Green Bay Packers in the Hall of Fame: Ray Nitschke

(Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
(Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images) /

Raymond Ernest Nitschke played middle linebacker for 15 seasons. Although Nitschke was born in Illinois, and attended both High School and College there, he played all of those seasons for the Green Bay Packers.

During that time, Nitschke won five NFL Championships, including the first two Super Bowls.

Selected in the third round of the 1958 NFL Draft, Nitschke wore the green and gold from that year through 1972.

Following his career, Nitschke was nominated to both the team’s Hall of Fame as well as the NFL Hall of Fame.

He was also named to both the NFL’s 50th and 75-year anniversary teams, and the virtual all-decade team of the 1960s.

Nitschke was also one of only six Packers, so far, (along with Tony Canadeo, Brett Favre, Don Hutson, Bart Starr, and Reggie White) to have his jersey number (66) retired.

NOTE: Nitschke wore number 33 in 1958, his first season.

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In his career, Nitschke snagged 25 interceptions (more than most defensive backs have when they “hang up their cleats”).

Additionally, Nitschke pounced on or scooped up 23 loose balls (otherwise known as fumble recoveries).

The statistic most connected with linebackers today is tackles, but these did not begin to be tallied until 1994, and even then did not become an official statistic until 2001.

The youngest of three brothers, Ray’s father died when Ray was 4, and his mother when he was 13, at which point Ray’s two older brothers decided to raise him themselves. They were 21 and 17 years old at the time.

Having entered High School just prior to becoming a full orphan on the death of his mother from a blood clot, Ray was an angry young man who engaged in fights and played fullback as a freshman.

By his junior year, Nitschke was playing quarterback on offense and safety on defense (which experience helps explain the large number of interceptions he amassed in the NFL (a position more known for making tackles than picking off passes)).

Nitschke also played basketball and baseball (on the diamond, he was both a pitcher and a left fielder) in High School and was offered a $3,000 signing bonus from the St. Louis Browns (a baseball team of the era), but followed his football coach’s advice to pursue that sport instead.

It was in college that Nitschke was eventually switched from quarterback/safety to linebacker. By his senior year, Paul Brown considered Nitschke the best linebacker in the college ranks.

A Lombardi/Nitschke story worth recounting is the time when a coaching tower blew over from a gust of wind during a practice and landed on the tough-as-nails linebacker. Coach Lombardi ran over to assess the damage, but when he heard it was Nitschke who had been hit by the tower, he was relieved, opining, “He’ll be fine. Get back to work.”

This took place in 1960. Perhaps part of the reason for Vince’s nonchalance is that Nitschke did not become a starter until 1962.

As an Illinois native and Bears fan, Nitschke had hoped to play for his homestate team, and thus became something of an “accidental Packer” when drafted by them. Nevertheless, Nitschke obviously warmed to the idea of playing for the Green Bay Packers, as evidenced by his continuing to play for them for 15 years.

Next: Top 30 moments in Green Bay Packers history

The Packers have had a lot of excellent middle linebackers over the first century of their existence (Fred Carr, Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, et al), but the one that comes to mind first when thinking of players at that position for Packers News is none other than Ray Nitschke.