Herd Greats: Frank "Gunner" Gatski
Edited by Woody Woodrum
For Herd Insider
July 15, 2010
HUNTINGTON - This weekend, at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana, Marshall University's Troy Brown (1991-92) will be joining joining Harry "Cy" Young (1910-12), Jackie Hunt (1939-41), Mike Barber (1985-88), Coach Jim Donnan (1990-95) and other persons/materials related to Marshall Football (including a plaque with the names of those lost in the 1970 plane crash and HOF members Frank Loria, who coached MU in 1969-70 and was a Virgina Tech All-American along with John Maulbestch-head coach at Marshall 1929-30 after HOF career for Michigan at turn of century) in the National Football Foundations greatest honor for collegiate players and coaches.
Marshall, however, has only one member of the National Football League Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Herd fans today may not know his story and, while hopefully other former Marshall players like Troy Brown, Randy Moss, Carl Lee and even a teammate of that one inductee at the hall for the NFL may one day grace those hallowed halls, only Frank "Gunner" Gatski (1941-42) represents the Thundering Herd in Canton.
Gatski, who whom the 31st Street Bridge in Huntington is named for (in 2006) as well as the only player in Marshall history to have his number retired by Marshall in football, played one year of freshman ball in 1940 for legendary Thundering Herd coach Cam Henderson. He then starred at linebacker and center for the then Marshall College in 1941-42 before going off to fight for his country in World War II.
Gatski served in a U.S. Army infantry unit from late 1942 through 1945. He enrolled in Auburn University after being discharged in Alabama, playing a couple of games with the Tigers until someone found out he was a Marshall player and ineligible to play for AU.
Frank "Gunner" Gatski is Marshall's only member of the NFL Hall of Fame - photo courtesy of the Cleveland Browns.
Dr. Sam Clagg, former chair of Marshall's Geography Department, chairman of Marshall's Athletic Hall of Fam as well as a former interim President of MU, worked with Johnny Brickles, a coach at Huntington High, to get Gatski a try-out with the newly formed Browns, who replaced the Cleveland Rams. The Rams, today in St. Louis, won the NFL title in 1945 and split for Los Angeles - 12 years before the Dodgers and Giants pulled a similar switch in major league baseball.
Here is a story on Gatski Herd Insider has edited for Marshall fans, from the team he spent 11 of his 12 years in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns, the team the center from Farmington, W.Va. led to seven championships and ten consecutive title game appearances in those 11 years - and winning one more to boot when Gatski was booted from the Browns when he asked the legendary coach, Paul Brown, for a raise in 1957.
Gatski was signed with the Detroit Lions and beat the Browns in the '57 title game, retiring with eight titles and 11 championship game appearances in 12 seasons of football in the All-American Football Conference (Cleveland 1946-49) and the NFL (Cleveland 1950-56 and Detroit 1957).
By the way, Gatski's teammate was Ed Ulinski, who also starred for the Herd in 1939-40-41. Ulinski won those four titles in the AAFC at guard beside Gatski and then got into coaching. He returned to the Browns for two more titles in 1954 and 1955, plus one more in 1964, spending 1954-72 as an assistant coach and film/video coordinator for the Browns.
Here is a story on Frank Gatski from the website of Cleveland Browns Legends (http://www.clevelandbrowns.com/team/history/legends.html):
Frank Gatski is one of the greatest Browns ever, as evidenced by the fact the center is among the franchise’s 16 Pro Football Hall of Famers after an 11-year (1946-56) career with the team. But he may have the greatest nickname – the HOF nickname – of that select group, in “Gunner,” which came from his hard-nosed, rough-and-tumble ways on and off the field.
How tough was Gatski? So much so that he never missed a game or even a practice at Farmington (W. Va.) High School, Marshall (College, 1867-1961) University, with the Browns, or in 1957 with the Detroit Lions. He wore a perpetual grin that earned him two other nicknames as well, “Li’l Abner” and “Joe Palooka,” after comic strip characters of that era.
Indeed, he was a special player – and a special man – in many ways. In fact, he did not have a telephone (at his home) in 1985 in a remote part of central West Virginia when the HOF induction list for that year was announced.
Instead, Gatski had to learn he was included on it by reading it in the newspaper. Gatski grew up in Farmington, in coal country, under difficult circumstances. His father, a miner, was killed in a mining accident. Gatski showed up at one of his first high school practices wearing shoes of two different sizes.
But neither that nor anything else could keep him from becoming a legend wherever he played. Gatski was the first Marshall player to have his jersey retired, and has a bridge near campus named in his honor. He was a hero to another Farmington High product, Hall of Fame member Sam Huff (of West Virginia University), against whom Gatski played at the end of his career when the middle linebacker was with the arch rival New York Giants.
