Butkus broke into the league with the Chicago Bears in 1965, when his coach George Halas was so impressed that he inserted him into the starting lineup as a rookie. That year, Butkus began gaining some notoriety for being the relentless player that he has become known as today. He, however, respectfully said the following when asked about comparisons to Nitschke, his counterpart at the time: "Nitschke is the greatest. I'm nowhere near that good."
So does Butkus think Nitschke is still the greatest today even after his Hall of Fame career with the Bears?
"He's certainly one of them," he said.
Many of Nitschke's opponents echo Butkus' sentiments about what kind of player No. 66 was during the "glory years" of the Packers. Words like pride, intensity, leader, and tough have been used to describe Nitschke's play on the field. Butkus, whom Nitschke had a dog named after, was surprised to hear about his longtime friend's sudden death from a heart attack on March 8.
"I was shocked like everybody else," said Butkus, a Chicago area native like Nitschke. "He was one of the inspirational guys on the team. He helped lead them (the Packers)."
Nitschke had the opportunity to play against several players who are recognized today as some of the all-time greats in the NFL. Players like the Colts' Johnny Unitas, the Browns' Jim Brown, and the Bears' Gale Sayers and Mike Ditka were all named to the NFL's 75th anniversary all-time team and went head-to-head with Nitschke.
Phil Bengtson, who served as Vince Lombardi's defensive coordinator and would later succeed him as head coach, said following the Packers' 37-0 drubbing of the Giants in the 1961 NFL Championship game that Nitschke was one of those players other teams had to consciously be aware of every play. His presence and intensity were that distracting to an offense that they had to pay special attention to him. Lombardi often looked to Nitschke to set the tone of the game or to fire the team up, even during practices.
One of those players that felt the Nitschke presence was Brown, one of the greatest running backs to play in the NFL. On one day in particular, Nitschke caught his attention. It was the 1965 NFL Championship game and it was played in perfect "Nitschke" conditions. A cold, wet, muddy Lambeau Field day helped the Packers defeat the Browns, 23-12, and negate their vaunted running game. The talented Brown was held to only 50 yards rushing on 12 carries, far below his typical outing.
"I noticed that Ray Nitschke was keying on me," said Brown following the game. "He's as tough as anybody is."
That game ended a brilliant career for Brown, who was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. Brown highly respected Nitschke. He called him the "soul of the Packer defense" in his autobiography, Out of Bounds. He also said he would hit "anything mobile" and never got enough credit for his versatility.
Brown recalled one play during the 1965 title game that opened his eyes at how complete a player Nitschke was. After Brown had broke loose into the secondary on a pass pattern, he thought he was wide open for a touchdown. Much to his surprise, a fleet-of-foot Nitschke came out of nowhere to knock the pass down and kill a potential score. Even in pass coverage, Nitschke made his presence was felt.
Feuded with Ditka
The most epic of all football battles that Nitschke encountered, though, came against Ditka, who now coaches the New Orleans Saints. The two combatants mirrored each other in style, the only difference was that one played defense and the other played offense. Neither player backed down from their opponent and were known for punishing anyone in their way, which can often be seen in highlight clips.
The personal feud began in 1961, when Ditka was a rookie tight end with the Bears. During a pre-season game in Milwaukee, Ditka caught Nitschke's attention using what Nitschke thought were "dirty tactics." Nitschke, a four-year veteran at the time, served notice and challenged the rookie - face-to-face in a Milwaukee bar following the game. The two players were separated by teammates, but the fire had been lit for future encounters.
Both players grew to respect and appreciate each other and were good friends following their football careers. That does not mean that they went lightly on each other during games, however. The two often ran into each other's path, creating titanic collisions. During a Dec. 5, 1964, game, Nitschke knocked Ditka out cold. Ditka made a catch in front of the determined linebacker right before he was hammered to the ground. Nitschke thought he had killed Ditka. The beleaguered Bear was carried to the sideline, but much to his credit, returned to the game later.
"He knocked me out in the first quarter," said Ditka in Mudbaths and Bloodbaths: The Inside Story of the Bears-Packers Rivalry. "I continued to play, but I had no recollection of anything until I saw the films."
Ironically enough, it was that hard-nosed determination and "nothing can hurt me" style that may have caught up with Nitschke. Ditka, who suffered a mild heart attack himself in 1988, was saddened to hear of his combatant's death, but not necessarily surprised. Ditka said that Nitschke didn't pay attention to the warning signs of a heart attack.
"He teased about it and said it was gas and this and that. It wasn't," Ditka said. "I had warning signs when I had mine the first time. I didn't know what they were. I thought I was getting numbing sensations in my neck because of the cold weather. It wasn't really pain, but I had flashes of numbness in my neck and it was angina. Ray probably had those, too. To die that suddenly is crazy."
Lombardi once said that Nitschke was the type of player who did not need compliments, but opposing players could not help but respect his effort. Following his death, nothing but compliments regarding his playing days were uttered. Nitschke and Butkus helped to create the intimidating image for how a middle linebacker should play, even though Butkus will deflect credit.
"I think there were some before us that started the ball rolling like Bill George (of the Bears)," he said. "There have been a lot of good ones that came up."
Thus, the "great debate" will continue, but chances are there will never be a player like Nitschke again.
Editor's note: Packer great Ray Nitschke died March 8, 1998 at the age of 61. In the next few days, packerreport.com will honor the legend with stories published in Packer Report shortly after his death.