The Guy with Six Rings: Remembering Fuzzy

Former Packers guard Fuzzy Thurston, a member of the great Green Bay teams of the 1960s, has died. He was 80. As the jovial Thurston once said: “There are two reasons the Green Bay Packers are World Champions. Jerry Kramer’s one of ‘em. And you’re lookin’ at the other!” (Getty Images)

Travel to Green Bay on a crisp autumn afternoon and it won’t be long before you start seeing the many fixtures around town reminding you that you’ve arrived in Titletown U.S.A., home of the Green Bay Packers.

Of course, there’s stately Lambeau Field, a pro football shrine proudly guarded at the front by the towering statues of Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi. The Don Hutson Center, an indoor practice facility across the street from the stadium that was named for perhaps the greatest player in the team’s proud, colorful history. Clarke Hinkle Field. Ray Nitschke Field. Streets named after Packers legends like Lombardi, Bart Starr, Mike Holmgren and, most recently, current coach Mike McCarthy.

But there’s another fixture who’s personified the unbridled passion and spirit of Packers fans ever since he first set foot on the scene back in 1959. If you’ve gone to any games or spent any amount of time in the area, chances are you’ve seen him or met him. Holding court inside his cozy sports bar, Fuzzy’s #63 on Mason Street. Signing autographs and posing for pictures at tailgate parties with his very favorite people in the whole wide world – Packer fans.

His given name is Frederick Charles Thurston. But everybody just calls him Fuzzy.

“Fuzz was a lot of fun and he was like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning,” chuckles Jerry Kramer, Thurston’s longtime running mate at guard during Green Bay’s golden era in the 1960s. “He could get a gift of a box of horse manure for Christmas and he’d go, ‘YEAHH!! Boy, with all this horse manure, there’s gotta be a pony around here someplace!’ He was just so enthusiastic and so in love with being Fuzzy Thurston. If you gave him a chance to come back as Warren Buffett or the king of Saudi Arabia or whomever, he’d say, ‘No, I want to be Fuzzy again and I want that experience of being with the Green Bay Packers again.’”

And what a time, what an experience it was. Certainly, it was an experience Thurston could never have predicted.

Born Dec. 29, 1933, in Altoona, Wis., Fuzzy was the youngest of eight children. His mother, Marie, essentially had to raise the family herself because Thurston’s father, Charles, died from a heart attack at the age of 33 when Fuzzy was just 4. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, he would be raised in poverty.

In his book, “What a Wonderful World: Fuzzy Thurston – A Story of Personal Triumph,” Thurston recalled, “Our family was very poor. We didn’t have an indoor toilet until my junior year in high school. I don’t remember getting much for Christmas because we didn’t have any money for gifts.”

Somehow, Thurston’s personality and character would have to get him though. If he got that box of manure as Kramer described, he’d just have to find that pony somewhere.

And so, he did.

After graduating from a high school that didn’t even have a football team, Thurston signed a basketball scholarship at Valparaiso University. He didn’t play football until his junior season (1954,) when he led the Crusaders to an Indiana Collegiate Conference title and was twice selected All-American. He was also named All-Conference for the 1954 and 1955 seasons while being named the conference’s Most Valuable Player in 1955. Thurston’s collegiate prowess eventually caught the eye of the Philadelphia Eagles who drafted him in the fifth round in 1956.

Thurston lasted through training camp and to the final exhibition game before the Eagles cut him. When he got back home to Altoona, he learned he had been drafted again – by the U.S. Army. In addition to his regular duties, Thurston found time to play football and wrestle for the Army. After completing his two-year hitch, Fuzzy was introduced to George Halas, who signed him in May 1958 to play defensive end with the Chicago Bears.

However, after three exhibition games, Papa Bear traded Thurston back to the Eagles for a conditional draft choice. Finally, he thought he had an NFL home but, a few days before the season opener, the Eagles released him. The late Eagles Hall of Fame great Chuck Bednarik was quoted as saying, “Fuzzy is the best blocker we have on this team. He’ll come back to haunt somebody.”

By this time, Thurston had married his girlfriend, Sue, and the couple had a 4-month-old son. There simply was no time to feel sorry for himself. Besides, Thurston never lacked for confidence or enthusiasm.

The career roller coaster continued. Needing money to raise his new family, Thurston accepted an invitation to move to Winnipeg, Canada, to play for the CFL Bombers. That lasted exactly one week because Winnipeg’s coach, Bud Grant, called him into his office to explain that the Baltimore Colts were calling and that if Thurston felt he belonged in the NFL this could be his big chance.

Baltimore coach Weeb Ewbank signed Thurston to the taxi squad and, six weeks later, he finally got a chance to play. The opponent happened to be the Green Bay Packers.

“As a Wisconsin native, I was excited to be playing against the Green Bay Packers,” Thurston wrote. “I still loved the Packers, even when I was playing against them. I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘Thank God I play for the Colts.’ The Packers weren’t very good at that time.”

The Colts, on the other hand, were outstanding. Boasting a lineup featuring Hall of Fame players like Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti and Jim Parker, Baltimore finished with a 9-3 record to capture the Western Conference title and went on to whip the New York Giants 23-17 in the NFL Championship Game. It was the first overtime playoff game in NFL history. Fuzzy had a ring and bright prospects for cracking the starting lineup at guard. He was at the top of the world.

The day before Colts’ training camp in 1959, Sue gave birth to their second child. Life was definitely good and Thurston could hardly contain his excitement as he drove all night to Baltimore. Checking into the team’s training camp headquarters, Thurston found a note on his door. It simply read, “See Coach in the morning.”

