Offensive plays in football begin with the center snapping the ball.
Yet, the center is often ignored by football fans, except when the center does something wrong, such as committing a penalty or botching the snap.
A few centers in the NFL have stood out, with such excellent play as to earn induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One such Pro Football Hall of Fame center is Frank Gatski.
During his 12 seasons in the NFL, 11 with the Cleveland Browns, Gatski excelled at the center position, being recognized with multiple All-Pro honors.
We take a look at the life of Frank Gatski – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Through High School
Frank Gatski was born on March 18, 1919 in Farmington, West Virginia.
Farmington is located in northern West Virginia.
During Gatski’s childhood, Farmington had a population of less than 1,000 people.
Gatski’s grandfather and father were Polish immigrants.
As Gatski was growing up, he never expected to have a football career.
In his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, Gatski recalled:
“My football was never planned; I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Instead, Gatski expected to follow most of his family members and work in the local coal mines.
In fact, Gatski grew up in the Number Nine Coal Mine Camp in West Virginia.
Gatski’s father died in the coal mines.
Farmington High School
Gatski attended Farmington High School.
Gatski played football all four years, and started at center for three years, at Farmington High School.
Gatski began an impressive streak at Farmington High School, as he never missed a practice or a game because of injury in high school.
Playing conditions for football at Farmington High School were far from ideal.
The football team played on a cow pasture, with no bleachers, scoreboard, or game clock.
In addition, Gatski recalled, in his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech:
“When I first went out for football at Farmington High School, I got one shoe size 10 1/2; the other was a 9.”
During his high school years, Gatski worked in the coal mines during the summers.
He then started working full-time in the mines after his senior year in high school.
In 1940, Marshall College football coach Cam Henderson invited Gatski to tryout for the Marshall College football team.
Marshall College (today Marshall University) was located in Huntington, West Virginia (about three hours from Farmington, West Virginia).
If Gatski had done poorly at the tryout, he would have likely spent his life in the coal mines.
Fortunately for Gatski, he impressed at the tryout and was offered a football scholarship.
Gatski headed to Marshall to play college football.
Gatski was to play football at Marshall for three seasons.
In 1940, Gatski was the starting center on the junior varsity team.
Gatski moved to the varsity at Marshall in 1941.
During 1941 and 1942, Gatski started at center and linebacker for Marshall.
Continuing the streak that he began at Farmington High School, Gatski never missed a practice or a game because of injury at Marshall.
While at Marshall, Gatski earned the nickname, “Gunner”, based on how he would knock defenders off the line of scrimmage
One of Gatski’s teammates at Marshall was Ed Ulinski, who later played (1946 to 1949), coached (1954 to 1971), and served as film coordinator (1971 to 1984), for the Cleveland Browns.
In 1941, Marshall finished with a 6-1 record, including a 16-6 victory over Wake Forest on November 1, 1941.
In 1942, after losing many players to World War II, Marshall had a 1-5-1 record.
Gatski also left Marshall to fight in World War II after the 1942 season.
In describing his military service, Gatski stated:
“[T]he army reserve unit I was in was activated. . . . After basic training, we were sent to England and later followed the troops through Normandy and into Europe. I wasn’t in any heavy fighting.”
Gatski was a Private First Class in the U.S. Army.
Marshall had dropped football because of World War II in 1943 and had not reinstated its football program in 1945 when Gatski returned to the United States after the war.
Gatski still wanted to play college football for his senior season, so he transferred to Auburn University.
Gatski enrolled in time to play part of the 1945 season at Auburn.
Again, at Auburn, Gatski never missed a practice or a game because of injury.
Auburn had a 5-5 record in 1945.
After graduating from Auburn, Gatski returned to work in the coal mines in West Virginia.
However, a connection from Marshall was to launch the next phase of Gatski’s life.
A teammate of Gatski at Marshall, Sam Clagg (who was later to be Acting President at Marshall) contacted John Brickels (a former high school coach in West Virginia) about Gatski.
As an assistant coach, Brickels was helping Paul Brown start the Cleveland Browns franchise in the new All-America Football Conference (“AAFC”).
Brickels arranged for Gatski to tryout for the Browns at Cleveland’s initial training camp in Bowling Green, Ohio in 1946.
Gatski hitchhiked to Ohio, hoping to continue to play football.
The Pro Football Years
As with his tryout to play football at Marshall, there was no guarantee that Gatski would make the Browns team, and if he failed to do so, Gatski likely would have spent the rest of his life working in the coal mines.
In fact, the Browns went with Mike Scarry (who had played two years in the NFL for the Cleveland Rams) as starting center in 1946.
However, Gatski sufficiently impressed coaches that he made the Browns team.
