In an era that wasn’t known as much for great, prolific quarterbacks, Steve Bartkowski was one of the better signal-callers in the National Football League.
His stats didn’t stand out as much as some other QBs, but he got his recognition while setting multiple NFL records.
Perhaps he wasn’t as lucky as some others who played his position back then, and perhaps he wasn’t remembered as much as some others, but Bartkowski certainly had a productive career for over a decade while helping a mediocre franchise gain a foothold over the major market it played in.
On Nov. 12, 1952, Steven Joseph Bartkowski was born in Des Moines, Iowa. Later on, his family would move to Santa Clara, a middle-class city that is a major part of the San Francisco Bay Area.
In future years, Santa Clara would become the home of the San Francisco 49ers, while the Bay Area in general would become an incubator of sorts for future star NFL quarterbacks, most notably Tom Brady.
But when Bartkowski was coming up, the Bay Area, and California in general, was an undiscovered frontier when it came to pro football. In fact, of the four major North American pro sports, only baseball was big time in the region.
In some ways, Bartkowski had an idyllic upbringing. Unlike some pro athletes, he did not grow up in poverty, and he was tall and good-looking.
He would attend Buchser High School in Santa Clara, where he starred in three different sports: basketball, baseball and football. In fact, on multiple occasions, he scored over 50 points in a single game as a basketball player.
But his best sports were football and baseball, in that order. According to Bartkowski himself, by the time he was winding down his senior high of high school, over 100 colleges had offered him scholarships to play ball.
Ultimately, he decided to stay in the metropolitan area and attend the University of California, Berkeley.
A Strong Bear
Bartkowski’s decision to go to college at Berkeley may have seemed like a curious one to some. Berkeley has never been one of the most prominent football schools, especially back in the early 1970s.
During that time, Berkeley was mostly known for its political activism, most notably the anti-war and free speech movements, and it has always has had a reputation for being arguably the finest public university in America.
As a freshman in the fall of 1971, Bartkowski did not take a single snap for the Golden Bears. But it wasn’t because of a lack of ability or work ethic.
Back then, freshman were not allowed to participate in varsity sports in the NCAA. That rule would be changed in January of 1972, which was just a bit too late for him.
In his sophomore and junior years, Bartkowski looked like he may turn out to be a bust. He threw for less than 1,000 yards both seasons, and he had way more turnovers (20) than touchdown passes (eight) both years combined.
It also didn’t help that the Bears were a poor team in 1972 and ’73.
But in 1974, his senior year, he showed major improvement and started to become his best self. That season, Bartkowski completed 182 of his 325 pass attempts, a 56 percent accuracy rate, for 2,580 yards, which led the nation, and 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
Although the Bears were not invited to play in a major bowl game that year, they did finish with a 7-3-1 record, which is not too shabby.
Berkeley didn’t offer him a scholarship just because of his talent on the gridiron. Bartkowski also played baseball for the school, and he shined as a first baseman, even earning All-American in both baseball and football.
It was also at Berkeley where Bartkowski would meet someone who would change his life and become one of his strongest allies for years to come.
When he moved into the dorms on campus, he met a graduate student named Leigh Steinberg, who was the dorm’s resident counselor. Steinberg was in the process of earning his Juris Doctor degree, and he was also a major force in student politics at the school.
Steinberg was amazed at Bartkowski’s magnetic personality and how it seemed to attract people and friendships of all types. The two became friends, and once Steinberg was done with law school, Bartkowski asked him to become his agent, and Steinberg agreed to do so.
He would go on to become a major agent in pro sports, especially the NFL, and some of his other prominent clients would include great QBs such as Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Patrick Mahomes. In fact, it has been said that he was the main inspiration for the agent in the hit movie “Jerry Maguire.”
While agents often play a big role in helping pro athletes achieve their dreams, the relationship often seems one-sided. But in Steinberg’s case, Bartkowski may have made him the agent he would become, as he would eventually thank the QB for saving him “from a life of corporate litigation drudgery.”
On To Atlanta
In 1975, the Atlanta Falcons were a new-ish NFL franchise that was struggling. Since beginning play in the 1966 season, they had put together only two winning seasons and had never made the playoffs.
