Ray Nitschke

Last updated

Ray Nitschke
Nitschke packers.jpg
circa 1966
No. 66
Position: Middle linebacker
Personal information
Born:(1936-12-29)December 29, 1936
Elmwood Park, Illinois
Died:March 8, 1998(1998-03-08) (aged 61)
Venice, Florida
Height:6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)
Weight:235 lb (107 kg)
Career information
High school: Maywood (IL) Proviso East
College: Illinois
NFL Draft: 1958  / Round:  3  / Pick: 36
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Interceptions:25
Interception yards:385
Touchdowns:2
Player stats at NFL.com

Raymond Ernest Nitschke (December 29, 1936 – March 8, 1998) was a professional American football middle linebacker who spent his entire 15-year National Football League (NFL) career with the Green Bay Packers. [1] Enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, he was the anchor of the defense for head coach Vince Lombardi in the 1960s, leading the Packers to five NFL championships and victories in the first two Super Bowls. [2] [3]

Contents

Early life

Born in Elmwood Park, Illinois, [4] Nitschke was the youngest of three sons to Robert and Anna Nitschke. His father was killed in a car accident in 1940, [5] and his mother died of a blood clot when Ray was 13. Older brothers Robert Jr. (age 21) and Richard (age 17) decided they would raise Ray on their own. [6]

Proviso High School

Nitschke entered Proviso High School in Maywood shortly before his mother's death. The loss of both parents enraged Nitschke, and the lack of a parental disciplinarian to quell his rage caused him to engage in fights with other kids in the neighborhood. During his freshman year at Proviso, he played fullback on one of the school's three football teams. He was a poor student and his grades eventually caught up with him as he was declared academically ineligible to play sports his sophomore year. He would lament this embarrassment for the rest of his life. [7]

He succeeded in raising his grades enough in his sophomore year to allow him to play sports his junior year, when he had grown significantly (to six feet tall). He starred on the varsity football team, playing quarterback on offense and safety on defense for coach Andy Puplis. He played varsity basketball and was a pitcher and left fielder for the varsity baseball team. His baseball skills brought him an offer from the professional St. Louis Browns with a $3,000 signing bonus. [8] Nitschke was also offered scholarships from college football programs around the country. Puplis advised him to accept a football scholarship. Due to his desire to play at a Big Ten university, with a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, he accepted a football scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1954.

University of Illinois

While at Illinois, Nitschke smoked, drank heavily, and fought at the drop of a hat. Never a good student in high school, his grades suffered at college. In his sophomore year in 1955, due to a depletion of players in the offensive backfield, Illini head coach Ray Eliot moved Nitschke from quarterback to fullback, [9] shattering his childhood dream of quarterbacking a team to a victory in the Rose Bowl. At this time, college football had reverted to primarily single-platoon football, meaning those players that were on offense had to switch to defense, and vice versa, when ball possession changed. On defense, Nitschke played linebacker. He proved to be a very skilled player and tackler as a linebacker, so much so that, by his senior year, Paul Brown considered him the best linebacker in college football. [10]

In his junior year in 1956 against Ohio State, Nitschke lost his four front teeth on the opening kick-off. Nitschke never wore a face mask and one of the Buckeye's player's helmets hit him in the mouth knocking out two teeth initially; the other two were hanging by the roots. He played the rest of the game. [11]

NFL career

Growing up in the outskirts of Chicago, Nitschke had idolized the Bears and he hoped to be chosen by them in the 1958 NFL Draft, held on December 2, 1957. However, he was chosen by the Green Bay Packers late in the third round (36th overall) of what is considered the greatest draft in the franchise's history. [12] It included three other significant Packers of the 1960s, linebacker Dan Currie of Michigan State (3rd overall), fullback Jim Taylor of LSU (15th overall) and right guard Jerry Kramer of Idaho (39th overall). Their rookie season in 1958 under first-year head coach Ray "Scooter" McLean was dismal, with just one win and one tie for the worst record in the 12-team league. Nitschke wore number 33 in 1958 and 66 the rest of his career with the Packers.

Nitschke Helmet.jpg
Pro Football Hall of Fame (27033867699).jpg
Left: Nitschke's helmet from coaching tower incident in September 1960; right: his #66 jersey exhibited at the Pro Football Hall of Fame

A month after the 1958 season ended, Vince Lombardi was hired as head coach. Nitschke became a full-time starter in 1962, the anchor of a disciplined defense that helped win five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls in the 1960s. He was the MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game, accepting the prize of a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette. In the game, Nitschke recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass that was intercepted. The Packers won 16–7 and finished the season with a 14–1 record. In Super Bowl I, Nitschke contributed six tackles and a sack. In Super Bowl II, Nitschke led Green Bay's defense with nine tackles.