Gatski signed his first contract with the Browns in 1946 for only $3,000.
In 1946, Gatski played for Cleveland mostly as a backup to Scarry at center and as a linebacker.
He started only one game in 1946.
Gatski intercepted one pass in 1946, which he returned 36 yards for his only professional football touchdown in a 51-14 Cleveland rout of the Chicago Rockets on November 17, 1946 (the Rockets had eight turnovers in the game).
“Their quarterback, Bob Hoernschemeyer, threw me the ball and I decided I better run. . . . I had an open field all the way.”
The Browns had a 12-2 regular-season record in 1946 and then won the inaugural AAFC championship by defeating the New York Yankees 14-9 in the first AAFC championship game on December 22, 1946.
In 1947, Gatski again mostly played as a backup at center and as a linebacker.
He started three games in 1947.
Gatski intercepted two passes in 1947.
He also returned a kickoff for 17 yards.
The Browns won their second consecutive AAFC championship in 1947, finishing the regular season with a 12-1-1 record and then defeating the New York Yankees 14-3 in the second AAFC championship game on December 14, 1947.
In 1948, Gatski became the starter for the Browns at center, starting all 14 regular-season games.
Gatski essentially was to be Cleveland’s starter at center for each of the next nine seasons.
Gatski’s play helped Browns quarterback Otto Graham lead the AAFC with 2,713 passing yards, Browns running back Marion Motley lead the AAFC with 964 yards (Motley had 6.1 average yards per rushing attempt), and Browns wide receiver Mac Speedie lead the AAFC with 58 receptions (for 816 yards), in 1948.
Cleveland finished the 1948 regular season with an undefeated 14-0 record.
The Browns then completed the “perfect” season by routing the Buffalo Bills 49-7 in the third AAFC championship game on December 19, 1948 (the first playoff game started by Gatski at center), to claim their third consecutive AAFC title.
In 1949, Gatski started 11 (and played in all 12) of the Browns’ 12 regular-season games.
Gatski helped Otto Graham again lead the AAFC with 2,785 passing yards, and Mac Speedie lead the AAFC both in receptions (62) and receiving yards (1,028), in 1949.
— 𝐏𝐫𝐨 𝐅𝐨𝐨𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐉𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐚𝐥🏈 (@NFL_Journal) June 1, 2018
The Browns had a 9-1-2 regular-season record in 1949 and headed to the AAFC playoffs.
On December 4, 1949, Cleveland, with Gatski starting at center, defeated the Buffalo Bills 31-21 in the divisional playoff round.
The following week, on December 11, 1949, the Browns, with Gatski again starting at center, claimed their fourth consecutive AAFC title, defeating the San Francisco 49ers 21-7 in the fourth AAFC championship game.
When asked what he considered the highlight of his four years in the AAFC, Gatski answered:
“The highlight was winning four championships.”
The Browns victory over the 49ers in the 1949 AAFC championship game was to be the last game played in the AAFC, as the AAFC disbanded after the 1949 season.
However, the Browns franchise continued to play professional football, as Cleveland was admitted into the NFL for the 1950 season.
The Browns looked forward to the challenge of playing against higher competition in the NFL as compared with the AAFC.
“We were ready to go. All the NFL owners wanted us to get beaten early to put us in our place. In the first exhibition game, we beat Green Bay, 47-0, and we felt we had a chance with those National Leaguers. Then, in the first regular game of the season, we beat the NFL-champion Philadelphia Eagles, 35-10. Now, that was a great game! Everybody’s life is spent trying to prove something. That day we proved to the world that we weren’t some sandlot team.”
Beginning in 1950, Gatski was to start at center every regular season and playoff game played by Cleveland over the next seven seasons.
Once again, as he had done at Farmington High School, Marshall, and Auburn, Gatski never missed a practice or a game because of injury in the NFL (both with the Browns and later in his one season with the Detroit Lions).
“You’ve got to be tough to play pro football.”
Gatski was so dependable in playing that for much of his time with the Browns, Cleveland did not even carry a backup center on the roster.
In 1950, Gatski recovered a fumble (one of three fumble recoveries in his NFL career).
With Gatski at center, Browns running back Marion Mobley led the NFL with 810 rushing yards (and 5.8 average yards per rushing attempt) in 1950.
The Browns had a 10-2 regular-season record in 1950, which tied Cleveland for first place in the American Division of the NFL with the New York Giants.
On December 17, 1950, the Browns defeated the Giants 8-3 to advance to their first NFL championship game.
The following week, on December 24, 1950, the Browns defeated the Los Angeles Rams 30-28 for their fifth consecutive (four in the AAFC, and one in the NFL) professional football championship.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) May 16, 2017
In 1951, Gatski’s play helped Browns quarterback Otto Graham win the first of his three United Press International NFL Most Valuable Player Awards.
