He was Brookie, whatever your station in life, prince or pauper, he was Brookie. No pretense. No airs. No high-hatting. He was Brookie and you could tell when he was in the room because laughter trailed after him.

That laughter is stilled now. Tom Brookshier succumbed to cancer Friday night, and everyone has lost a friend. He was 78, and what he leaves behind is 78 years worth of smiles. Can there be a better legacy?

He always seemed to be on cruise control, Easy Rider gliding along, by turns unerringly irreverent and self-deprecating, possessed of a wicked sense of humor that you envied.

He rarely had an unspoken thought, and from time to time this trait would land him in deep water. He would depend on a select, trusted few to reel him back in, most notably his wife, Barbara, and his broadcast booth sidekick, Pat Summerall.

"I'd talk myself out onto the ledge," he said, "and they'd save me from myself."

He was one of the best players the Eagles have ever had. They took him in the 10th round, out of Colorado, when the NFL draft was an informal affair. It took word a while to reach him.

"I got back to the frat house after class one day and they told me the Eagles had called to tell me they'd drafted me, and I said, 'No kidding?' "

They paid him $5,500.

"I said, 'Hot damn, now I can get married.' "

At training camp, he hit everything that moved. This did not sit well with the veterans.

"They told me, 'Back off, Kid, we don't hammer each other, especially not at camp.' But I did the math and counted how many defensive backs they had and how many they'd keep, and I hammered away."

He started at cornerback as a rookie and had eight interceptions. By 1959, he was all-pro, then repeated in that championship season of 1960, and was on his way to a third . . . and then: Eighth game, 1961 season, Eagles-Bears. In front of the Chicago bench, he was caught from front and back, whipsawed. There was, he remembered, the sound of biting into an apple. His right shin was shattered, a portion of the bone protruding through the skin.

George Halas, the legendary Papa Bear, looked down and said: "Tough break, Kid."

He was done as a player. But he was only just beginning his life. He went to the booth, and the transition was seamless. He was a natural. No prima donna act. He didn't take himself too seriously, and that came through. He was, forever, good ol' Brookie.

He and Summerall were partnered by the network, and that turned out to be a serendipitous pairing, Summerall doing play-by-play in crisp, economical fragments and Brookie doing color and stream-of-consciousness.

"I'd babble on and on," Brookie said, "wandering around trying to remember what it was I'd started to say about four sentences back, and Pat would step in and tidy it all up before the next snap."

Out of the booth, they were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, night riders who drank from every upholstered watering hole on the circuit.

"They'd tell us we had a great time," Summerall said, "and we'd have to take their word for it."

They had a good run together, more than a decade's worth, and then the network brought in John Madden. Brookie went a while before seeing his old running mate, and when he did he was aghast. Summerall was bloated, puffy, with an unhealthy pallor. There was a simple reason.

"I was drinking myself to death," he said.

Summerall's first wife went to the person she trusted most, and implored Brookie to intervene. He rounded up the voices that had the best chance of reaching Summerall and they gathered in a Camden hotel and waited. It was up to Brookie to deliver him.

(I wrote a book, When The Clock Runs Out, in which two chapters are devoted to Brookie and Summerall, and Summerall says: "Brookie saved my life. Literally.")

A private jet was chartered to California to a rehab center. Brookie, of course, rode shotgun. Thirty-three days later, Pat Summerall was released.

"My best friend deceived me to get me into that intervention," he said. "And I'll never be able to thank him enough. He's the closest thing to a brother that I have."

Tom Brookshier always tried to pass off what he had done. He had a simple philosophy:

"We're supposed to look out for each other. Isn't that what friends are for?"

And so it is.

And so it is.

Bill Lyon:

Tom Brookshier, former Eagle and TV broadcaster,

dies at 78. Obituary, A1.

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer sports columnist.