Think about it – if you have a bridge named after you, you’ve got to be pretty important – such is the case for the late great Ray Nitschke, who died on this date in 1998.
Nitschke is legendary in these parts. As the rock of the great Vince Lombardi/Phil Bengston-coached defenses of the 1960s, he manned the middle linebacking position from 1958 through 1972, playing in 190 regular season games. That’s more than any defensive player in team history.
While out on a Sunday drive with his daughter and granddaughter, Nitschke suffered a massive heart attack while sitting in his car outside a convenience store in Venice, Fla. Nitschke had a home in Naples, Fla., and was on his way to a friend’s home with his daughter, Amy Klaas.
Here’s how the New York Times described Nitschke in a news brief announcing his death:
The personification of the rough-and-tumble linebacker who could smother a running back and level a quarterback with equal aplomb, Nitschke was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978 and was selected for the National Football League’s 50th and 75th anniversary all-star teams.
His old coach Vince Lombardi once called pro football ”a game that requires the constant conjuring of animosity.” Nitschke was not huge — he stood 6 feet 3 inches and weighed 235 pounds — but he fit Lombardi’s mold perfectly, once remarking: ”My father died when I was 3, my mother when I was 14, so I took it out on all the kids in the neighborhood. What I like about this game is the contact, the man-to-man, the getting-it-out-of-your-system.”
Forest Gregg, a teammate of Nitschke’s who also coached the Packers in the 1980s, said this at the time, “Oh my God. You just thought Nitschke would be here forever. He was a great guy who epitomized what the Packers were back then. He was one of a kind.”
Though statistics on sacks and tackles weren’t kept during the time that Nitschke played, according to pro-football-reference, the Hall-of-Famer had 25 interceptions during his career that he returned for 385 yards and two touchdowns. One of those touchdowns, in 1960, he returned 90 yards. He also recovered 23 fumbles during his career and even returned 6 kickoffs for 53 yards.
Also incredibly and quite amazingly, Nitschke had a single recorded pass reception during his career. According to Wikipedia, “On December 17, 1972, the 9-4 Green Bay Packers traveled to New Orleans to play the 1-11-1 Saints at Tulane Stadium for Nitschke’s last regular season game of his career. Nitschke recored the only pass reception of his career in this game, a 34-yard gain on a blocked field goal attempt for which he was blocking.”
The Packers went on to the playoffs that year, but lost to the Washington Redskins in Nitschke’s final game as a Green Bay Packer.