lot sooner than any expected. An irreplaceable advantage of the old Dawgs' Bite format was, well, we have old Dawgs' Bite issues for historical reference. I pulled out the 1979-80 volume year this morning to clear up some details, such as when Hull broke into the lineup. I knew the '79 team lost both veteran centers (Bill Bell, Greg Benefield) to injuries for various stretches. Hull's first serious playing time was in the loss at Maryland, and here I reprint the Emory Bellard quotes editor Joe Dier obtained afterwards.
"Kent is not near the football player that he will be some day, and he's not nearly as strong or experienced as a lot of centers around the country. But he's going to make a fine football player and he's done a heck of a job under the circumstances under which he's had to play." And, Bellard said "He's been as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar."
Ol' Emory was proved a prophet as from then on Hull was State's center despite the inevitable growing—again literally—pains. The name ‘Ron Simmons' means little to MSU fans today, but back then he was the nation's most feared defensive nose guard. A month into his career and Hull, all 215 pounds of him, was lineup against the Florida State superstar. Decades later Kent still winced recalling that night in Tallahassee. I'm wincing now re-reading the game story too, especially the seven State fumbles and Joe's account of dubious officiating.
But that brutal initiation better prepared Hull and team for the glory of 1980 and '81. I've written often before and will surely keep doing so about the ‘I Was There When State Beat the Bear' day in Jackson when Bellard's Bulldogs snapped the 23-season streak against Alabama. Oh, what a brawl that was, wishbone-on-wishbone and two awesome defenses at their old-fashioned best. We see the replay every home game now of that game-deciding fumble forced by Tyrone Keys to seal the win.
Except it didn't. Here is my favorite Hull story. See, State had to snap the ball once to run out the clock, doing so just outside their own goal line. Routine, right? Yeahhhh, well, there is—or at least was--this rule that a defender can make contact with the football if it is lifted or moved forward. Nigh-impossible to execute or judge, I've only known it to happen twice in games I covered and both times Alabama was on defense.
This was the first case. As Hull began the exchange to Bond, the Tide nose man slapped the ball. Hull lost control and his hike shot past J.B.'s helmet into the end zone. No flag was tossed by the way, so had Alabama come up with the fumble… But they didn't. Thankfully Donald Ray King got to the pigskin first and even scrambled back the other side of the goal, and while 22 players thrashed around we saw the wonderful sight of the officials racing to the adjacent Memorial Stadium gate. Making their escape if you will, lest they be put in position of having to make a ruling in State's favor with a certain opposing coach growling from the far sideline.
Making the tale even more memorable was how the following Tuesday—by great good timing State had an open week to come down from ending Alabama's reign of terror—I took Hull and Bellard to meet a TV crew set up in front of the Hump. Hull was the only player available at the lunchtime hour so he drew the interview duty. (By the way, I interject here that as both a p.r. guy and a media member, when you need a good, solid, if not spectacular, quote from a football team representative, ask the center. True then and still true today.) I was off to one side with Coach when Hull mentioned how the snap had been slapped. I can still see Emory's head turning so quickly he almost spit out his pipe saying "Whaaaat?!" as that was the first the head coach had heard of how the final play played out!
It's been 31 falls since. In a sense Hull's college career peaked that sophomore afternoon in Jackson, though his teams would go on to win the '80 Egg Bowl and play in the Sun Bowl…where in further irony State lost to a Nebraska team featuring Dave Rimington. Yeah, the guy for whom the award given the best college center annually is named. Yet it was Hull who became the great professional, a nominee for the Hall of Fame now no less. I can only find a couple of Bulldogs who went on to longer NFL careers and if his three USFL season are included Hull comes in I think second only to Walt Harris (1996-2010) on a pro roster. And it is worth noting as well that his senior squad, when Hull and Wayne Harris were in front of Bond, that the 1982 team set a per-game yardage mark of 422 that still stands. Check it yourself.
Yet again one would hardly have known Hull was such a unique figure in Bulldog sports history without actually knowing him. I guess it is another reminder that linemen labor in relative obscurity at any level compared to those that run, throw, and catch. But I think it ought to remind of something else; that being, Bulldog football is at its best when the lines of scrimmage are at their best. Whether the 1974-76 teams, or '80-'81, or that four-year run to end the 1990s. Or even individual seasons like 2007 and '10. Mississippi State's fortunes are directly determined by how both the offensive and defensive lines perform.
That is what Kent Hull epitomized then and still does. He was raised a Bulldog and literally grew up before our eyes on the field into a great ballplayer. Of course he already was a great person and remained so whether enjoying fame and fortune on the field or what I have to believe was an even more satisfying life off it. Safe to say one of his game photos will join those adorning Davis Wade Stadium at the proper time.
Not that he'd want such fuss made. Kent would say he was just doing his job. True. But then not many ever did it better, and none offer a better example for Bulldog players of today and Mississippi State alumni of the future.
It's a thought that takes some edge off a chill October morning in Mississippi.