Outside linebacker Roger Zatkoff played only four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, but they were fruitful ones. Drafted in the fifth round in 1953, Zatkoff played in Green Bay through 1956 and was named to the Western Conference Pro Bowl team as a linebacker three times over those four seasons.
Zatkoff, 90, died at his home in Clawson, Mich., which is part of the Detroit metropolitan area, on Nov. 4.
Zatkoff never played on a winning team in Green Bay during one of the leanest periods in Packers history, but he was traded to Detroit in 1957 and started on the Lions' last team to win an NFL championship.
Although he was only 26 years old and considered one of the premier linebackers in the NFL, Zatkoff informed the Packers following the 1956 season that if they didn't trade him to Detroit, he planned to retire. The Packers accommodated him but traded him instead to Cleveland in April 1957 along with quarterback Bobby Garrett for quarterback Babe Parilli, defensive backs John Petitbon and Billy Kinard, defensive end Carlton Massey, linebacker Sam Palumbo and guard John Macerelli. When Zatkoff refused to report to the Browns, they shipped him to the Lions in early September for halfback Lew Carpenter and an undisclosed draft pick.
After starting for two years with the Lions, Zatkoff retired and went into private business.
During his time with the Packers, Zatkoff earned a reputation for being an all-out player and a human torpedo as a tackler.
"I had the opportunity to work with Dave Hanner (former Packers defensive tackle and assistant coach) when I got here in the scouting department," Ron Wolf, former Packers general manager, said in a 2011 interview. "Dave Hanner is not the kind of guy to hand out platitudes. But when he talked about Roger Zatkoff, he had a special look on his face, his voice inflexion changed and he'd say, 'He was tough. He was really a good football player.' He was an exceptional player. The Pro Bowls tell you how good he was."
Teammate and recently inducted Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Bobby Dillon also gushed about Zatkoff in a 2004 interview.
"He was an outside linebacker," said Dillon. "We called him 'Zany Zatkoff.' He was good. A lot of times people laughed at him, he tried so hard. But he'd knock the heck out of you. I remember playing Detroit one time and he intimidated Leon Hart so bad, that Leon Hart wasn't worth a damn the whole game. Every play, Roger would hit him whether he had the ball or didn't have the ball. (Hart) started crying to the referee. (Zatkoff) would just antagonize him and old Hart lost his composure completely. Then when (Hart) carried the ball, Roger really laid it on."
Zatkoff stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 216 pounds. Hart, the first overall choice in the 1950 NFL Draft, was 6-5, weighed 257 and played both offensive and defensive end, as well as fullback during his eight-year career.
Founder of his own company and a generous benefactor to the University of Michigan, where he was inducted into the school's Hall of Honor, Zatkoff wanted his brain donated to the Boston University Brain Bank for CTE study.
"He was very interested in (CTE research)," Ashley Plamp, his granddaughter, told the Detroit Free Press after the family followed through on Zatkoff's wishes. "He was interested in why some people got it and some people didn't, because his favorite thing to say was, 'Well, I rang a few bells back in the day and I certainly had my bell rung a few times.' He'd always say that. But he was sharp as a tack, he really was."
Zatkoff discussed his zest for hitting in more detail in a 2004 interview.
"I liked to hit," he admitted. "I had a reputation for hitting people. If you got in my way, the color of your uniform didn't matter, I was going to go after the ball carrier. They gave me the nickname Zany. The guys who would have given me that nickname would have been Val Joe Walker, Bobby Dillon and Bubba Forester.
"That started with my going down on kickoffs. I'd be right next to the kicker and my job was to break the wedge. I used to try to get two guys, if not three. They called me 'Zany' because they said I was crazy going after those guys. But it was a different era. Pads were different. Techniques were different. I always tell people you can only hit as to what pain you can endure. In our day, we had certain equipment and you could only hit 'til your shoulder went numb or your hand went dead."
A memorial Mass was held for Zatkoff on Dec. 11.