Graham had praise for his center.
First, Graham recognized Gatski’s blocking.
“You never have to worry about anyone jumping over Frank or bumping him out of the way.”
Second, Graham noted that Gatski (at six feet, three inches tall) had long legs for a center, which helped Graham stand straighter at the line of scrimmage and see defenses better.
“When he bends over the ball, I can stand almost straight up and down and still get the snap [properly]. If he had short legs, I would be forced to bend over further to take the ball.”
The Browns advanced to their sixth consecutive professional football championship game in 1951, winning the American Division of the NFL with an 11-1 record.
However, on December 23, 1951, Cleveland lost to the Los Angeles Rams 24-17 in the NFL championship game.
For the first time, Gatski’s play in 1951 received All-Pro recognition.
Gatski was voted first-team All-Pro at center by United Press International and the New York Daily News.
In 1952, Gatski helped Otto Graham lead the NFL with 2,816 passing yards and Mac Speedie lead the NFL with 62 receptions (for 911 receiving yards).
The Browns again for the seventh consecutive year advanced to a professional football championship game in 1952, winning the American Division of the NFL with an 8-4 record.
Cleveland played the Detroit Lions in the NFL championship game on December 28, 1952, but lost 17-7.
Gatski again received All-Pro honors in 1952, being voted first-team All-Pro at center by the Associated Press and the New York Daily News and second-team All-Pro by United Press International.
In 1953, with Gatski at center, Otto Graham won the second of his three United Press International NFL Most Valuable Player Awards.
The Browns won the NFL’s East Division in 1953 with an 11-1 regular-season record.
For the third consecutive year, the Browns lost in the NFL championship game, 17-16 to the Detroit Lions, on December 27, 1953.
For his play in 1953, Gatski was voted first-team All-Pro at center by the Associated Press, the New York Daily News, and United Press International.
As Gatski played for the Browns, he began to acquire other nicknames in addition to “Gunner”.
Gatski was nicknamed “The Silent One” for his quiet demeanor.
Otto Graham cannot remember Gatski ever saying one word on the football field.
Because Gatski often had a grin on his face, he was nicknamed both “Li’l Abner” and “Joe Palooka”, after two popular comic strip characters of the time.
For his solid play on the offensive line, Gatski was nicknamed “Rock of Gibraltar”.
Gatski was one of the Browns who earned the nickname, “Filthy Five”, for not washing their practice uniforms during the season.
Gatski’s play helped Cleveland’s offense rank second in the NFL in 1954, scoring 336 points in the regular season.
In 1954, the Browns won NFL’s East Division with a 9-3 record, earning another trip to the NFL championship game.
This time Cleveland was successful in the championship game, routing the Detroit Lions 56-10 on December 26, 1954 for Gatski’s second NFL and sixth professional football championship.
In the championship game, Gatski started at center on a Browns offensive line that allowed no sacks of Otto Graham and enabled Browns runners to rush for 140 yards.
Gatski was voted second-team All-Pro at center in 1954 by the Associated Press, the Sporting News, and United Press International.
In 1955, with Gatski at center, Cleveland’s offense ranked first in the NFL, scoring 349 points in the regular season.
In addition, Otto Graham won his third United Press International NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 1955.
The Browns won yet another NFL East Division title with a 9-2-1 record in 1955.
For the second consecutive year, the Browns won the NFL championship in 1955, defeating the Los Angeles Rams 38-14 on December 26, 1955.
In the championship game, Gatski, at center, and the other Cleveland offensive linemen allowed only one sack of Otto Graham and blocked for Browns rushers to run for 169 yards.
Gatski was voted first-team All-Pro at center by all of the Associated Press, the New York Daily News, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the Sporting News, and United Press International, in 1955.
Otto Graham retired after the 1955 season, and it definitely adversely affected the Browns in 1956.
Cleveland stumbled to a 5-7 record in 1956, and for the first time in Gatski’s professional football career, he did not play in his league’s championship game.
Gatski was still recognized for his play in 1956, being invited to the 1956 Pro Bowl.
After the 1956 season, the Browns traded Gatski to the Detroit Lions for a third-round draft pick in the 1958 draft.
Gatski started 11 regular-season games and two playoff games for the Lions at center in 1957.
Gatski returned to the NFL championship game in 1957, where he helped the Lions defeat the Browns 59-14 on December 29, 1957.
It was Gatski’s eighth and final professional football championship in 12 years of professional football.
It also was Gatski’s final NFL game as he retired after the 1957 season.
The Years After the NFL
After his retirement, Gatski initially worked as a scout for the Boston Patriots for four years.
