DANVILLE – Schlarman High School alumni Edmund “Zeke” Bratkowski, a football legend who played in the first Super Bowls, passed away Monday at 88 years old.
Every fall for the last several years, Bratkowki, who was a member of the Class of 1949, returned to his alma mater to give motivational talks to the students.
Sometimes during those visits he would be bearing gifts, such as last year when he gave a solid mahogany National League Football replica to the late Julius Hegeler, and in 2015 when Bratkowski presented a Wilson Golden Football to Schlarman Academy and added the school to the Super Bowl High School Honor Roll, which celebrates schools that have contributed to Super Bowl history.
After graduating from Schlarman, Bratkowski attended the University of Georgia. He started playing in the NFL and then spent three years as a pilot and second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War before returning to the NFL.
Following his military service, Bratkowski returned to the NFL and played for the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and the Green Bay Packers, with whom he had success as a quarterback and earned three world championship rings.
He earned his first ring as a Packer in a world championship game against the Cleveland Browns before there was a Super Bowl. He also played in Super Bowls I and II with the Green Bay Packers and was an NFL coach for 26 years.
During his September 2018 visit, Bratkowski recalled how the football field in Wisconsin was frozen and ice covered and the wind chill was minus 47 degrees below zero, but he and his teammates persevered.
“It was like a skating rink,” he told the students. “We won that game, and we went on to win Super Bowl II.”
Bratkowski’s fall hometown visits coincided with Schlarman’s annual golf outing, in memory of the late Coach Paul Shebby, which takes place at the Danville County Club. The annual event, which benefits the Schlarman Athletic Department, was co-hosted by Bratkowski, retired Judge John O’Rourke and retired dentist Dr. Ron Girouard.
“I’ve known Zeke for decades,” Girouard said Monday. “We both went to Schlarman, and even though we were 13 years apart, we were both coached by Coach Shebby.
“The Shebbys, my parents and the Bratkowskis were friends and socialized,” he said. “I first met Zeke when I was about 9 years old. I met him at the (Chicago) Bears’ training camp when it was at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana.
“I worked out with him between my freshman and sophomore years,” Girouard, who also played Schlarman football, recalled.
One of his fondest Zeke memories occurred between his sophomore and junior years when Girouard was invited to accompany Bratkowski on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles so he could attend training camp after the Bears traded him to the Rams in 1961.
“My parents asked me, ‘How would you like to ride out to LA with him?’” he said.
“We’ve been very close. I talked to him every two or three weeks,” Girouard said. “We’ve raised money for the Schlarman Athletic Department through the annual Schlarman golf tournament for the last 10 years.”
This fall, however, health issues kept Bratkowski from making his annual hometown visit to promote the golf outing and from attending the annual Green Bay Packers game and alumni events in September where his close friend, the late football legend Bart Starr, was memorialized.
“He had been having some health issues,” Girouard said, adding that Bratkowski’s passing “was a surprise, but not really a surprise.
“He was like a big brother to me,” he said of his longtime friend.