Zeke Bratkowski played quarterback in the NFL for 15 years. In 10 of those years, Bratkowski was coached by either George Halas or Vince Lombardi. Talk about playing under two of the greatest coaching icons in NFL history.
I had an opportunity to speak with Bratkowski recently, and he talked about playing under these two head coaching giants.
“Both Coach Halas and Coach Lombardi were very similar in their style of discipline,” Bratkowski said. “They were both very demanding and were coaches of repetition.”
Bratkowski originally played under Halas, as the Chicago Bears drafted the former Georgia Bulldog star as a junior in the second round in 1953 as a “future pick”, which was allowed in that era. Bratkowski played his senior year and joined the Bears in 1954.
Bratkowski talked about the start of his NFL career and how Halas helped him.
“In my rookie year, the Bears also had Ed Brown and George Blanda at quarterback,” Bratkowski said. “I learned a lot from Coach Halas. He told the whole team that year when we were 4-4, that if we win the last four games, we could win the conference.
“Coach gave me the chance to start those four games and we won them all. But unfortunately Detroit, who we beat on the last week of the season, won the conference when the kicker from Philadelphia missed an extra point against them the week before. So basically one point kept us out of the championship game.”
Bratkowski’s career in the NFL was put on hold in 1955 and 1956, as he served in the Air Force. While Bratkowski was serving his country, the Bears played in the 1956 NFL title game against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium. The offensive coordinator for the G-Men was none other than Vince Lombardi, as New York won 47-7.
While in the Air Force, Bratkowski continued to play football and one of his teammates was wide receiver Max McGee of the Green Bay Packers.
“We went to the championship game when I was at the Air Force and Max was on our team,” Bratkowski said. “We also had Jim Dooley playing wide receiver. Jim eventually became head coach of the Bears. But both Max and Jim caught a lot of balls, as we threw a lot.
“Max and I were in the same squadron as pilots and we flew together. We were in the original drone squadron.”
When Bratkowski came back in 1957, it took awhile to become as proficient as he was before he left for the Air Force.
“When I came back in ’57, Coach Halas had me doing a lot of film study,” Bratkowski said. “I lived in Danville, Illinois which is about 110 miles south of Chicago. Coach had me doing film studies of all the games that the team had played while I was gone. I had to fill out this big form that he had created for me.
“So I would be in Chicago from Monday through Friday doing that exercise. The train out of Chicago went right into Danville, so it was an easy ride. Anyway, I had a lot of catching up to do, even though I was in great shape. But it took awhile for me to catch up to Ed [Brown] and George [Blanda] again.
“But Coach Halas helped me catch up. He set up a regimen for me to be better prepared. I would take notes and Coach Halas would answer my questions. He also watched film with me and would help out there as well.”
Bratkowski spent four more years with the Bears before he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1961. In his five years with the Bears, Bratkowski was 11-5 as a starter, so it was a bit odd that he was shipped out to Los Angeles.
As a Ram, Bratkowski started 11 games in 1961 and then split time with rookie quarterback Roman Gabriel in 1962 and part of 1963 before he was placed on waivers.
It was at that point that Lombardi, then the general manager and head coach of the Packers, picked up Bratkowski on waivers and he became the backup to starting quarterback Bart Starr.
Lombardi used a similar film study routine for his quarterbacks, similar to what Halas did. Brakowski talked to me about that routine in a previous story I did about being in the QB’s meeting room with Lombardi.
This is a portion of that piece:
“We had to be there at 8:00 am to meet with Coach Lombardi,” Bratkowski said. “Then, we didn’t have quarterback coaches. But back then, the quarterback meetings were with Coach Lombardi. It was all him.
“He always started the meetings with the defensive frequencies of the upcoming team we would be facing. We would take notes on the fronts that they ran and also how they would cover.
“Coach was an excellent teacher. He was a great coach, but he was even a better teacher. He was obviously a great motivator, but he also explained how and why certain plays would work.”
Bratkowski talked about one of Lombardi’s techniques for teaching.
“All of his information was on cards,” Bratkowski said. “He didn’t show the cards to us, but he talked about what was on the card. We took notes. That is what we did consistently. Every game we had a notebook, that we ourselves had made.
“We had perforated notebooks where you could take that sheet and use it for the next time you played an opponent. Like Detroit for instance. Then we could see if our information matched up the second time or if they had changed their tendencies.”
In the five years Bratkowski played under Lombardi, No. 12 only started three games, winning two of them. But he came in for an injured Starr on a number of occasions and Bratkowski often brought home a victory.
One of those games was in the 1965 Western Conference Championship Game. Starr was injured on the first play of scrimmage for the Packers versus the Baltimore Colts in that game at Lambeau Field, but Bratkowski led the Packers to a 13-10 overtime win, as he threw for 248 yards against one of the top defenses in the NFL.
The next season, in 1966, Bratkowski had to come in another game when Starr was injured and this time it was against Halas and the Bears at Lambeau Field. Bratkowski threw for 190 yards and two touchdowns, as the Packers beat da Bears 13-6.
“I enjoyed that victory more than most,” Bratkowski said.
Bratkowski also came in relief of Starr in the second-to-last game of the season against the Colts in Baltimore in 1966. Once again, Bratkowski led the Packers to a win, as Green Bay scored a fourth quarter touchdown in a 14-10 victory, which also clinched the Western Conference title.
Bratkowski then talked about the close friendship that Halas and Lombardi had.
“Coach Halas and Coach Lombardi were good friends,” Bratkowski said. “At least until they played each other. But they had great respect for one another. They had the same character. Both of them were devout Christians.
“When I was with Coach Halas, he would go to mass every morning in Chicago. Likewise, Coach Lombardi did the same thing in Green Bay. Both were very conscious of their character and their team’s character.
“We had some pretty good games when they coached against each other.”
Lombardi and his Packers were 13-5 against Halas and his Bears from 1959 through 1967. During that period, the Packers won five NFL titles, which included the first two Super Bowls, while the Bears won the 1963 NFL title.
Halas, along with Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns, were largely responsible for the the Packers hiring Lombardi in 1959, as both gave big endorsements for the former offensive assistant of the Giants.
In his 15-year career in the NFL, Bratkowski had threw for 10,345 yards and 65 touchdowns. He later became an assistant coach in the NFL for a number of teams for 26 years, which included both the Bears and Packers. The lessons he learned under both Halas and Lombardi as a player came with him when he became a coach.
“It was a honor for me to play under both Coach Halas and Coach Lombardi,” Bratkowski said. “I learned a lot from each of them. Both were very disciplined and so were their teams. They had us doing the same play over and over again until it became second nature. Those practice habits helped us when we played the real games.
“Bottom line, we were always prepared.”