The franchise was struggling so much that there was talk that it might have had to either move to another city or even dissolve.
But that January, it had the third overall pick in the NFL draft, and it was hot for Bartkowski. At 6-foot-4 and the owner of a very strong throwing arm, he was a can’t-miss prospect.
In fact, according to Steinberg, Bartkowski once stood in the end zone while in college and threw the football 100 yards all the way to the opposite end zone.
In order to make sure they could nab him, the Falcons traded that third pick and George Kunz, a Pro Bowl offensive lineman, to the Baltimore Colts for the top pick.
The Falcons thought so highly of the Berkeley product that they drafted him instead of Walter Payton, who would go on to become one of the greatest running backs of all time for the Chicago Bears.
With Steinberg as his new agent, Bartkowski would then secure what was then the richest contract ever given to an NFL rookie.
To say that Atlanta was looking to him to be its savior wasn’t hyperbole. When he arrived there, a local television station interrupted the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” – which was then a show that no one wanted to ever miss – to announce Bartkowski’s arrival as breaking news.
It is not exactly uncommon for NFL rookie quarterbacks to go through growing pains, and he was no exception. He injured his elbow just five games into his first season, and just two games later it would become dislocated, forcing him to miss multiple games.
His numbers on the season weren’t too great – a 45.1 percent completion rate, 1,662 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions – but he still earned a spot on the NFL’s All-Rookie Team.
Bartkowski’s second season was even rougher. He needed elbow surgery during the offseason, and although it had fully healed, his numbers would take a big hit.
In Week 5 against the New Orleans Saints, he was grabbed by the face mask, and the force of the incident resulted in a severe knee injury that required surgery. With that, his season was over, and he only managed to put up 677 passing yards and two touchdowns while throwing nine interceptions.
His struggles continued in 1977, as his knee refused to hold up due to a piece of torn cartilage. He would again be forced to go under the knife, and he would miss the first six games of the campaign as a result.
When Bartkowski returned to action in late October, his play had not improved one iota. He continued to throw many more interceptions than touchdowns, his completion percentage was still dreadful and he got sacked about as often as Atlanta is hit by thunderstorms during the spring and summer.
Even though the Falcons had improved from 4-10 to 7-7 that season, the press and even the fans turned Bartkowski into a scapegoat.
Why wasn’t he showing the competency he had displayed as a senior at Berkeley? Why couldn’t someone so tall and strong physically hold up to the rigors of being an NFL quarterback?
Bartkowski felt like he was all alone and that he had no one to turn to for help or even solace.
During the 1978 preseason, head coach Leeman Bennett seemed fed up with Bartkowski’s inability to produce, as he benched him in favor of June Jones. It was rock-bottom for Bartkowski, but it was at this point that he had a change in mentality.
Many people turn to religion when times are bad, and it’s exactly what the fourth-year QB would do. He became an extremely devout Christian and, with Jones’ urging, devoted his life to God.
Whether one wants to believe it was indeed divine intervention or simply because he had found a way to improve his morale, Bartkowski would have a breakthrough.
He quickly regained his starting spot, and although he wasn’t setting the world on fire yet, his accuracy improved while his interception rate dropped.
Once he was back under center to start games, he played in every single contest, and after many painful years, the Falcons started to find themselves.
They had a five-game winning streak at one point, and with a 9-7 record, they finally made the playoffs.
In its first-ever playoff game, Atlanta fell behind 13-0 to the Philadelphia Eagles, and when Bartkowski threw an interception early in the fourth quarter, his team looked to be down and out.
But Bartkowski helped lead a comeback. He threw two touchdown passes in the final five minutes, and when Eagles kicker Mike Michel missed a field goal in the final seconds, the Falcons had completed an impressive 14-13 win.
Next Atlanta would face the formidable Dallas Cowboys, a franchise that had recently won two Super Bowls behind legendary QB Roger Staubach and its “Doomsday” defense.
In the second quarter of the divisional round game, Bartkowski threw a TD pass to wide receiver Wallace Francis, and a field goal minutes later gave Atlanta a 20-13 heading into halftime. With Staubach forced out of the contest due to an injury, things looked very good for the Falcons.
