Longtime Patriots center Bill Lenkaitis dies at 70

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Center Bill Lenkaitis, who played in 151 games for the New England Patriots from 1971-81, has died at the age of 70 after an 18-month battle with brain cancer.

Nicknamed "Lenk," he balanced learning dentistry and playing for the Patriots and went into dentistry full-time after retiring. He was revered by many of his patients at his Foxborough practice and through his philanthropic work in the region.

"Tuesdays were my day off, so I'd go in to practice for a few hours. In the offseason, I'd work three days a week," Lenkaitis once explained. "By [retirement], I had a pretty full practice to go to."

Lenkaitis earned a dental degree from the University of Tennessee-Memphis in the 1973-74 offseason. A 1976 profile in People Magazine was headlined, "Boston Center Bill Lenkaitis Rattles Teeth on Sundays & Fixes Them the Rest of the Week."

In Michael Felger's "Tales from the New England Patriots Sideline" book, Lenkaitis was described as "another character on a team loaded with as much personality as talent."

Born in Strongville, Ohio, on June 30, 1946, Lenkaitis maintained a strong connection to the Patriots after his playing days. He entered the NFL as a second-round draft choice of the San Diego Chargers in 1968 after playing football at Penn State. The Patriots picked him up on waivers and Lenkaitis, who wore No. 67, started 119 of the 151 games in which he played for the franchise.

"Bill centered one of the greatest offensive lines, not just in franchise history, but in NFL history," owner Robert Kraft said in a statement released by the Patriots. "In 1976, he helped propel the Patriots to an 11-3 record and our first NFL playoff berth. Two years later, the offensive line powered the Patriots to our first NFL division title, while setting the NFL rushing record. As a season ticket holder during his playing days, I was a fan of the player he was on the field. But, in my 22 years of ownership, I became an even bigger fan of the person he was off the field. He was a big man with an even bigger personality and a huge heart. As a Patriots alumnus, he remained active in our communities and regularly volunteered to support [our] Foundation's many initiatives. He was a great Patriots ambassador and he will be missed. We extend our sincerest condolences to his family, friends and former teammates."