Not long ago, Will McDonough, the pugnacious football writer and columnist for the Boston Globe over the last five decades, was having a rather one-sided conversation with a radio talk show caller critical of a piece he'd written in the paper that day.

"You know what the difference is between you and me, pal?" he asked the man at the other end of the phone. "You think, and I know."

Few in the history of the sportswriting craft knew more about professional football -- and the men who played it, coached it and administered it -- than one-of-a-kind Will McDonough, who died Thursday night at his home in Hingham, Mass., of an apparent heart attack at the age of 67 while watching a sports show on television.

He'd had a heart attack in 1990, licked thyroid cancer in the late '90s and had some other health issues in recent weeks that sent him to a doctor's office to take a stress test earlier on the day he died. Knowing McDonough, a highly acclaimed high school football and baseball player who soundly defeated me in Super Bowl week tennis matches for years, he was probably trying to see if he could beat the treadmill, too.

In any case, in my days of covering the Washington Redskins' beat in the 1970s, McDonough was among my journalistic heroes, along with my Post football mentor, the late, great Dave Brady. They were a lot alike. Put each man in a room with a telephone, give him a few hours, and they'd break three exclusive front page stories by lunchtime.

For years, McDonough's 5,000-word football notes columns in the Sunday Globe were must reading for every football scribe in America. It was a chock-full-of-news-and-opinion window to the inner workings of a league very few of his peers had access to, if only because he probably had the best sources at every level of every team, not to mention the NFL's Park Avenue offices.

"Will was relentless in pursuit of a story, and his word was his bond," said Ravens owner Art Modell, who considered McDonough a friend and has employed his son, Terry McDonough, as a scout for 13 years. "If you told him it was off the record, it stayed off the record, and he built a tremendous amount of respect around the league because of it. He was a nuts and bolts guy, meticulous in his reporting, and he stayed with a story until there was no detail he didn't uncover."

McDonough became an even larger-than-life hero in the early '80s for another reason. He remains the only sportswriter I know who actually punched out a professional football player in a team locker room, and survived to type another day.

The player was Raymond Clayborn, a hard-nosed cornerback named to the Patriots' 35-year team in 1994, though I'm sure McDonough didn't have a vote. One day, McDonough was in a group of writers talking to another player when Clayborn walked by and apparently jostled an older reporter. McDonough saw it and said something to Clayborn, who said something back to him, and in an instant, McDonough popped him in the puss. Clayborn fell backward over a bench into his own locker, and McDonough leaped in after him.

They were soon separated by cooler heads, and McDonough, who always maintained that Clayborn had made a subtle first threatening move to set him off, was taken to the trainer's room to fix a cut over his eye. A few minutes later, Clayborn came in for treatment himself. According to Globe football writer and columnist Ron Borges, McDonough's longtime friend and colleague, "Clayborn gives Willie a look, and Willie says to him, 'What are you looking at? You want another one?' "

McDonough also was a pioneer in other areas. Every newspaper guy who now supplements his income by heading to part- or full-time work on TV should bow their heads in homage to a man who was the first print reporter ever to work on network football broadcasts. He did it first for CBS and then for NBC as a sideline reporter -- emphasis on the reporter -- starting in the 1980s and did wonderful work for the network until the NFL and NBC parted ways in the mid-'90s. He was so good at that, he won an Emmy in 1989.

There were a few warts along the way. He probably got too close to some of the people he was supposed to be covering, most notably his pal Bill Parcells, the Patriots' linebacker coach in 1980 and later the team's head coach. He wrote Parcells's last book, the one in which "the Tuna" trash-talked about Dallas owner Jerry Jones and said he'd never coach again.

McDonough also was Parcells's strongest advocate in discussions over the last two years at the annual Hall of Fame selection committee meeting the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday. Last year, McDonough got up and stated again what Parcells had already said -- he was never going to coach again. Enough people didn't believe it and did not vote him into the Hall. Within weeks there was a serious Parcells flirtation with Tampa Bay. And of course, last week Parcells was named head coach of the Cowboys.

Many of his fellow HOF committee members were looking forward to this year's session two weeks from today, if only to playfully needle our old pal, though he certainly would have given back as much as he got.

I happened to call him -- as it turns out it would be our final conversation -- last week just to see how he'd been feeling. I'd been at the Patriots' final regular season game against the Dolphins the week before, and never saw him. Turns out he'd been under the weather in recent weeks and wasn't there. So I called to say hello, and give him my own early Parcells needle.

Willie was his usual feisty self, regaling me about a column he was about to write ripping into Boston Red Sox team president Larry Lucchino, who he felt was spending far too much time living in California and not nearly enough on baseball in Boston. In the column, McDonough called him "the invisible director of baseball."

Lucchino responded in (not so) kind on a talk show the next day, describing McDonough, with some disdain, as just "a football writer."

"Willie loved that," Borges said. "The guy really did go out like a champ."