But Bartkowski threw two interceptions in the second half, allowing Cowboys backup QB Danny White to lead them to a 27-20 comeback win. It was a heartbreaking way for the Falcons to end their season, but they finally had some real hope for the future.
Bartkowski continued to show improvement in 1979, throwing for 2.505 yards and 17 touchdowns, both career highs. In Week 14 against the high-powered San Diego Chargers, a team that was strong on both sides of the football, he lit up the scoreboard with 225 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 28-26 upset victory.
Unfortunately, it didn’t help his team enough, as the Falcons went 6-10 and slipped back into ineptitude. But it wasn’t exactly all bad for Bartkowski in ’79.
It was that year when he would meet his wife Sandee, with whom he would have two sons, Philip and Peter. Bartkowski credits his spirituality with being able to meet and marry the love of his life and the mother of his children.
Newly hitched, almost everything would fall into place for Bartkowski and his Falcons in 1980.
He would have a whale of a season, completing 55.5 percent of his passes for 3,544 yards and 31 touchdowns, all career highs. He led the league in touchdown passes, and he had almost twice as many of them as he had interceptions, a stark reversal from his first five seasons.
Bartkowski not only earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl but he was also named the NFL’s regular season MVP. Not coincidentally, after starting 3-3, the Falcons got white-hot, winning nine games in a row and finishing 12-4, by far their best record ever.
In Week 15, Atlanta trounced Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers 35-10 to clinch the NFC West title thanks to Bartkowski’s 276 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown.
👑 OTD in 1980: Steve Bartkowski tossed 3 TD's & trotted in for another in the Falcons 35-10 win over the 49ers! The victory was Atlanta's 9th straight, improving their record to 12-3 & clinching the franchise's 1st ever NFC West crown. #RiseUpATL pic.twitter.com/c7LZNLO6Ea
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) December 15, 2020
For the first time, the Falcons were being talked about as Super Bowl contenders, and the region was psyched. A throng of 59,793 fans jammed the Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium to watch the Falcons take on the Dallas Cowboys once again in the NFC’s divisional round.
Staubach was gone, and the Cowboys defense wasn’t quite as strong as it had been in past years. Falcons fans felt their team had a great shot at winning the world championship.
After Bartkowski threw his second touchdown pass of the day to put the Falcons up 24-10 in the third quarter, Atlanta trembled with the anticipation of an NFC Championship game appearance. After Dallas scored a touchdown early in the fourth period, an interception, followed by a field goal from Tim Mazzetti kept Atlanta’s lead at 10, and fans were ready to celebrate.
But White threw two touchdown passes of his own, and Atlanta was suddenly down 30-27 with 47 seconds left. But it still had a chance when the Cowboys fumbled the snap during the extra point attempt to give it possession of the ball.
However, Bartkowski failed to gain a first down, and just like that, the Falcons’ dream season had ended with a nightmare against “America’s Team.” To this day, it still ranks as one of the most devastating losses in Atlanta sports history.
To make matters worse, the Falcons didn’t rebound in 1981. Although Bartkowski threw for a new career-high of 3,829 yards and again made it to the Pro Bowl, Atlanta went 7-9 and did not reach the playoffs.
Still, he managed to set a new NFL record by throwing for at least three touchdowns in five consecutive home games, a span that straddled that ’80 and ’81 seasons. This record would stand for over two decades until Peyton Manning surpassed it in 2004.
A strike during the 1982 season shortened the schedule to nine games, and although Bartkowski threw just eight touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, he did show major improvement when it came to his accuracy, as his completion percentage shot upward to 63.4 percent, compared to just 55.7 percent the year before.
The Falcons posted a solid 5-4 record, but Bartkowski played poorly in the wild card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, completing just 9-of-23 passes and throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns. In a back-and-forth contest, Minnesota scored a touchdown with 1:44 left in the fourth quarter, and a subsequent interception from Bartkowski sealed Atlanta’s 30-24 loss.
The former Berkeley standout continued to refine his game in 1983, posting 3,167 passing yards and 22 touchdowns against just five interceptions. In a contest against the 49ers, he notched 301 yards and the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left.
.@AtlantaFalcons QB Steve Bartkowski threw it up…
Billy Johnson SOMEHOW came down with it! 🙏
— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2019
His passer rating of 97.6 and interception rate of 1.2 percent led the league, but he somehow did not make it to the Pro Bowl.
