State Your Case: Bucko Kilroy

Only former New York Giants’ owner Wellington Mara served more consecutive years in the NFL than Bucko Kilroy, whose 64 seasons as a player, coach, scout and executive nosed out George Halas by one.

Photo courtesy of the New England Patriots
Photo courtesy of the New England Patriots

(Photos courtesy of New England Patriots)

By Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

If ever there's someone for whom the Hall of Fame’s contributor category was invented, it's Bucko Kilroy.

Only former New York Giants’ owner Wellington Mara served more consecutive years in the NFL than Kilroy, whose 64 seasons as a player, coach, scout and executive nosed out George Halas by one. It was something he was rightfully proud of but not the only thing. Or even the first.

For all his success as an innovative scout and front office executive, it was his 13 years as a player for the Philadelphia Eagles that Kilroy was proudest of because, to the end, that’s what he was. Bucko was a football player.

Philadelphia born and bred, Kilroy became Temple’s first All-America lineman and then a two-way, three-time Pro Bowler at both offensive guard and middle guard for his hometown team. He was a rock of stability on an Eagles’ line that propelled Steve Van Buren into the Hall of Fame and the Eagles to NFL championships in 1948 and 1949.

In both title games the Eagles defense, a 5-2 alignment with Kilroy in the middle and everyone on the line, produced shutouts. It’s the only time that's happened in NFL history.

“I enjoyed playing defense,’’ Kilroy once said. “Offense was drudgery.’’

Perhaps offensive boredom was what provoked him. Considered to be among the toughest or dirtiest players of his era (depending on which side of the line you stood on), on Oct. 24, 1955 he was named by Life magazine as the dirtiest player in the NFL. Then a staple of American life in nearly every American home each week, Life also called him “an ornery critter,’’ a charge he did not dispute.

Life accompanied its accusations with a full-page cover shot of a grinning Kilroy, as well as a number of photographs of allegedly dirty play. Enraged, Kilroy and teammate Wayne Robinson, who was also named, sued for libel.

At trial, Otto Graham testified against Kilroy but was eviscerated by Kilroy’s attorneys. Many of Kilroy’s peers testified for him, including Hall-of-Fame safety Emlen Tunnell. In the end, Kilroy won and was awarded $11,600. He always said it was $25,000. One assumes he was factoring in inflation.

Kilroy played that reputation to the hilt, not only with his hard-nosed style but also believing that such a reputation assisted against more timid opponents. In the end, it worked. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, a seven-time All-Pro and was selected to the 1940s' NFL all-decade team.

This, as it turned out, was only the beginning of his contributions to the NFL. After his playing days, Kilroy became an Eagles’ assistant for five years before finding his second calling: Scouting.

Kilroy was not merely someone with an eye for talent, although he certainly had one. He was an innovator who is credited with creating the NFL scouting combine as well as the Dallas Cowboys’ information-based grading system for selecting players.

After three years scouting for the Redskins, Kilroy arrived in Dallas in 1965 with an idea: He and Gil Brandt would transform how drafting was done, turning it from a guessing game into an information-gathering endeavor.

“The more measurements you got, the more you could confirm,’’ Kilroy once said when explaining the Cowboys’ computerized approach in a time of pencils and erasers. “Anything else was an estimate or an opinion.

“I used tests and numbers as a barometer. You measured them against players you had who had been successful. You didn’t pick guys out of a football yearbook.’’

Believe it or not, Street and Smith’s college football annual was the staple of more than a few ‘’scouting’’ departments in those days. Not Kilroy’s.

"Gil Brandt and Bucko put together a system in Dallas," former Baltimore, Cleveland and New York Giants GM Ernie Accorsi once recalled. "We never had a system. We drafted OK, but it was by the seat of the pants. Everyone talks about Gil and the computers, but Bucko never got enough credit. He took that scouting system to New England and really refined it. He took it to the next level."

Kilroy was instrumental in drafting Roger Staubach, despite his naval commitment, and put together the foundation of Tom Landry’s great Dallas teams of the 1970s. In 1971 he headed off to New England, where he did it again for the Patriots during what would become a 36-year career as scouting director, general manager, vice-president and, in his later years, scouting consultant.

He drafted Hall-of-Famers John Hannah and Mike Haynes, as well as Russ Francis, despite the fact Francis had not played his senior season at Oregon. Later, he would take Stanley Morgan, Darryl Stingley, Sam Cunningham, Steve Nelson, Steve Grogan, Pete Brock and Raymond Clayborn, thus turning the long somnambulant Patriots into a playoff fixture in the mid-to-late 1970s and again in the mid-1980s, when they reached the Super Bowl for the first time.

Kilroy would help New England do it again in the late 1990s and into their present Super Bowl run, with the first three of their Super Bowl dynasty teams having been blessed by the Kilroy touch. In fact, then Patriots’ personnel director Scott Pioli, a Bill Belichick disciple, made it a requirement that each of their scouts regularly visit with Kilroy.

Considering his inability to remember anyone’s name, Kilroy’s decision to turn scouting into a numbers game grading system some 60 years ago was probably all for the best. Once intrigued by Naval Academy running back Napoleon McCallum, he said “I really like that Bonaparte kid at Navy.’’

He may have butchered the name, but he knew a player when he saw one ... and for 64 years he saw them all. If 64 years’ worth of accomplishment doesn’t make you a Hall-of-Fame contributor, it’s difficult to fathom what would.