In 2006, I met Zeke Bratkowski.
Bratkowski, who played for The University of Georgia in the early 1950’s, was a standout quarterback for the university who went on to play professionally for the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers. He also served two years in the U.S. Air Force (while he was still with the Bears) and had a full coaching career in the NFL that spanned thirty years and six teams. He’s got a football pedigree that every kid (and his dad) who throws the pig skin around after Thanksgiving dinner would be envious over.
But, that’s the thing – of all the things I remember about meeting Zeke, being prideful wasn’t one of them.
Don’t get me wrong, he had lots of old football stories – the kind you have from playing with a brotherhood of teammates for many years – and he didn’t not talk about his accomplishments, but he had a stillness about him that communicated “yeah, I’ve seen some things.”
In a word, Zeke had chill.
Our paths crossed as part of an induction ceremony for the University of Georgia’s Circle of Honor. Since Georgia doesn’t have a Hall of Fame, nor do they retire player jerseys, the Circle of Honor represents this kind of milestone and gives former athletes a chance to be recognized for their accomplishments and contributions to the university through athletics and beyond. I was being inducted in 2006 along with Heather Stepp McCormick (gymnastics), George Bezecny (tennis), Dick Copas (golf) and Zeke Bratkowski (football).
As part of the weekend, we were introduced on the field during half-time of that weekend’s football game and then we had the option to sit together for the remainder of the game. My husband and I stayed for the game and sat right next to Zeke and his wife. They were kind, generous people who drank Sprite after Sprite after Sprite (or was it Diet Coke?).
In typical UGA football fashion, the Bulldogs handed us hope early in the first quarter, but then squandered their lead putting us on pins and needles for the next three quarters. My husband and I (along with Zeke’s wife) got worked up over the Dawgs, but Zeke never said a word. He sat through the game as cool as a cucumber, while everyone else around us was going bananas.
He shifted in his seat.
He asked for more Sprite.
Now and again, he would mutter something that I couldn’t hear.
Not one bead of sweat.
Not one clap of the hands.
Not one swear word.
Finally, our beloved Bulldogs pulled off a win. The crowd went crazy – as Dawg fans do.
I watched Zeke.
He let out slight exclamation of cheer, gathered his empty soda cups and he and his wife were gone.
That story will always stick with me. Why? Because I have zero chill. I was one of those intense players who got worked up over all kinds of stuff. I am still one of those people who wears most of my emotion on my sleeve – the good stuff and the not so good stuff. I am one of those coaches who wants to tell each kid how awesome they are all the time because I think they need to hear it.
But what I learned from Zeke is that chill can also speak loudly.
I don’t know, maybe it’s because he played and coached at such a high level that nothing much ruffles his feathers anymore or maybe it’s just his personality to be still, but something about that experience made an impression on me (and my husband – we still talk about that game).
I might not ever have chill like Zeke, but I will always respect and admire those who do.