Gatski then worked for 21 years as head football coach and athletic director at the West Virginia Industrial School of Boys (known as “Pruntytown” because it was located in Pruntytown, West Virginia).
Pruntytown was a correctional facility for juvenile offenders.
Gatski’s toughness as a football player was evidenced by some of his teaching methods at Pruntytown.
For his first practice, Gatski would have the players line up 20 yards apart and then, at his signal, run at each other as hard as they could.
After practice, Gatski would take his players to a steep, 25-foot hill.
Gatski would have each player go to the top of the hill, run to the edge and leap out in space; the players would have “crash landings” and then roll down the remainder of the hill.
During games, no one was allowed water, and no ankles were ever wrapped.
Sometimes the players would scrimmage at halftime.
“Those kids were tough to work with because very few of them had ever played football. . . . I tried to make them tough, and they loved it. They felt it gave them a psychological edge. . . . That’s the way I was taught.”
Gatski fully retired when Pruntytown closed in 1982. On retirement, Gatski stated:
“When I first retired from pro football, I missed it because I played so long. But then I got into the mainstream of life. There’s a whole bunch of life after pro football. Having babies and raising kids . . . and getting in the mainstream, that’s the real ballgame. Football’s easy because you have plays, but there are no plays when you get out in the street.”
Gatski was married and had seven children (five sons and two daughters).
Gatski’s favorite pastime after retirement was hunting.
Even when he played in Cleveland, Gatski practiced hitting targets with his bow and arrow at League Park in Cleveland (where the Browns trained during the season).
In retirement, Gatski lived on a mountain in West Virginia and for many years did not have a telephone.
In 1985, Gatski was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) August 3, 2020
He was presented for induction by his former Browns offensive lineman teammate Abe Gibron.
Gatski was probably the least well-known member of his Pro Football Hall of Fame class, which also included Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson, Roger Staubach, and Pete Rozelle.
Gatski’s biography on the Pro Football Hall of Fame website includes his quote that “Just being there. Just winning all those games. That’s what it was all about for me.”
When Gatski was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was out hunting and supposedly only found out about his election when he read about it in the newspaper.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) March 18, 2017
Gatski was also inducted in the Marshall University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.
In 1989, Gatski was inducted in the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
#NPASHF Inductee & NFL center Frank Gatski is born #OTD in Farmington, West Virginia. Gatski played on 8 championship teams during his 12 year NFL career, and never missed a single game or practice. He was inducted into the @ProFootballHOF in 1985. https://t.co/EZToHMGyKl pic.twitter.com/KAbGzKeCgx
— National Polish American Sports HOF (@NPASHF) March 18, 2019
Gatski was one of the inaugural members of the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2001.
In 2005, Marshall retired Gatski’s uniform number 72, the only Marshall football player then ever so honored.
Gatski died of congestive heart failure on November 22, 2005 at a nursing home in Morgantown, West Virginia, at the age of 86.
He was buried at the West Virginia National Cemetery in Grafton, West Virginia.
In 2006, the East Huntington Bridge (crossing the Ohio River at Huntington, West Virginia) was renamed the Frank Gatski Memorial Bridge in Gatski’s honor.
In 2010, Gatski was one of the inaugural members of the Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor and had his name displayed around the upper deck of FirstEnergy Stadium (where the Browns play).
Gatski’s Browns Legacy
It is difficult to measure the accomplishments of offensive linemen (especially offensive linemen in Gatski’s era), as there are limited, if any, statistical numbers for offensive linemen.
One general sense of an offensive lineman’s playing ability is how other contemporary players viewed the player.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik said about Gatski:
“He was the best and the toughest I ever played against. As a linebacker, I sometimes had to go over the center but Gatski was the immovable object.”
Browns Pro Football Hall of Famer Dante Lavelli said about Gatski:
“He was like a polished stone, very strong in the middle. A very strong man, and a very good player. He was always able to adjust real well to anything. Just a quiet man and a great teammate. I never remember him missing a game.”
With the election of Mac Speedie in 2020, there are only 15 men who played for five or more years for the Cleveland Browns who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While Gatski may not be as well known as such Cleveland greats as Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Marion Motley, Lou Groza, and Gene Hickerson, it is a testament to Gatski’s greatness that his bust is also in Canton, Ohio with these other better-known Browns immortals.
Moreover, in judging Gatski’s career with the Browns, his level of success in winning games is hard to match.
In Gatski’s 11 seasons in Cleveland, the Browns compiled an aggregate regular season and playoff record of 119-27-4.
You can call Gatski “Gunner”, “The Silent One”, “Li’l Abner”, “Joe Palooka”, or “Rock of Gibraltar”, but perhaps his best nickname would be “Winner”.