Sam Huff, a NFL Hall of Fame member who grew up in Farmington, W.Va., idolizing Gatski, broke the news this morning on the "Metro News Talkline" on WRVC 930 AM. "I want to be like him." Huff says he was always impressed with Gatski's loyalty to his home state and to the community of Farmington. "He lived there, hunted there and stayed there. He raised his family there." Huff says Gatski was one of a kind. "Great guy, great player, a great West Virginian."
Gatski made his final public appearance at the Marshall Homecoming game with UAB on October 15, when his number was retired. He was very touched by the honor. "I am very honored to have my jersey number retired and being the only one makes it all the more special," Gatski said."It all started at Marshall and the school has always treated me first-class whenever I have visited. I thoroughly enjoyed my career at Marshall and had so much fun there. I am thrilled," said Gatski about the retirement. Early reports list his death as congestive heart failure.
Gatski came from Farmington, where he was a three-year starter at center and linebacker in 1936-37-38. He worked in the coal mines in 1939-40, before being offered a chance to come to Marshall by legendary Herd football and basketball coach Cam Henderson to earn a scholarship playing football for the Herd. He was a freshman in 1940, starting center for the JV football team, when the varsity was 8-2 with fellow MU HOF member Jim Roberts at center for the varsity. Gatski then started 17 straight games at center and linebacker for Marshall in 1941 and 1942. The Herd upset Wake Forest at Fairfield Stadium in 1941 on the way to 7-1 record, with "Gunner" (so named for his hard-hitting style) helping block for Jackie Hunt and Courtney Driscoll (22 touchdowns combined that season). Marshall was severely undermanned in 1942, due to the loss of men to the service at the beginning of World War II, and the Herd slumped to 1-7-1 under Henderson.
Gatski played briefly for Auburn after being discharged from the Army in 1945, serving three years during the war from 1943-45. In 1946, former Marshall teammate Sam Clagg contacted new Cleveland Browns assistant coach Johnny Brickles, who had previously coached at Huntington High, about Gatski securing a tryout with the new All-American Football Conference team.
Gatski impressed head coach Paul Brown enough that Gatski signed for $2,500, plus a $500 signing bonus, although Gatski would never earn more than $10,000 per year playing football. Gatski would start 132 consecutive games for the Browns and, in 1957, the Detroit Lions. The Browns were in 10 consecutive championship games during his 11 years, winning the AAFC in 1946-47-48 (a perfect season of 14-0) and in 1949 before jumping to the National Football League, along with AAFC teams from San Francisco (the 49ers) and Baltimore (the first Colts team, disbanded in 1953 but later reformed).The Browns beat the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles in their first exhibition game and went on to win the NFL Championship in 1950 over that former Cleveland team, the now Los Angeles Rams. Gatski and the Browns won titles again in 1954 and 1955, as Gatski was rejoined on the Browns by his former Marshall teammate, Ed Ulinski, who started at guard for the Browns 1946-49, then coached from 1954 until the mid-1970s. The Browns lost the NFL title game in 1951-52-53 to Los Angeles and Detroit twice, respectively. In over 20 years of playing football at the high school, collegiate and professional level, Gatski never missed a game or a practice.
Moving to Detroit for 1957, Gatski and Lions' QB Bobby Layne beat the Browns for the title, giving Gatski the most titles for any position player (non-kicker) in the history of the NFL -- eight in 12 seasons, with 11 title games. He was NFL All-Pro five times and played in four Pro Bowls in his career. "Once you win one championship," Gatski told reporters in 1985, "you want to win the next one. It just kinda of builds up. Just being there, winning all those games, that's what it was about to me." Gatski was named All-Pro four times and played in three Pro Bowls, playing in 121 consecutive professional games.
Gatski scouted for the American Football League's Boston Patriots 1958-61, then became head football coach and athletic director for the WV Industrial School for Boys in Prunytown, WV, until the school closed in 1982. He has lived in retirement since then back home in Marion County, W.Va., hunting, attending some Marshall and Cleveland Browns activities and games and briefly operating an archery shop.
Gatski entered the WV Sports Writers Hall of Fame in 1974, the NFL Hall of Fame in 1981 (along with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach and O.J. Simpson) and the MU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.
Gatski is survived by seven children. Visitation will be Sunday in Grafton, W.Va., with the funeral on Monday.