by Crystal Hamon | Photos Courtesy of Zeke Bratkowski and the Children's Advocacy Center
Opportunities often arise in unexpected, ordinary places. I recently visited the Head to Toe Salon in Grayton Beach, where Marie Thacker, my longtime family friend and hairstylist, started to tell me about two of her favorite clients, Zeke and Mary Elizabeth (who goes by M.E.) Bratkowski. Soon after our conversation, Marie introduced me to M.E. and helped arrange for me to meet Zeke.
Sitting at a sunny table on the terrace at the Smiling Fish Café in Blue Mountain Beach, I noticed Zeke’s friendly smile and warm brown eyes, which perfectly reflected his quiet confidence and down-to-earth humor. He seemed so comfortable that I wouldn’t have pegged him for a celebrity. This former All-American and NFL All-Star quarterback for the Green Bay Packers played in the first Super Bowl, in 1967. With his casual eloquence, over a bowl of split pea soup, Zeke shared remarkable stories about his incredible life and career.
Originally from Illinois, he became a son of Georgia when he attended the University of Georgia, where he led the nation in passing in 1952 and in punting in 1953. Zeke was not only inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the University of Georgia Circle of Honor for his college football performance, but as a professional, he landed in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame and the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
Fresh out of college, Zeke was drafted by the Chicago Bears. After only one year, however, he had a military commitment to fulfill. At that time, this country still had draft numbers, but attending college and joining R.O.T.C. exempted him from the draft. With R.O.T.C. summer training camps and other specialized courses in flight operations under his belt, Zeke was able to enter the Air Force as a second lieutenant. “It was kind of nice going into the Air Force as an officer, but none of us knew what we were doing,” Zeke said. “We just had bars on our shoulders and saluted everything that went by!”
During his three years of military service, Zeke was stationed at Duke Field, just north of Niceville. Not only did he develop a love for flying, but Zeke and M.E. also fell in love with the area. “I wouldn’t trade my experience in the Air Force for anything,” he said. “If not for the opportunity to play ball, I would have stayed right here. I had a great job and got in lots of flying.” Zeke added that he was no less dedicated to the military than he was to football. “The wings that I put on my chest mean every bit as much to me as those championship rings. Being a pilot is special to me; I accomplished things I never imagined would be possible.”
Today, Zeke continues to visit Duke Field to speak at Commander’s Call and in the summer of 2008, he was made an Honorary 919th Special Operations Wing Top 3 Association Member.
After leaving the military, Zeke returned to the game he loved, first with the Chicago Bears and then with the Los Angeles Rams. Halfway through the season in 1963, the Green Bay Packers’ lead quarterback, Pro Football Hall of Famer Bart Starr, broke his hand. Green Bay made a trade for Zeke as replacement quarterback while Bart was injured. Zeke’s tremendous success earned him the nickname “Super Sub.” However, if anyone expected the two players to become rivals, they were wrong. “I knew why I was going to Green Bay,” Zeke explained. “They needed someone to back him up because the team was so good. I was happy to do my part.” In fact, the two instantly became great friends. Zeke added, “Bart and I are still really close friends. We spend holidays together, and our wives are like sisters.”
Together, the two football stars won three world championships in a row, including the first two Super Bowls. No other team has done that since. “A love exists amongst us to this day because we were a part of something unique,” Zeke said. “We still get together every year at the alumni game and enjoy seeing each other.”
Knowing the near-national holiday the Super Bowl has become, I asked Zeke what that first Super Bowl in 1967 against the Kansas City Chiefs was like. He replied, “Back then, there wasn’t the same level of hype as now. We had a little buildup to the game, but not as much as today. We played a championship game one week, and the next we played the Super Bowl.” The game was played before nearly 70,000 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and a television audience of approximately 60 million viewers. A one-minute television commercial sold for $75,000–$85,000. Zeke said, “For winning the game, we each earned a $15,000 bonus, which was a lot of money to us.” Today, a 30-second ad for Super Bowl 2009 costs $3 million, and each player on the winning team will receive $78,000.
The Super Bowl trophy is named for Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi, who was one of Zeke’s major influences during his playing career. “Coach Lombardi’s leadership destined us for what we did after football. At the time, we viewed him as a highly demanding taskmaster who ingrained the basics. We didn’t realize how much we learned under him, or what he was trying to do for us, until we moved on. A number of guys under Coach Lombardi’s guidance became highly successful. He was a great motivator.”
After playing professional football for 14 years, Zeke began a 26-year coaching career in 1969. “I loved coaching, though maybe not as much as playing. The only thing that got to me was the routine. Then, too, coaching became harder because the character of the players was changing with the money involved getting so huge. It’s hard to coach people who are earning so much money. They become careless in their study and work habits. I grew tired of dealing with that.” Zeke added, “The best teams out there are careful about who they allow to play with them. They will select players with lesser skills but better character because the character eventually comes out and reflects in what they do on the field.”
