On the eve of Georgia’s game with a lower-tier opponent in Appalachian State and while Aaron Murray continues to set new passing and total offense records, I was reminded of one of the one-time greatest NCAA individual records in Bulldog history, while curious if the player who established it 60 years ago actually knew of his record’s details.
The last time a Bulldog was the NCAA’s all-time career leader in a major statistical category was nearly a half-century ago. No, not even the great Herschel Walker accomplished as much, finishing his Georgia career in 1982 third in NCAA history in both career rushing yards and career rushing yards per game.
Although you’d hardly be aware of it, Georgia’s Zeke Bratkowski became the NCAA’s all-time leader in career passing yardage as a senior six decades ago in 1953, topping the 4,736 yards totaled by Hardin-Simmons’ John Ford from 1947 to 1950. While conducting research for my first book, I noticed Bratkowski’s feat as a mere mention in the NCAA record book’s “record progression” for career passing yards. However, when exactly “the Brat” broke Ford’s record was never publicized–not by the media, UGA, no one–therefore, I decided to continue researching to find out.
Facing what was then known as “Mississippi Southern College” (now, the University of Southern Mississippi), a member of the “College Division,” or what could now be considered an FCS or I-AA program, Georgia’s 14-0 loss in its next-to-last game of the 1953 campaign featured Bratkowski’s memorable moment. Late in the contest, and as the Bulldogs were attempting to simply “get” on the scoreboard, the quarterback completed three consecutive passes to end the game. I discovered that the second of these–a 15-yard completion to Harold Pilgrim–resulted in Bratkowski breaking Ford’s NCAA career record.
Bratkowski would finish the Mississippi Southern game with 4,754 career passing yards. He would add 109 more in the season finale against Georgia Tech, ending his career with 4,863, which would stand as the NCAA record for 11 years until Tulsa’s Jerry Rhome surpassed the Brat’s total in 1964.
I decided to reach out to Bratkowski at his home in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, asking if he was aware of the exact moment and circumstances when he broke Ford’s record.
“Patrick, not only did I not know that I broke the record against Mississippi Southern,” Bratkowski informed me in a phone conversation, “I didn’t even know that I actually held the NCAA record until you just now told me!”
Bratkowski, who hails from Danville, Illinois, and nearly attended Marquette until realizing the school’s football program was rather unstable (the Golden Avalanche football program would eventually disband in 1960), recognizes that the keeping and maintaining of football records was conducted in a much different manner in his day than now. “No one ever mentioned to me that I had broken the NCAA record probably because no one actually knew I had broken it,” he said. “Like all games, I was just out there playing football against Mississippi Southern. And, might I add, Mississippi Southern had a really fine team!”
Bratkowski easily recalled the game played in front of an overflow crowd of 25,000 at Jackson’s old Memorial Stadium. There were so many spectators that a number of them were forced to sit on the ground behind the end zones. “It was really loud,” Bratkowski also remembers, “and they had these two outstanding backs–Laurin Pepper and Buck McElroy–that were really hard to stop.” Mississippi Southern’s two touchdowns were scored by Pepper and McElroy, resulting via interception return and a 1-yard plunge, respectively.
Bratkowski acknowledges it was a disappointing afternoon for he and his teammates against “the Southerners”–a team which had also upset 5th-ranked Alabama in the season opener. In Georgia’s 14-0 loss, the All-American signal caller completed just 8 of 21 passes for 83 yards and was intercepted three times. At one point, Bratkowski did appear to complete a touchdown to John Carson in the back of the end zone, but a referee ruled the Georgia receiver was juggling the ball when he went out of bounds. But, what about the record-breaking completion to Pilgrim that did count?
“Oblivious–didn’t know I had set any kind of record,” Bratkowski says. “In fact, I hardly even remember Pilgrim, the receiver.”
In the Brat’s defense, Harold Pilgrim was a mere freshman that season, and making one of his first appearances on Georgia’s varsity. He would letter for the Bulldogs from 1954 through 1956, but by then, Bratkowski had moved onto an NFL career which, whether playing or coaching in the league, lasted for more than 40 years (1954-1995). Ironically, Pilgrim not only became associated with an NCAA record in a season in which he didn’t earn a letter, but his record-breaking reception was the only catch he would make his entire Bulldog career.
As our conversation was coming to a close, I informed Bratkowski of an effort of his that was recognized by the media that afternoon on November 21, 1953–the quarterback’s graciousness. As their 14-0 defeat was nearing an end, some Bulldog players displayed little sportsmanship, including a particular end who “grounded” an opposing player with a forearm to the face. A sportswriter noticed that few Georgia players shook hands with their opponent following the setback; however, Bratkowski not only offered his hand, but was the “only [Bulldog player] aggressive about it.”
“I didn’t know about that either,” Bratkowski added. “Well, I can thank my high school coach for that. Paul Shebby of Schlarman [Academy in Danville] embedded into me to be a gracious winner, and a gracious loser.”
Finally, as we said our goodbyes, Bratkowski demonstrated he was just as gracious as he was 60 years ago. He thank me (and he certainly didn’t have to) for revealing a record that was once even unrecognized by the one-time record holder.
“That’s really good to know; I can now add it to my resume,” the 82-year-old laughed.