At the end of the 1972 season, the 9–4 Packers traveled to New Orleans to play the 2–10–1 Saints on December 17 at Tulane Stadium, which turned out to be Nitschke's last regular season game. He recorded the only pass reception of his career, a 34-yard gain after a blocked Packer field goal attempt, and they won 30–20 to finish at 10–4, their best regular season record since 1966. [13] [14] Green Bay had clinched the NFC Central division title the week before at Minnesota for their first playoff berth in five seasons. [15] In the divisional round of the playoffs on Christmas Eve, Green Bay lost 16–3at Washington. [16] Nitschke returned for a 16th training camp in 1973, then retired in late August. [17] [18] [19]

Nitschke was known for his strength and toughness, exhibited prior to his third season in 1960. On the Packers' practice field on September 1, a 1,000-pound (450 kg) steel coaching tower was blown over by a strong gust of wind, on top of Nitschke. [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] (It was errantly first reported as 5,000 lb (2,270 kg).) [20] [21] Lombardi ran over to see what had happened, but when told it had fallen on Nitschke, said, "He'll be fine. Get back to work!" According to Nitschke's biography, a spike was driven into his helmet, but did not injure him. The helmet (with the hole) is currently on display in the Packer Hall of Fame in Green Bay. Although Nitschke was known for his hard hitting, he was an athletic all-around linebacker who also intercepted 25 passes over his career.

Personal life

Nitschke was married on June 26, 1961, to Jackie Forchette. [25] Jackie was unable to have children, so they adopted three: John in 1963, Richard in 1966, and Amy in 1972. Ray and Jackie had a winter home in Naples, Florida. Lombardi gave partial credit to Nitschke's success to Nitschke's wife, whose calming influence helped him focus on his career. Nitschke remained popular in Green Bay after retiring, even having his phone number and home address published in the Green Bay phone book.

In the late 1980s, Nitschke owned an automobile dealership in Green Bay. He performed several of his own TV commercials in which he brought out his dog, "Butkus", named in honor of his Chicago Bears nemesis, Dick Butkus (who like Nitschke, grew up in the Chicago area and played for the Illinois Fighting Illini). He appeared in the comic film Head , starring The Monkees, as a footballer who repeatedly tackles Peter Tork in a mock war movie sequence. His character is listed in the credits as "Private One" because his jersey is emblazoned with the number "1". Nitschke also appeared in the 1974 football comedy The Longest Yard as Guard Bogdanski.

Nitschke died of a heart attack in Venice, Florida at the age of 61 in 1998. [1] He had been driving to the home of a family friend, according to his daughter, Amy Klaas, who was with him when he was stricken. He was pronounced dead at Venice Hospital. [2]

Honors

Nitschke's number was retired by the Packers in 1983 Packers retired number 66.svg
Nitschke's number was retired by the Packers in 1983

His No. 66 was retired in 1983, the fourth of six numbers retired by the Packers. [26] The only other Lombardi-era player to have his number retired is quarterback Bart Starr, whose #15 was retired in 1973. Also, the team has named one of its two outdoor practice fields "Ray Nitschke Field". Prior to its retirement, number 66 had remained in circulation and was last worn in 1983 by offensive lineman Lawrence Pfohl, who would go on to fame as a professional wrestler under the ring name Lex Luger. [27]

In 1969, he was awarded as the NFL's all-time top Linebacker by the NFL in honor of the NFL's 50th Anniversary. Thus he is the only linebacker to have made both the NFL's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.

He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978. [28] Every year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a luncheon the day before its induction ceremony, attended by most of the living members and honoring the new inductees. Nitschke always spoke at this luncheon, telling the new inductees what a great honor they were receiving, and that they were now members of the greatest team of them all. Following his death, the Hall named the luncheon after him. He was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1981.

Upon the election of former teammate Henry Jordan to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the eve of Super Bowl XXIX in Miami Gardens, Florida, Nitschke flew down to Florida to participate in the game's coin-toss ceremonies, joining three other 75th Anniversary Team representatives--Otto Graham (1950s), Mean Joe Greene (1970s) and Gale Sayers (1960s), all three of whom had been announced as representatives of their respective decades in the ceremony months prior to the PFHOF election—as well as three of Jordan's fellow Class of 1995 newcomers, all of whom represented the 1980s: Kellen Winslow, Lee Roy Selmon, and then-U.S. Congressman Steve Largent, who ended the pregame ceremonies by flipping the coin.