His production also didn’t lift the Falcons as it had the previous few years. They finished 7-9 and didn’t qualify for the postseason.
Bartkowski turned 32 during the 1984 season, and he was starting to show significant signs of slippage. Although he completed a career-high 67.3 percent of his passes that year, he threw for just 11 touchdowns while getting picked off 10 times.
His weakness was his tendency to get hit – and injured. After playing every game in 1980, ’81 and ’82, he missed the last five games of the ’84 campaign with a knee injury, one of many he would have to deal with throughout his career.
One factor in Bartkowski’s injuries may have been that the Falcons never had a great offensive line during his time in Atlanta. Having competent blockers in front of a quarterback is integral to his success and health, and the Falcons were never fully able to assemble a complete team that gave him the support he needed.
Five games into the 1985 season, he sustained yet another knee injury, and the team decided to bench him in favor of David Archer. At the end of the season, the Falcons released him, bringing to an end the tenure of the franchise’s greatest signal-caller.
During the summer of 1986, he caught on with the Los Angeles Rams, bringing him back to his home state of California. Starting QB Dieter Brock, who had been a star in the Canadian Football League (CFL), had just suffered a career-ending injury, and the Rams made Bartkowski their new starter.
But after six games, it was clear that he was washed up, and he lost his starting job. Bartkowski knew that it was over, and the following May he announced his retirement.
“My heart and spirit say press on, but the flesh is unable to obey,” said Bartkowski, in a statement issued by Steinberg.
In the end, Bartkowski’s knees simply couldn’t hold up. He would need a whopping seven knee operations throughout his career, and four more after his retirement.
But at the same time, no one could deny his talent. Bartkowski was one of the NFL’s best deep passers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and his ability to find his receivers in rhythm dozens of yards downfield was something to behold.
In a later era, when teams and coaches were more offensive-minded and pass-oriented and league rules that favored passers and offenses more, perhaps Bartkowski’s brief success in his prime would have been sustained for much longer.
Perhaps if he had gone to a different organization that was better able to assemble a well-rounded team, Bartkowski may have even earned himself a Super Bowl ring.
“I often think what would have happened if I had gone to an organization with a huge will to win,” he admitted decades after his retirement. “The Falcons back then are the antithesis of what Arthur Blank has created today.”
Years later, the Falcons would build some teams that Georgia was very proud of. They would make a Cinderella run to the Super Bowl in 1998 behind the explosive emergence of star running back Jamal Anderson.
After drafting franchise QB Matt Ryan in 2008, the Falcons started to become something of a regular in the NFL playoffs. Ryan would lead them to Super Bowl LI, but just as Bartkowski did twice against the Cowboys, Ryan blew a huge lead against the New England Patriots, causing Atlanta to lose in overtime.
When one asks who the greatest player in Falcons history is, Ryan’s name often comes up, as does Michael Vick, the once-elite QB whose career was derailed after his involvement in a dogfighting ring.
If Bartkowski isn’t in that conversion, one has to admit that at the very least, he put the Falcons on the map during their formative years.
Life After Football
Bartkowski has managed to stay somewhat close to the game of football after retirement. He eventually became a member of the Falcons Board of Advisors, a role that involves being something of an ambassador for the franchise to the community and making sure that it is serving its market well.
On occasion, Bartkowski will even serve as a mentor to current Falcons players in his role on the team’s Board of Advisors, and he has become close friends with Ryan, the team’s current franchise QB.
Before the turn of the millennium, Bartkowski took on a new initiative. Looking to get into the construction industry, he called Jim Dolen, his best friend since childhood, and Dolen hired him to be part of DPR Construction to help run its Atlanta office.
Both of Bartkowski’s sons would also join DPR, and with Bartkowski’s help, the company helped build a new operations center for the University of Clemson’s football program and an indoor practice facility for the University of Georgia.
Although the former QB never got inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he did make it to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame and even the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame.
Players like Bartkowski who pave the way for more talented and accomplished players may not get their full due, but those who saw him play can vouch for his amazing abilities and would argue that he deserved to have more elite years and perhaps a world championship ring.