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THE BUSINESSMAN in Kent Hull, the one who is involved in four car dealerships, began to take shape when he was 15.

The professional football player in him, the one who ranks among the league's top centers, got a much later start.

Fourteen years ago, Hull was as serious about making ends meet as a high school freshman could be in Greenwood, Miss. After his mother and father separated, he assumed a bread-winning role to help his mom support him and his three younger siblings. He bagged groceries at a supermarket. He changed tires at a tire store. He maintained flood levees for the local branch of the Army Corps of Engineers.

There was still time for sports, and Hull played them all -- basketball, baseball, track and, of course, football. He was good enough at basketball to become an all-state forward in high school, but his long-term athletic plans were a pipe dream.

"I grew up thinking I was going to be in the NBA," he recalls. "Then, the game got so tall and I got so slow."

It took three years for Hull to find his niche in football. As a freshman, he played quarterback and middle linebacker. As a sophomore and junior, he played tight end. Finally, as a senior, he was switched to center -- the spot where he would remain for four years at Mississippi State, three in the United States Football League, and five (and counting) in the National Football League.

Most NFL talent-evaluators agree that, in Hull, the Buffalo Bills lay claim to the league's best at the position.

But as accomplished as he might be as a football player, he has equal cause for pride as a businessman. In Hull's mini-empire of car dealerships, there are two in Mississippi that he owns and two more, in Mississippi and Arkansas, in which he has a minority interest.

Not bad for someone who, as a teen-ager trying to get the most out of his lunch money, would go with his buddies to a Kentucky Fried Chicken stand and pay a quarter for a box of crumbs left behind by the cook.

"We'd also buy the chicken sometimes," he recalls. "But those crumbs were a real bargain. And they tasted great . . . nice and greasy."

Hull's introduction to the car-selling business came during his first off-season with the USFL's New Jersey Generals. Looking to supplement his $40,000 salary ("which didn't go very far in New Jersey, where my wife and I were paying $1,200 a month for an unfurnished, one-bedroom apartment"), he sold cars for a dealership in Greenwood. He found immediate success and stuck with it through the next off-season while completing his studies for a degree in business administration.

After signing with the Bills in 1986, Hull stopped being a salesman and became an investor in a dealership in Arkansas. A year later, the Greenwood dealership was for sale and Hull persuaded his fellow investors to take it over, with him as majority owner.

Eventually, cars would begin occupying as much of his attention as opposing defensive linemen.

"It's a headache," Hull admits. "The key is to surround yourself with good people, and I've been fortunate enough to do that. As a result, it runs pretty smoothly.

"Sure, there are times when I have to get involved and take care of some problems. I've had to fire one person, although it was pretty much a mutual parting of ways. Most of the time, the things that come up can be handled over the phone.

"But it's pretty hectic when I'm back home in the off-season, traveling from dealership to dealership."

As a rule, pro football players tend not to be very formal with what they wear to and from daily meetings and practices. Jogging suits, jeans, T-shirts and sweat shirts are the preferred line of clothing.

But when Hull is tending to business back home, he has to look the part.

"I wear a tie every day," he says. "At first, it was quite a cultural shock. But I've gotten used to it to the point where, now if I don't have one on, it almost feels like going on the football field without my shoulder pads. Most of the people in my hometown know me, but if they walked in the front door of the showroom and saw me in a pair of sweat pants and sneakers, I don't think I would come across as somebody they'd trust to sell them a quality product.

"The biggest thing in selling is that an individual has to sell himself, first. I learned something a long time ago from both of my grandfathers. One owned an appliance store, the other was a farmer, and they taught me that if you treat people fair -- understand their problems, sympathize with them -- you can be successful in any business."

Hull's pro football success has been on a steady climb since his first USFL season. Now, after Pro Bowl appearances the past two years, he has reached the top of his game. According to a mid-year Sports Illustrated poll of NFL player personnel men, there isn't a better center in the league.

And, judging by the Bills' sack shutout of the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, there is every reason to believe Hull will maintain that distinction after the season, when official all-league teams are announced.

"When you first see your name in something like that, you say, 'Gee, that's great,' " Hull says. "Then, you look at it and say, 'I'd give back that and every other honor I've ever gotten just to get to the Super Bowl once and win it.' You work your whole life for that one opportunity to say that you were on the best team. And in all the years I've played sports, I've never been able to say that."

Outsiders aren't the only ones singing his praises.

"To me, he's the best center in the league, hands-down," quarterback Jim Kelly says. "I'm sure there are some quarterbacks who might argue that point. But I know there are a lot of nose guards who would agree with me. He's a great leader, he makes sure everyone is in the right position, which takes a lot of pressure off me. And he's just so strong. He can put (defensive) people right where he wants them."

"Kent combines a lot of things," says tackle Will Wolford. "He has the size (6-foot-5, 275 pounds) he has the strength, he has the agility, he has the quickness.

"But the thing that sets him apart from the other centers in the league is his intelligence. Kent's responsible for a lot of calls that need to be made on that offensive line. And Tom Bresnahan (the Bills' offensive line coach) will be the first to admit that Kent knows the game as well as he does."

But Hull isn't so quick to agree with those who see him as a flawless performer. He sees room for improvement.

"I think I can play better, especially in run-blocking," Hull says. "This is the second year that we're using the offensive philosophy that involves so much push and upfield drive and getting off the ball so the back can cut back. It's entirely different from the position-blocking and hook-blocking that we used to do, and I'm still getting used to it.

"I've always strived to be the best at anything I do, whether it's playing sports or sacking groceries."

Or running car dealerships.

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