by J. Henderson
Zeke Smith played football for the Auburn Tigers from 1956-1959. There was no “Offense” or “Defense” in those days of sweat, there were the Auburn Tigers. When Auburn had the ball, you played offense, when the other team had it you played defense. And Zeke played some damn defense, helping Auburn win the National Championship in 1957, a year in which the Tigers allowed opponents over their goal line only four times. 28 points, that’s all they gave up all year, outscoring their foes 207-28. The Tigers remained undefeated through 1958, the year Smith, a junior, won the Outland Trophy, the first of Auburn’s two Outland winners. (The immortal Tracy Rocker won the Outland in 1988, along with the Lombardi Trophy, making Auburn the first and only SEC school with two Outland winners, not including Arkansas – not part of the SEC at either time they had a player win).
I’ve always been a fan, I love walking by (not on) his commemorative sidewalk diamond downtown, and my Lord, the man’s face (right) belongs on Rushmore.
If there is a better 1950s football name than Zeke Smith, I’ve never heard it. It’s Disneyian.
But that’s not his real name.
His real name is Roger Duane Smith. Zeke is a nickname, one given him by his Uniontown High School head coach because of Smith’s fondness of Zeke Bratkowski, All-American quarterback for Georgia in 1952 and ’53.
But “Zeke” isn’t (Edmund Raymond) Bratkowski’s real name, either. He – somehow – earned the nickname because of the #12 on his jersey, the same number worn by slow-footed slugger for the Chicago White-Sox, Zeke Bonura.
And, of course, Bonura was born Henry John Bonura, not Zeke.
In 2003, I tracked down a relative of Bonura’s, and e-mailed him in hopes that the trail of Zeke Smith’s mysterious AKA origins would, with Zeke Bonura, finally end. And it did.
Henry John Bonura got his nickname, Zeke, from Knute Rockne, the famous Notre Dame football coach. The story goes that Rockne was scouting a national Catholic basketball tournament in Chicago. Rockne approached Zeke’s
coach and asked about recruiting that “young man with that magnificent physique.” His teammates promptly began calling him”Physique,” which later evolved into “Zeke.” By the way, Zeke won the MVP of the tournament and was
also named to the First Team All Stars.
Hope that helps.
JD “Zeke” Salinger
Kidding about the Salinger part, but the rest is true.