During one game against the Browns, Huff was irate at having his ankle grabbed. When he discovered it was Gatski doing it, he calmed down and said it was OK. Huff worshiped Gatski, when he would return to the coal camp with his Browns championship jackets and other hardware. Huff even had his jersey retired the same year at WVU as Gatski's was at Marshall.
Gatski came to the Browns during their inaugural season or 1946, but sat behind veteran Mike “Mo” Scarry for his first two years at center, also playing linebacker where his hard hitting had given him the name of "Gunner" in Huntington. He took over as the starter in 1948 and the Browns promptly went on to win their third straight All-America Football Conference championship with a 15-0 record, becoming the first pro football team – and still one of just two in history along with the 1972 Miami Dolphins – to finish the season perfect.
It began an eight-year stretch in which Gatski snapped to Browns HOF quarterback Otto Graham and served as the bodyguard for the Hall of Fame quarterback. The Browns went to the league championship game all eight seasons, winning four times. Gatski’s presence helped the Browns offense to flourish and serve as the key unit in that run of success. Gatski was named All-NFL four times during that stretch. He was traded to the Lions in 1957 and helped lead them to the league title that year with a victory over his former team. He retired after that, ending a career in which he made it to the league championship 11 times in 12 seasons.
Besides Huff, current West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin is from Farmington and also in awe of Gatski, his accomplishments and his legend.
From Dr. Bob Barnett's and Bob Carroll's article for, "The Coffin Corner: Vol. 6, Nos. 11 & 12 (1984):
Gatski came by his toughness honestly. Born in Farmington, West Virginia, in the heart of the soft coal country on March 18, 1923, he grew up in Number Nine Coal Camp, one of those rugged Allegheny hamlets where you're either tough or you're nothing.
He played four years of football at Farmington High School -- the same school that a decade later would produce another hard-nosed all-pro named Sam Huff. Then he went down into the mines. That's what you did when you were from Number Nine Camp.
Gatski, who started 132 games in his career in professional football, was All-Pro on four occasions, more than any other center in the 1950s. He snapped the ball to fellow HOF members Graham, who said he was never touched by anyone Gatski was assigned to block, and Bobby Layne of the Lions.
"You never have to worry about anyone jumping over Frank or bumping him out of the way," Graham remarked during his career about Gatski in the Barnett/Carroll story.
But Otto found another, subtler advantage to playing behind big Gunner (6-foot-3, 240-pounds). "When he bends over the ball, I can stand almost straight up and down and still get the snap prperly. If he had short legs, I would be forced to bend over further to take the ball." Graham went on to explain that standing straighter allowed him to see defenses better, gave him an extra split second when dropping back to pass or hand off, and even kept him fresher late in the game.
In his 11 seasons with the Browns, the team was 110-23-5, winning all four AAFC titles, winning NFL titles in 1950, 1954 and 1955 and appearing in the championship game in the first ten seasons in a row.
The team joined the NFL in 1950, along with the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts - also of the AAFC - and were scheduled to play the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles in the team's first NFL exhibition.
Thought the Eagles, who also had a Marshall player in Norm "Wildman" Wiley from 1950-57, would put the interlopers from a "minor" league brand of football in their place, Paul Brown prepared the team like it was the world championship. The Browns destroyed the Eagles, 35-10, and would dominate the NFL from the 1950s through the merger of the NFL-AFL in 1970.
The Browns went on to beat the hated (in Cleveland, at least) L.A. Rams in the 1950 NFL Championship, 30-28.
In fact, Gatski was hired as a scout for the American Football League's Boston (today's New England) Patriots and scouted players for the team from 1958-60.
Gatski also was head coach of the football team at the West Virginia Industrial School For Boys in Prunytown, W.Va. from 1961 through 1982, when he retired to his mobile home in the woods of West Virginia. Gatski was an avid hunter, using both bow and rifle in the boundless bounty that is West Virginia wildlife.
His Hall of Fame class was impressive in 1985, as New York Jets quarterback Joe Willie Namath, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell (who made the NFL nationally televised and forged the NFL-AFL union) were all inducted into the HOF with Gatski that day.
On October 15, 2005, Gatski's No. 72 was affixed to the front of the press box at the Joan C. Edwards Stadium to a standing ovation. Gatski was ill but still very honored by the gesture, and the timing could not have been better as he passed away on Nov. 22 later that same year in the WVU Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va.
Gatski is a member of the Marshall University Athletic Hall of Fame since 1985, a member of the West Virginia Sportswriters Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Browns Legends and, at least for now, Marshall's only member of the National Football League's Hall of Fame.