With 66 days left until the start of the NFL season, our countdown to the big day continues. Thursday, Sept. 4, is the day when the Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle to take on the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks. Over the course of the next 66 days we focus on the number that represents the days remaining … today it’s number 66.
Yesterday, we took a look at both at #67 Russell Maryland, the former Dallas Cowboy who spent a single season with the Packers. We selected Maryland because we liked how John Maxymuk, the author of “Packers by the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore Them,” hammered him and the Cowboys.
But if that was a digression from all of the other profiles that are part of this series, we get back on track today with #66 and one of the greatest and most revered Packers players – the late Ray Nitschke.
In all, there have been just six players, including Nitschke, who have worn the number. Three of those players wore it before Nitschke and two others wore it after Nitschke left the game, but the number was officially retired by the Packers franchise in 1983.
Think about it – if you have a bridge named after you, you’ve got to be pretty important – such is the case for Nitschke, who died 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.”
Here is how Maxymuk described Nitschke:
The story of Ray Nitschke is the story of power, but I don’t mean raw physical power or mental toughness on the football field. Ray Nitschke’s life was the embodiment of the power of love, the power of family, and the power of an individual to transform himself into a better person.
Ray grew up in Chicago and had a hard childhood. Both his parents died by the time he was 13, and he was raised by one of his brothers. Football was a great outlet for him. He played fullback and linebacker at the University of Illinois and was drafted by the Packers in the third round in 1958. He was a wild man on and off the field in college, and remained one in his early days in the pros.
Ray had a great deal of hostility and a penchant for drinking that only made it worse.
His coaches said of him, “Has physical ability but cannot think. Will never be able to play for us. Trade him.”
When he was spotted by Lombardi violating one of the coach’s rules by having a drink at the bar late in the 1960 season, Nitschke made no pretense of hiding but instead sent the coaches a round of drinks. Lombardi was furious and wanted to cut him on the spot, but defensive coach Phil Bengston calmed him down, since the team was short on healthy linebackers. Lombardi left it up to a vote of the team and Nitschke prevailed unanimously with that electorate.
1961 was when things began to change. Ray met his future wife Jackie at a restaurant and began to gain control over his life. In his words, he “found some unity.”
Soon he would quit drinking, get married, and start a family with Jackie. He would have three children, and everyone who knew him speaks of how devoted he was to his wife and kids and how much he loved spending his time with them. Any rage left in him was now solely channeled onto the football field. There he was ferocious.
Here’s what others had to say about him:
George Allen: ‘Nitschke was one of those special players who did things others didn’t do. When I was with the Bears we named one of our defenses ’47 Nitschke’ because it was copied from the way Ray played a certain situation. Naming a defense after a player is a pretty high compliment in my book.’
Bears center Mike Pyle: ‘I can say playing against Ray Nitschke shortened my career dramatically. I had great respect for Nitschke. I thought he was one of the greatest linebackers to play the game. Raymond hit awfully hard, but he wasn’t a dirty player.’
Mike Ditka: ‘The toughest guy I ever played against was Ray Nitschke … he was a physical, tough guy and he was a great football player.’
Dave Robinson: ‘Pound for pound, there’s never been a linebacker that’s come close to Ray Nitschke.’
Ray was a vicious hitter and sure tackler, as noted in the above testimonials, and was a solid run-stopper, but he also could cover backs in pass coverage as Bengston’s defense required. He intercepted 25 passes and recovered 20 fumbles in his years in Green Bay, and was known for making big plays at critical times.
Only Bart Starr played longer in a Packer uniform than Ray Nitschke. In his 15 years in Green Bay, Nitschke made All Pro three times and played in only one Pro Bowl, but was named the NFL’s all-time top linebacker in 1969 and was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team in 1993.
Of most importance to Ray himself was being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978. For the last 20 years of his life he would go to every annual induction ceremony to welcome his new brothers in arms. Each year there is a special inductees-only luncheon held the day before the ceremonies and that luncheon is now called the Ray Nitschke Luncheon, because year after year Ray would get up at the luncheon and give a spontaneous, emotional speech on what being elected to the Hall means. Many count Nitschke’s speech among the most moving experiences of their lives.
In his retirement, Ray became an unpaid ambassador for the Packers, for football and for the Hall of Fame, always happy to meet new fans and treat them with great friendliness.
When he died of a heart attack in 1998, Green Bay lost its number one citizen and football its number one gentleman.
Incredibly and quite amazingly, Nitschke had a single recorded pass reception during his career.
According to Wikipedia, “On Dec. 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 recorded 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.
We miss Ray Nitschke. We miss his passion for life and for the game and only wished there were other players who could match him for his ferocity on the field and his kindness off of it.
Here are his career statistics:
Videos of Ray Nitschke
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