In 1999, he was ranked number 18 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, making him the highest-ranked player coached by Vince Lombardi, second among Packers behind Don Hutson, and third among linebackers behind Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus.

Legacy

Ray Nitschke Memorial Bridge Ray Nitschke Memorial Bridge.jpg
Ray Nitschke Memorial Bridge

The Ray Nitschke Memorial Bridge, a twin-leaf bascule bridge over the Fox River on Main Street (US 141) in Green Bay, [29] was named in honor of Nitschke. [30] The bridge was constructed in 1998 to replace the former Main Street Bridge built in 1923.

Related Research Articles

Vince Lombardi American football coach

Vincent Thomas Lombardi was an American football coach, and executive in the National Football League (NFL). He is best known as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s, where he led the team to three straight and five total NFL Championships in seven years, in addition to winning the first two Super Bowls at the conclusion of the 1966 and 1967 NFL seasons.

Bart Starr American football quarterback, coach, and executive

Bryan Bartlett Starr was a professional American football quarterback and coach. He played college football at the University of Alabama, and was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL draft, where he played for them until 1971. Starr is the only quarterback in NFL history to lead a team to three consecutive league championships (1965–1967). He led his team to victories in the first two Super Bowls: I and II. As the Packers' head coach, he was less successful, compiling a 52–76–3 (.408) record from 1975 through 1983.

1967 NFL Championship Game

The 1967 National Football League Championship Game was the 35th NFL championship, played on December 31 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Jerry Kramer American football player

Gerald Louis Kramer is a former professional American football player, author and sports commentator, best remembered for his 11-year National Football League (NFL) career with the Green Bay Packers as an offensive lineman.

Jim Taylor (fullback) American footballer (1935–2018)

James Charles Taylor was an American football fullback who played professionally in the National Football League (NFL) for ten seasons, with the Green Bay Packers from 1958 to 1966 and with the expansion New Orleans Saints in 1967. With the Packers, Taylor was invited to five straight Pro Bowls and won four NFL championships, as well as a victory in the first Super Bowl. He was recognized as the NFL Most Valuable Player after winning the rushing title in 1962, beating out Jim Brown. An aggressive player and fluent trash talker, Taylor developed several personal rivalries throughout his career, most notably with New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff. This confrontational attitude, combined with his tenacious running style, a penchant for contact, and ability to both withstand and deliver blows, earned him a reputation as one of the league's toughest players.

Dan Currie American football player

Daniel George Currie was an American football player in the National Football League (NFL). He played linebacker for nine seasons with the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams.

Jim Ringo American football player and coach

James Stephen Ringo was a professional American football player, a Hall of Fame center, and coach in the National Football League (NFL). He was a 10-time Pro Bowler during his 15-year playing career.

Henry Jordan

Henry Wendell Jordan was an American football defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers during his 13-year National Football League (NFL) career. He played in the NFL from 1957 to 1969 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Richard David Robinson is a former American football player. He played college football at Pennsylvania State University and professionally in the National Football League for the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins. Robinson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.

Roger John Anderson is an American former professional football player who was a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League (NFL) for 12 seasons from 1978 to 1989.

1960 NFL Championship Game

The 1960 National Football League Championship Game was the 28th NFL title game. The game was played on Monday, December 26, at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

1962 NFL Championship Game

The 1962 National Football League Championship Game was the 30th NFL title game, played on December 30 at Yankee Stadium in New York City. It matched the New York Giants (12–2) of the Eastern Conference and Green Bay Packers (13–1) of the Western Conference, the defending league champions.

Lee Roy Caffey was an American football outside linebacker in the National Football League (NFL) for the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers. He played college football at Texas A&M University.

Freddie Alton Carr was an American football player who played linebacker for the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League (NFL) from 1968 to 1977.

The 1972 Green Bay Packers season was their 54th season overall and their 52nd season in the National Football League. The team finished with a 10–4 record under second-year head coach Dan Devine, earning them the NFC Central division title. The Packers returned to the playoffs after a four-year drought ; their most recent division title was in 1967, completing that postseason with a decisive win in Super Bowl II in January 1968.

Joe Francis (American football) American football quarterback and halfback

Joseph Charles Naekauna Francis Jr. was an American football halfback and quarterback in the National Football League (NFL) and the Canadian Football League (CFL). Following his playing career, he was a high school football head coach in his native Hawaii.

