Glance back

November 18, 1962. City Stadium, Green Bay. A date, a place in time that Nelson Edward Toburen will never forget. For it was here on this crisp, sunny autumn afternoon, amidst the deafening roar of the capacity crowd that Toburen was doing what most other young men his age could only fantasize about.<p>

Toburen, manning the right linebacker spot for Coach Vince Lombardi's Packers, were in the midst of a fierce struggle with golden-armed quarterback Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. Huge rivalry game. The kind of game that old-timers love to recall again and again.

Packers-Colts games of that era were always tough and, on this day, Lombardi's legions were marching toward their eventual 13-1 record and a second straight NFL Championship. Unitas and the Colts, proud champions of the past, were standing defiantly in the way, trying to deny Green Bay it's tenth straight victory. Unitas would pile up 237 yards passing for the day. Late in the game, as Johnny U faded back for yet another pass, Toburen broke from his linebacker spot and came crashing into the backfield to stop it. But, in an instant, triumph turned to tragedy.

"I remember it very clearly," Toburen recalled recently. "It was a pass play. The game was close. Unitas went back to pass and didn't find any receivers. I was in the left flat. (Linebacker Ray) Nitschke was coming at him from the front and I was coming from the side. I turned my tackle and, at the last minute, Unitas saw me and turned towards me. The dynamics of the tackle changed. My head was probably down a little bit and I hit him solidly in the hip. That was the end of my football career at that moment."

With a sickening thud, Toburen broke his fifth cervical vertebrae and displaced the sixth. "It was devastating at the time," Toburen said. "When you're 23 years old, you think, ‘This is the greatest opportunity I've ever had. The future looks bright, things are going good.'"

Even though the game didn't pay him all that much money, he was thankful for his wife and two children and the opportunity to be part of something special in Green Bay. "Fortunately, I was part of a championship team the first year and I shared in the success we had in '62."

Toburen was chosen in the 14th round of the 1961 college player draft. A strapping 6-foot-3 linebacker out of Wichita State, he had a look and intensity about his game that Lombardi and his staff liked. A 1962 Packer game program described Toburen this way: "Packers 14th draft choice for 1961 season. Captained college team. Played football and basketball at Colby, Kansas High. Good rookie season. Strengthens an already strong linebacking corps." That starting linebacking corps included Dan Currie on the left side, Ray Nitschke in the middle and Bill "Bubba" Forester, a cagey veteran, on the right side. Toburen was being groomed as Forester's eventual replacement.

And now this.

A devastating injury that might force him to change his entire way of life. Toburen was not willing to just accept it and move on. "Dr. James Nellen was the team physician at that time and I've told people over the years that I credit him with saving my mobility. He's the one who told me I couldn't play anymore. I didn't cry when I was hurt but I cried when he told me I couldn't play again. I wouldn't accept that and I went around and tried to find some orthopedic surgeon that would say, ‘Yes, you can stick your head into those kinds of situations again.' But none would."

Toburen was living in Green Bay and admits it took him quite awhile to get back on his feet. "I stayed here from November of '62 when I was injured until May of '64 and then I went back to law school at Kansas, my home state. I grew up in Colby which is way up in the northwest corner, a farming community. My dad was a farmer and my mom was a school teacher. As a youngster, Toburen had no dreams of playing in the NFL. "Ironically, I didn't even know about professional football and that's the honest truth. When I was drafted by the Packers, I believe I had seen one football game on television and that was because the Packers had played the Eagles (in the 1960 title game) the year before and Ted Dean, whom I went to college with, was playing for the Eagles. It was just not a thing that we knew about. Western Kansas didn't even have television when I was living out there in the '50s.

"I went to school with a guy that said he wanted to be a coach and he was talking about wanting to coach the New York Giants and the guys on the team were incredulous that anybody would want to do that. The guy's name was Bill Parcells. It turned out there was some money in coaching and in football!"

Appointed judge

So, in 1964, Toburen and his family loaded up the U-Haul and moved from Green Bay to Topeka where he entered law school. After two years, he went down Pittsburg, Kansas to begin his law practice, a way of life he would know for the next 20 years. In 1987, the governor appointed Toburen to the bench as the Chief District Judge in the state's 11th judicial district, in the southeast corner of Kansas. It's a position he still holds today.

"I honestly tell people that the highlight of my life was playing ball," Toburen smiles. "I've tried cases, I've won cases, I've lost cases, I've been a judge and I've done those kinds of things. But somehow or another there's no comparison to the highs and the lows that I experienced playing professional football."

Returns for reunion

Toburen was among the 70 former players and coaches who returned to Green Bay last fall for the Lombardi Titletown Legends reunion. Prior to the reunion, he had only returned once in 30 years, to take in a Packer-Viking game with an old friend. "I enjoyed it immensely and noticed how much Lambeau had changed since I had been there," said Toburen. "But the enthusiasm, the attitude of the people hadn't changed. It was the same as ever. Great!"

The sight of so many familiar faces at the Lombardi reunion brought back a flood of happy memories for Toburen. "It's just great. These guys that I haven't seen in all these years – like I say, I was only there a year and a half but it's amazing how close we've become. A rookie, of course, is not a big part of that deal but I was starting to move in. I'd made my first start and felt like a member of the team and was enjoying it immensely. One of the things I remember so clearly is that one moment you are part of it and the next moment, you're not. You can go back but you're not part of it any more. You're an injured player. Of course, now we're all the same. We're all old guys and we're crippled. Some of us are overweight and we're having a great time."

Naturally, the reunion gave Toburen and his teammates plenty of opportunities to reflect on what playing for Lombardi meant to them in the long run. "My experience with Vince was extremely hard but he was extremely fair with me. He treated me right and sent some lessons to me that my parents had started like dedication, tenacity, spartanism, stick-with-it, go forward. That's kind of what I leaned on after the injury and made it on to the next step. In those days, you played year to year – at least I did. We didn't make much money. I signed for $7,500.00. I begged him the second year to try to get to $10,000 but he would only give me $9,000.00. But out of the kindness of his heart and understanding the situation, he kept me on salary for one more year while I was recuperating. It was blessed money and I've always had a soft spot for Vince if nothing else but for that."

Toburen continues to keep a soft spot in his heart for Green Bay, too. The small town warmth of its people. The glory of being part of two championship teams with the promise of so much more before fate intervened. Yet, he's not bitter and he is content with his life. Lessons learned from his parents and Lombardi have served Nelson Toburen well.


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