QB not named Starr played key role in beating Colts on '65, '66 title runs
Zeke Bratkowski. | Photo: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Archives
GREEN BAY - During the 1965 and 1966 seasons, Packers backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski was the Baltimore Colts' worst nightmare.
Throughout the early and middle part of the decade, the Packers and Colts typically engaged in a two-team race for Western Division supremacy.
The height of that rivalry happened in the first two of Green Bay's unsurpassed triple-championship years, and the right arm of Bart Starr's understudy - a former L.A. Rams starter - proved to be one of the deciding factors in three critical wins.
"It was all about preparation," explained Bratkowski to Newsradio 620 WTMJ's Jay Sorgi in an interview during the Vince Lombardi Golf Classic.
"The fact that Bart and I are so close, we prepared together as one...I was on the sidelines with the headset, listening to all the conversation, I went into those games pretty well prepared. I knew what was being called. I knew all the things the coaches had upstairs."
The first time Bratkowski had to translate upstairs game plan into on-field victory against the Colts was in a cold County Stadium in the 1965 home opener.
That day, the Packers' offense was limited to just 184 total yards.
37 came on the day's most critical play, the game's deciding touchdown with less than three minutes left, on a throw connecting two old military buddies, Bratkowski and wide receiver Max McGee.
"Max and I were in the Air Force together, were pilots," explained Bratkowski.
"I was with the Rams. He was with the Packers. All of a sudden (after a trade), we became teammates."
Bratkowski launched the strike to his old Air Force buddy to give the Packers a 20-17 win and a leg up in the divisional race.
But when the season was over, the divisional race wasn't over.
The teams tied for the regular season title and played a playoff game the day after Christmas at Lambeau Field.
Like the first meeting, Bart Starr got injured, and Bratkowski had to fill in.
"It was the first play of the game. I just got my coat on, sat there, got the headset working, and somebody said 'Bart's down.' "
Starr got his ribs injured making a tackle after a Colts fumble recovery.
"I immediately took my things on and put on my helmet. I didn't know how bad he was."
Bratkowski helped the Packers' recovery back from a 10-0 deficit, and his 248 yards passing against one of the game's best defenses put the Packers into overtime.
He led two critical scoring drives late in the game, each of which ended with field goals.
A key completion to Carroll Dale in the extra period set up a division-clinching kick.
Don Chandler booted a 25-yard field goal to give Green Bay a 13-10 triumph and the Western Division title.
The Packers won the NFL title the next week.
349 days later, the Packers had a chance to clinch the Western Division again, but they had to beat the Colts in Baltimore to do it.
Again, Starr got hurt.
Again, Bratkowski admirably filled in and led the Packers from behind late in the game.
Again, it was with the help of his old Air Force flying buddy, to set up the Packers' final score.
"The audible was to run an out pattern, because the corners play inside, to protect the middle of the field. I called an audible, dropped back, and Max, instead of running an out, went on the post (against Coach Lombardi's orders). I threw it to him, and got the ball down on their one yard line," explained Bratkowski.
"After the game, Coach Lombardi said, 'Come here, you two! What was that about?' I said, 'I called 83, Coach, and Max ran a post.' Max said, 'That turkey was playing way inside. There was no sense of me trying to run outside, so I ran inside. I knew Zeke would adjust to it.' (Lombardi) just shook his head and said, 'Good going.' "
On the next play, Elijah Pitts scored the eventual Western-Division clinching touchdown as the Packers' 14-10 triumph became a big step en route to winning Super Bowl I.
Three victories over the Colts. All in come-from-behind fashion.
All led by a quarterback who backed up Bart Starr, but who took a back seat to no one in helping Green Bay to three straight world championships.