Roger Zatkoff, starter on Detroit Lions’ 1957 championship team, dies at 90

Detroit Free Press

Roger Zatkoff, one of the last living members of the Detroit Lions’ 1957 championship team, died last week at 90 years old.

Zatkoff was a standout linebacker at Michigan and with the Lions in the 1950s who went on to a successful business career after his playing days.

A Hamtramck native, Zatkoff played his first four NFL seasons with the Green Bay Packers (1953-56) and made three Pro Bowls with the team before engineering a trade to the Lions.

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Initially traded from the Packers to the Cleveland Browns after the 1956 season, Zatkoff balked at reporting to Cleveland. The Browns traded him to the Los Angeles Rams, but Zatkoff asked then-NFL commissioner Bert Bell to nix the deal and help him get to Detroit.

The Lions beat the Browns for the 1957 championship.

“I said I can’t play here in L.A.” Zatkoff recalled at a reunion of the 1957 team held by the Free Press four years ago. “I said I got a wife and three kids and she’s 8 1/2 months pregnant and I’m not putting her on an airplane. They said put her on a train. I said, no, I’m not even gonna call her.

“So anyway, it ended up that I got ahold of Burt Bell and talked and reviewed this whole thing with Burt Bell, and Burt told Paul Brown, who in turn told me to sit tight for 24 to 48 hours, he would see what he could do. Then he got with Detroit, apparently, and he canceled the trade from Cleveland to L.A., and then he arranged a trade — this is Burt Bell — he arranged a trade from Cleveland to Detroit, which I came in, in ’57, and we go on to beat Cleveland for the championship. It couldn’t have been better.”

Zatkoff played two seasons with the Lions, starting 24 games, and retired after the 1958 season at 27 years old.

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He started a seals and packing company after his playing career, endowed scholarships at Michigan that have helped 186 students get their college degree, and recently made a large donation to the university to fund CTE research.

In 2017, Zatkoff told the Free Press he hoped to donate his brain for CTE study. His granddaughter, Ashley Plamp, said the family has followed through on his wishes and donated his brain to the Boston University Brain Bank.

“He was very interested in (CTE research),” Plamp said. “He was interested in why some people got it and some people didn’t, because his favorite thing to say was, ‘Well, I rang a few bells back in the day and I certainly had my bell rung a few times.’ He’d always say that. But he was sharp as a tack, he really was. But he knew so many other guys that weren’t as lucky, and so he just didn’t understand why.”

Zatkoff is the fourth Lions legend to pass away in recent months. Linebacker Mike Lucci died in October at the age of 81. Receiver/punter Pat Studstill died in October at age 83. And defensive lineman Roger Brown died in September at the age of 84.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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