Zeke Bratkowski was a family man

Published 6:59 pm Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Zeke Bratkowski spent more than four decades of his life on the biggest stages of the National Football League, as a player and coach, and then settled down in this laid-back, seaside community in the Florida panhandle to live out his life in gratifying serenity.

He was a man without avarice or greed, one who would always lend a helping hand to those in need. He would get your ox out of the ditch. 

The highlights in his distinguished athletic career far outweigh any downturns which were as scarce as a loss at Lambeau Field during the Titletown era of which he was an integral part, The Lombardi Packers. Ah, those halcyon days, when the NFL outpost that was Green Bay became the epicenter of professional football. Starr, Thurston, Taylor, Dowler, Davis, Hornung, Adderly and Zeke. “And all the rest,” Zeke would say if he were privy to these ruminations.  

No player ever championed team first-concepts like Zeke who was a rifle-armed All-American for Coach Wallace Butts at Georgia in the early fifties. A native of Danville, Ill., Zeke’s journey to Athens was brought about in part by his high school coach being Paul Shebby, who was also Charley Trippi’s high school coach.

Zeke is, perhaps, the most famous backup quarterback in NFL history. When Bart Starr was sidelined for a play, a series, a game or half a season, Zeke took over, and the Packers run oriented offense never missed a beat. Mainly because Zeke always diligently prepared himself to be ready if needed.

He and Starr and their families were the closest of friends. There has never been a greater mutual admiration society than with Zeke and Bart. There was deep and abiding respect for the other.  In my files, there are recorded interviews in which there was a mutual lionization which confirms, at least from this corner, the Lombardi Packers were more often invincible because they truly put the team first. This is why I have always believed that Lombardi’s leadership qualities made him eminently worthy of the label, “Great.” The appellation “great,” if you know what I mean, is not for every coach.

As Zeke’s pretty widow, Mary Elizabeth, nicknamed M. E., dating back to her coed days at UGA, managed her emotions with poise as a eulogist recalled a time when Zeke ordered flowers at a florist shop one day for his wife which prompted the florist to ask what the special day was for M. E.  “No special occasion,” Zeke replied. “She is special to me every day.”

Zeke Bratkowski was always about family whether it was the teams he played on, especially those Lombardi Packers, or at home with his first family.