Nelson Edward Toburen is a former American football linebacker in the National Football League for the Green Bay Packers. A serious neck injury in his second season ended his NFL career; he attended law school and eventually became a judge.

The Packers sweep, also known as the Lombardi sweep, is an American football play popularized by Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. The Packers sweep is based on the sweep, a football play that involves a back taking a handoff and running parallel to the line of scrimmage before turning upfield behind lead blockers. The play became noteworthy due to its extensive use by the Packers in the 1960s, when the team won five National Football League (NFL) Championships, as well as the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi used the play as the foundation on which the rest of the team's offensive game plan was built. The dominance of the play, as well as the sustained success of Lombardi's teams in the 1960s, solidified the Packers sweep's reputation as one of the most famous football plays in history.

Jack Vainisi

Jack Vainisi was an American scout and personnel director for the Green Bay Packers from 1950 to 1960. At the age of 23, he was hired by Packers head coach Gene Ronzani to lead the team's player personnel department. In a time when most professional football teams relied on the media for information on college players, Vainisi enlisted college coaches to provide scouting reports on not only their own players, but also opposition players. During his time in charge of player personnel, the Packers drafted or acquired eight future Pro Football Hall of Fame players. Vainisi also was instrumental in attracting Vince Lombardi to the vacant head coaching job in Green Bay in 1959. Vainisi did not live to see the success of the teams he helped assemble though, as he died from a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 33.

References

  1. 1 2 McGinn, Bob (March 9, 1998). "Packers legend Nitschke dies". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. p. 1A.
  2. 1 2 Goldstein, Richard (March 9, 1998). "Ray Nitschke, 61, linebacker during Packers' glory years". New York Times. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
  3. "Fierce linebacker anchored Packers". Toledo Blade. Ohio. Associated Press. March 9, 1998. p. 13.
  4. Gruver, 2002 pg. 20
  5. Gruver, 2002 pg. 21
  6. Gruver, 2002 pg. 25
  7. Gruver, 2002 pg. 29
  8. Gruver, 2002 pg. 37
  9. Gruver, 2002 pg. 44
  10. Gruver, 2002 pg. 62
  11. http://www.jsonline.com/sports/packers/40250287.html
  12. Gruver, 2002 pg. 54
  13. Lea, Bud (December 18, 1972). "Packers leave 'em laughing". Milwaukee Sentinel. p. 1, part 2.
  14. Beldsoe, Terry (December 18, 1972). "Packers get last laugh in slapstick game". Milwaukee Journal. p. 14, part 2.
  15. "Packers win division title". Milwaukee Sentinel. December 11, 1972. p. 1, part 1.
  16. Lea, Bud (December 25, 1972). "Redskins burst Packers' bubble". Milwaukee Sentinel. p. 1, part 2.
  17. Johnson, Chuck (August 28, 1973). "Nitschke retires, with some reluctance". Milwaukee Journal. p. 11, part 2.
  18. Lea, Bud (August 29, 1973). "Ray of hope dies for old pro Nitschke". Milwaukee Sentinel. p. 1, part 2.
  19. "'No hard feelings' says Ray Nitschke". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. (Associated Press). August 29, 1973. p. 17.
  20. 1 2 "5,000 pound tower falls on Nitschke". Milwaukee Sentinel. Associated Press. September 2, 1960. p. 3, part 2.
  21. 1 2 "Crashing tower falls on player". Lewiston Morning Tribune. (Idaho). Associated Press. September 2, 1960. p. 10.
  22. "(Photos)". Milwaukee Journal. Associated Press. September 2, 1960. p. 11, part 2.
  23. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1960/09/02/page/43/article/helmet-saves-ray-nitschke-as-steel-tower-falls-on-him
  24. "Nitschke OK: Vince names vet starters". Milwaukee Sentinel. Associated Press. September 3, 1960. p. 4, part 2.
  25. Gruver, 2002 pg. 103-105
  26. http://www.packers.com/team/players/nitschke_ray/
  27. "Green Bay Packers passed on Larry Pfohl who became Lex Luger" https://amp.greenbaypressgazette.com/amp/1214462002
  28. Hofmann, Dale (July 29, 1978). "Hard nosed Ray Nitschke just a softie over induction". Milwaukee Sentinel. p. 4, part 2.
  29. Bridgehunter Main Street Bridge (New)
  30. Merit Award: Moveable Span "Ray Nitschke Memorial Bridge"

Further reading