Although Zeke retired from coaching in 1996, he still works with select college quarterbacks. Some of those players have included Patrick Ramsey, Matt Flynn, Brody Croyle and Ryan Fitzpatrick. “I enjoy seeing how they do in the pros. But the most fun I have now is working with the younger high school players.” Colton Kane at J.R. Arnold High School and Randle Spain at Choctawhatchee High School are two local high school quarterbacks Zeke currently coaches on a regular basis. “I enjoy working with those young ones as much as anyone else. They’re lots of fun and have great futures ahead of them. They work hard and they listen. They’re coachable.”
Both strong work ethics and athletics run in the family. The Bratkowskis’ son, Bob, is now the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, and daughter Kassie has participated in numerous triathlon events. Zeke and M.E.’s son Steven was a talented quarterback at Arizona State University and a successful commodities broker before losing his life in a tragic jet ski accident. With the loss of Steven, the family began a new chapter in their lives.
Zeke said, “The legacy of my son’s life lives on.” He explained, “After his death, we learned that Steven had actively supported an orphanage in Memphis where he lived. When some of his friends found out about Steven’s altruism, they came together to organize a charity golf tournament. We have hosted it now for 20 years in support of The Brat, the foundation we created in Steven’s memory. I can’t tell you just how many millions of dollars we’ve raised, but it’s a substantial amount of money. We’ve been able to put that funding into causes like St. Jude’s Hospital and several other projects.” Susan Plunket, who now runs the foundation, was Steven’s fiancée. He died two weeks before the wedding.
The establishment of The Brat kick-started Zeke’s involvement in a variety of charitable works. “You know, when you’re retired, you sit back and look at all the things going on and think, gee, there has got to be a way we can help.”
Locally, Zeke is most involved in the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center in Niceville where he is currently on the Board of Trustees. In the past, an abused child would bounce around between hospitals, police departments, child services centers and numerous other facilities in order to make and legitimize a claim that he or she was being harmed. The process was so daunting, invasive and confusing for kids that many of them would give up rather than report abuse. Now, the Children’s Advocacy Center has created, as they describe it, “a child-friendly space where all of the interviews, examinations and assessments from various agencies can be conducted in a supportive environment under one roof.”
In March of every year, Zeke and Bart co-host a charity golf tournament at Kelly Plantation to benefit the Children’s Advocacy Center. “It’s just a one-day tournament, but we get a huge response from the community because we make it really good.” M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers and his wife, Amy, are among the local community members who strongly support the auction portion of the tournament. Zeke said, “Whether the economy will allow for our typical level of fundraising this year, I don’t know, but all the incentive you need to give is to learn how many children are abused on a monthly basis. The numbers are astronomical! We have to help.” One of the great prizes auctioned off every year is a trip to Green Bay’s Alumni Weekend with Zeke and Bart. Zeke adds that his efforts are small in comparison to the dedicated people who work in the trenches. He said, “Julie Hurst, who runs the Center, is a saint. She and her staff work tirelessly.” Julie Hurst commented, “Zeke has such a big heart for kids. He has allowed us to help so many children throughout the years. Without him, we just wouldn’t be here.”
Zeke further hopes to utilize the unique aspects of this area to help the disadvantaged. “I’ve been talking to people about a dream I’ve had for years. I would like to unite all of the charities in this area and have one big charitable golf tournament using all of the beautiful golf courses we have available to us. It would take a lot of hard work and a lot of people, but it would be worth it.”
Another of Zeke’s significant contributions has been organizing the relief efforts of his congregation at St. Rita’s Catholic Church after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. “Our priest was looking for someone to just kind of ramrod it, so I volunteered. Many dedicated parishioners contributed their time and energy into making our hard work successful. We made about 25 visits over to Alabama, but I can name some who have been more times. We just loaded up trucks with food, clothes, cleaning supplies—everything you can imagine.” Working primarily in Bayou La Batre, Zeke and his group operated with a straightforward strategy: show up, ask people what they need, and then try to get it for them. “The needs were so basic. On our first trips there, 300 people would be waiting in line for food. The first woman I met in line was cuddled up in a blanket because it was cold. We asked her, ‘What can we do for you?’ and she said, ‘Can you get me some pots and pans so I can cook?’” For three consecutive years, they fed Katrina victims turkey dinners from Cracker Barrel in Mobile. When asked, Zeke’s volunteers supplied 2,000 desserts to round out the meals. Meanwhile, schools in Bayou La Batre needed 800 blue sweatshirts to coordinate with the schools’ colors. Zeke called a friend, who proved to be a top-notch resource. In addition to school uniforms, the group also supplied book bags and a number of other useful provisions. Today, Zeke continues to lead his church’s efforts to aid Katrina victims.
“As I sit back and go through the stuff that I’ve done in my lifetime, the question that I most think about is, ‘If you had it to do all over again, would you do it differently?’ And if I had that chance, I think I would have started promoting charitable causes earlier in life. There are so many worthy causes for which the so-called ‘celebrity’ card can be used to raise money.” With that question in mind, when he speaks to young people, Zeke says that he tells them to live without regrets, try new things and learn as much as they can. That’s good advice for people of all ages.
It is exciting to meet an important football personality, but I feel that the real honor was getting to know this compassionate person who is so wholeheartedly dedicated to helping others and giving back in a meaningful way. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Zeke Bratkowski, I am sure you will agree.
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