In September 1976, William E. Lenkaitis opened a dental office in downtown Foxborough – not far from his other job.
“That way I can go from one practice to another,” he told the Globe with a smile, adding that “right now both my thumbs are sprained, but that’s no problem. I just have a little trouble holding the instruments.”
Sore thumbs were a hazard of his work as starting center for the New England Patriots. He took Mondays off from dentistry to recuperate from Sunday games and resumed his then part-time dental practice each Tuesday – the team’s day off.
Dr. Lenkaitis, who lived in East Walpole, spent 11 of his 14 seasons with the Patriots and was the team’s dentist during some of his playing days and for years after. He was 70 when he died of brain cancer Saturday in Hellenic Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Canton.
“He was a smart player who made the calls for our offensive line and he did that flawlessly,” said former Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan. “Lenk was as tough as they come and wouldn’t back down from anybody, but he also loved to laugh and when he did, we knew where it was coming from.”
Like several of his Patriots teammates and their families, Grogan continued to visit Dr. Lenkaitis over the years for dental treatment. Dr. Lenkaitis received a dental degree in 1974 after attending the University of Tennessee for six years between pro seasons.
Named to the Patriots 1970s All-Decade Team, Dr. Lenkaitis was honored as the 1776 Fan Club’s Unsung Hero in 1974.
Randy Vataha, a former business partner and teammate, said Dr. Lenkaitis “came across as tough, and he liked that persona of being an agitator and pushing people’s buttons. ... But it was all in good fun because Bill had a giant heart and he was there for friends and teammates when they needed support.”
Dr. Lenkaitis was a first team All-East cocaptain on the 1967 Penn State team that played in the Gator Bowl. He was a second-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers in 1968, and the Patriots claimed him off waivers in 1971. In 1973, he was on the Patriots final cut list, but his name came off the waiver wire when starting center Jon Morris hurt his knee.
“It’s one of those what-would-have-happened-if kind of things,” he told the Globe in 1980. “Now I’m a lifetime New Englander, but if Jon hadn’t been hurt, I wouldn’t have stayed here. I’d have probably gone home to Cleveland and become a dentist.”
Morris, who was traded to the Detroit Lions in 1975 and started every Lions game for the next three years, said he never held animosity toward Dr. Lenkaitis, and they remained friends until his death.
“He loved jokes and pranks and we enjoyed being around him.’’ Morris said. “And he was very proud of playing for Penn State and let us know it.”
At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Dr. Lenkaitis started all 16 games in 1978 when the team won its first National Football League division title and set the existing NFL rushing record of 3,165 yards.
When Sam Cunningham blasted through the middle of the line for a 52-yard touchdown run against Dallas late in that season, NFL and Patriots Hall of Fame guard John Hannah told the Globe that Dr. Lenkaitis threw the key block on the Cowboys’ middle linebacker.
Cunningham said Dr. Lenkaitis was “the perfect guy to anchor our offensive line. He made it easier for us to do the job we needed to do.”
However, when Dr. Lenkaitis offered his dental expertise, Cunningham, recalled, “I would tell him those lineman’s hands were too big for a dentist. But it was just in fun. Lenk was a mentor for the younger players like myself.”
Dr. Lenkaitis partnered with Vataha and George Matthews to start a chain of 10 racquetball clubs, which they later sold. Dr. Lenkaitis also had owned Pub 67 in Hanover and Doc and Nellie’s Bar and Grille in Canton, which was also run by former Patriot Steve Nelson.
Along with other Patriots alumni, Dr. Lenkaitis took an annual golf trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and he also enjoyed golfing with his wife, Donna, at Sharon Country Club.
His father, Lewis, was superintendent of schools in Strongsville, Ohio, where he was instrumental in the building of the high school football field where Dr. Lenkaitis and his older brother, Lew Jr., starred. His mother, Myrtle, was a public school music teacher and Dr. Lenkaitis played first trombone in the Strongsville High orchestra while he was still in junior high school.
Dr. Lenkaitis also won the Ohio high school shot put and discus championships. He graduated from Youngstown’s South High after his father changed jobs.
Dr. Lenkaitis married Donna Benson in 1971 and for three years they commuted between the Boston area and Memphis while he was in dental school. After receiving his degree, he worked for two years with a dentist in South Boston before moving to Foxborough, where he practiced until 2015.
In addition to his wife and his brother, who lives in Avon Lake, Ohio, Dr. Lenkaitis leaves a son, Jamie of Charlotte, N.C.; two daughters, Kristen Thompson of Canton and Lauren Raffoni of Westwood; and six grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton. Burial will be private.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a team statement that when he was just a season ticket holder, “I was a fan of the player he was on the field. But in my 22 years of ownership I became even a bigger fan of the person he was off the field. … He was a great Patriots ambassador.’’
Dr. Lenkaitis’s wife said his “love of his family and unbending loyalty to his friends never wavered. He really enjoyed his patients and loved dentistry and his teammates. And he put 100 percent into everything he did.”Marvin Pave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.