Zeke Bratkowski, valuable Lombardi-era backup QB, dies at 88

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Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay Packers’ perfectly suited backup quarterback when they won three straight NFL championships in the 1960s under Vince Lombardi, died Monday morning at his Florida home. He was 88.

Nicknamed “Super Sub,” the Packers were 8-1 in games, including postseason, where Bratkowski either started in place of Bart Starr or replaced him with the score tied or the Packers trailing by no more than seven points during their championship run from 1965 to 1967.

Blessed with a strong arm and the same work ethic as Starr, Bratkowski was talented and prepared enough that the Packers rarely skipped a beat when he was rushed into a game. In his seven seasons with the Packers, Bratkowski played in 43 games and started nine, but five of those starts were in 1968. Most of his game-winning efforts came in relief when Lombardi was coaching.

“Did Zeke ever start a game he didn’t win?” former teammate and Packers Hall of Fame receiver Boyd Dowler asked not long ago. “He had a good arm and he was a good passer. He followed Bart around. They talked. They watched tape together. And they prepared together.”

Although Bratkowski entered the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 1953 and was a starter off and on during his first seven-plus seasons, he willingly accepted his role as a backup with the Packers. He also forged a close friendship with Starr and it enabled the two to put the team first and be of like mind in their pregame preparation. “I’ve tried to pattern myself after Bart,” Bratkowski said in 1967. “We study the movies together and go over the game plan together. I try to think as much like he does as I can so the team will not have to make a big adjustment if I’m needed.”

Bratkowski’s most memorable performance with the Packers came in 1965 in a playoff with the Baltimore Colts for the Western Conference title. On their first offensive play, the Colts scored a defensive touchdown off a fumble recovery and Starr was sidelined with an injury, but Bratkowski guided them to a 13-10 overtime victory.

Bratkowski also entered regular-season games in that same championship season against the Colts and Rams, both in the third quarter with the score tied, and led the Packers to victory. Starr was injured against the Colts and benched against the Rams.

In 1966, in the second quarter of a scoreless tie with the Chicago Bears, Bratkowski replaced Starr and led the Packers to a 13-6 victory. Three weeks later, Bratkowski also rallied them from a 10-7, third-quarter deficit to a 14-10 victory over the Colts. In the season finale, he started his first game for the Packers and led them to a 27-23 triumph over the Rams.

In 1967, Bratkowski split two October starts after winning a game in relief against Atlanta when Starr suffered a bruised shoulder.

Bratkowski played with the Packers from 1963 to 1968 and again in 1971.

He was awarded to Green Bay on waivers from the Rams on Oct. 29, 1963, when it was in the midst of a tight Western Conference race. Two days earlier, the Packers had beaten the Colts with backup John Roach as their only healthy quarterback and there were suspicions the 2-5 Rams were simply doing the Packers a favor by making Bratkowski available. In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported the next day that the Rams would receive a high draft choice or an offensive lineman from the Packers in the future “in appreciation” for what they had done and it turned out to be true. In early February 1964, the Packers shipped Ken Iman, a promising fourth-year center, to the Rams without receiving anything in return. When Rams president Dan Reeves was asked if Iman was part of the Bratkowski arrangement, he answered, “No comment.”

Bratkowski was 32 at the time and had spent five seasons with the Bears, including 1954 and from 1957 to 1960. He spent 1955 and ’56 in the service, playing for Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. In March 1961, Bratkowski was traded to the Rams, completing a deal for quarterback Billy Wade.

Following the 1968 season, the Packers tried to sneak Bratkowski through waivers and Minnesota claimed him. Rather than join the Vikings, Bratkowski remained with the Packers as backfield coach under Phil Bengtson in 1969 and ’70.

On Jan. 28, 1971, the day of that year’s NFL Draft, new Packers coach Dan Devine reacquired Bratkowski’s rights for what turned out to be a third-round selection in 1972. Bratkowski started the season opener in 1971 and played in six games in all.

Bratkowski returned to the Packers as quarterbacks coach in 1975. Hired as a member of Starr’s original staff, Bratkowski remained in that position through 1978 and then spent three more seasons, 1979 to 1981, as Starr’s quarterbacks/offensive backs coach. He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1989.

In all, Bratkowski served as an assistant coach in the NFL for 26 years with six different teams.

Bratkowski was born in Danville, Ill., and played college football at the University of Georgia. His given name was Edmund Raymond Bratkowski.

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