The next day, Ewbank explained that while Thurston was a decent guard, the team really needed a linebacker. So they traded Fuzzy to Green Bay for Marv Matuszak. Bye-bye defending World Champions. Hello, Green Bay, which was coming off a miserable 1-10-1 season and had just hired a new head coach. Some guy named Vince Lombardi.

The rest, as they say, is history. With the Packers, Fuzzy Thurston finally found his home. He and Kramer formed the best guard combination in the NFL while becoming the marquee players in Lombardi’s signature play, the Power Sweep. Lombardi willed his team on a relentless march to destiny, capturing five NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowls in seven seasons. Along the way, Thurston earned All-Pro honors twice (1961 and 1962) and was enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame.

“Fuzz and I played together 9 or 10 years, practiced a thousand times and ran the Sweep a thousand or 10 thousand times,” remembered Kramer. “Neither one of us ever pulled the wrong way. Almost always in college or high school, one of the guards would pull the wrong way and they’d smack each other in the head behind the center. I don’t know that I remember Fuzzy ever making a mistake. He was extremely consistent, he had pride and he was fun.”

Pride. Consistency. Ultimate team player. Enthusiasm. Fierce competitor. These are the words that come up again and again when Thurston’s former teammates are asked to share their memories of Number 63.

“The team was the biggest thing with him,” said Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson. “He loved everybody and everybody loved him. He would do anything for the team. He bought into the Lombardi doctrine really fast.

“My earliest memory of him was when I was a rookie (1963). Paul Hornung had been suspended for gambling that year. We rookies had to sing for our supper and we sang every night. When we got done singing, Fuzzy would stand up. He was a seasoned veteran and he was teaching solidarity to the rookies. He’d lead the whole room in, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’ One thing I remember is that he ad-libbed quite a bit, like ‘He’s got the gamblin’ man in his hands’ and Vince got mad and stopped the singing. So if we rookies wanted to stop singing, we’d go ‘He’s got the gamblin’ man in his hands’ and Vince would say, ‘That’s enough of that!’”

Thurston was not a big guard, especially by today’s NFL standards. At 6-1 and 245 pounds, he hardly cast an intimidating presence. But only he knew the fiery determination he had burning inside.

“The size of the body may determine somewhat where you’re going to play in the National Football League but it’s the size of the heart that tells you if you’re going to play or not and Fuzzy had a big heart,” said Robinson. “He was kind of on the smaller side, shorter in height but he was the right weight for guards in that day. He wasn’t imposing but he was a good size, adequate. He went up against some big people like Roger Brown of the Detroit Lions who weighed 300 pounds and Fuzzy did well against him. Except for that one game on Thanksgiving (1962). He had a helluva day that day. Fuzzy wasn’t a big guy but he gave his all.

“After some of the games he’d come up and would be bleeding from almost every orifice in his body because guys had beaten him up but he’d never quit. He never stopped and he kept right on playing. That was part of the Lombardi doctrine. We had to be tough. If you had a broken nose it wasn’t like you’d take two weeks off. You’d stick cotton up your nose and keep on playing. That’s how it was and Fuzzy was that type of guy. He’d be bleeding all over and the next week he’d be back.”

Not only did Thurston stand tall against opponents week after week, he also was not intimidated by Lombardi. Fuzzy had a way of rallying his teammates during the darkest of times.

“I remember one time Lombardi came in and just chewed us out unmercifully and then he turned around and stomped out of the locker room,” said center Ken Bowman. “As soon as the door shut to the coach’s room, Fuzzy jumps up on his chair in front of his locker and says, ‘Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Who does he think he is? He was nothing. He was a New York Giants’ assistant coach before he met me, Fred Fuzzy Thurston! I made him!’ We were laughing out loud at Fuzz and that’s what he did for the team. He’d take the edge off. If Lombardi cut to the quick, he’d kind of bandage it up and make it funny so we could move on and play the game. He’s a good man. A really good man.”

After 116 games and 10 seasons in the NFL, Thurston retired following the 1967 season. The Packers had just won Super Bowl II and it was time to kick back and savor the fruits of a victorious pro football career. He got into the restaurant and bar business, opening several establishments along the way including The Left Guard, Shenanigan’s and Fuzzy’s #63. Above all, he surrounded himself with Packer fans at every opportunity.

“He loved the Packers, had great pride in his Packer team and his Packer Nation,” said Kramer. “Being the owner of several bars, Fuzz wasn’t just the owner. He was the bartender. He wanted to be in there where the people were, where the fans were. I guess Fuzz never met a Green Bay Packer fan he didn’t love.”

In 1980, Thurston suddenly found himself facing the toughest opponent in his life: cancer of the vocal cords. The ensuing surgery and radiation treatments robbed him of his voice but didn’t put a dent in his enthusiasm and zest for life. Packer games and pre-game parties? Fuzzy was always right there. Lombardi Golf Classics and other charity events? Number 63 was in the house, refusing to let mounting health problems get in the way.

Throughout his life, Thurston kept his head up through adversity and when his opportunities finally came around he capitalized on them. That was good for him and very good for Packer fans.

“Fuzzy was a good example of a hard working guy who was very grateful to be here,” said wide receiver Carroll Dale. “And when we’d come back to Lambeau Field on Alumni Day and they’d introduce us to the crowd, Fuzzy was the guy who would sprint to the center of the field. That was Fuzzy, a guy with a great deal of enthusiasm for the game and you have to play football with emotion.”

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