Nitschke tribute: One of most feared players

The photo says it all.<p> A crazed Ray Nitschke, knees slightly bent and arms tightly cocked on each side, hovering over a flattened Washington Redskins running back.<p>

The player's legs are kicked up high in the air as he grimmaces in pain after gettting thrown down by the Green Bay Packer middle linebacker. Nitschke , meanwhile, is staring down on his battered opponent, daring the guy to get back up so he can knock him down again. And again. And again.

The picture, taken by John Biever at the 1972 NFC Divisional Playoff game at RFK Stadium, is a classic. But then again, so was Nitschke.

One of the greatest players to ever don the green and gold, Nitschke died unexpectedly of a heart attack on March 8 at the age of 61 near his winter home in Naples, Fla.

Undoubtedly one of the most popular players among the fans from the Packers' Glory Years Era of the 1960s, Nitschke was elected into Pro Football's Hall of Fame in 1978 following a brilliant 15-year (1958-72) career which included All-Pro honors in 1964, 1965, and 1966. Nitschke was also named to the Pro Bowl in 1964.

"I simply couldn't believe it," Packers' team photographer Vernon Biever said upon hearing the news. "I was very surprised. Ray has been out to my house four or five times, and we always got along real well. Anything you needed, Ray was always willing to do it. He was a people-person, very likeable. I never saw him turn down an autograph."

A third-round draft choice by the Packers out of the University of Illinois, Nitschke earned the reputation as being one of the most feared players in the game, and one of the best.

"He was a thunderous tackler," Packers' Executive Director of Public Relations Lee Remmel told the Associated Press. "He didn't know the meaning of taking it easy on the football field. He did that every play of his career.

"He was intense about his profession, about as intense as any performer in the history of the game."

Nitschke's beginnings with the Packers were hardly noteworthy. On the sidelines for the better part of his first two seasons, Nitschke made it known to first-year coach Vince Lombardi in 1959 that he wanted to be out on the playing field.

"I've always thought I was the best middle linebacker even when I was a rookie," Nitschke once said. "Whenever I went onto the field, I was the best middle linebacker. I had to be. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been fair because the center who was trying to block me thought he was the best center who ever lived.

"And that (running) back who was trying to get past me with the ball thought he was the best halfback or fullback since the game began. When the ball was coming at me, he was telling himself, ‘Nobody's going to stop me before I get a touchdown because I'm the best damned runner in the world.' If I didn't think I was the best middle linebacker, how would I stop him?"

Yes, Nitschke always believed he was the best middle linebacker in football. But he backed it up by playing like the best middle linebacker in football. In fact, Nitschke played the middle linebacker position so well that he was named to the NFL's All-50 Year and 75th anniversary teams.

"He was one of the great players, not only in Packer history, but in NFL history," said Remmel.

MVP of 1962 title game

Combining speed with an intense appreciation for the sport he played and the organizaiton he played for, Nitschke saved his more memorable moments for some of Green Bay's biggest games.

In the Packers' 1962 NFL Championship clash with the New York Giants at a frigid Yankee Stadium, Nitschke earned game MVP honors when he registered two fumble recoveries, one of which later set up Green Bay's lone contest in the Packers' 16-7 victory. The other led to a Jerry Kramer 29-yard field goal. Nitschke also deflected a passed ball which led to a Packer interception and halted a Giant drive at the Green Bay 10-yard line.

"I'd gone into the locker room after the game just happy because we'd won the game and the championship – and because now I could finally get warm ," Nitschke wrote in his autobiography Mean on Sunday. "So (being named the game's MVP) was a pleasant surprise, but it didn't mean as much to me as it might have a few years earlier. Now, I was more interested in getting the respect of my teammates and the coaches than I was in what outsiders thought about me."

Hounding the Browns

While Nitschke's performance in the 1962 title game may have been one of his greatest moments in terms of personal statistics, his finest moment came in the 1965 NFL Championship game against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field.

Faced with the unenviable task of slowing down Cleveland great Jim Brown, the league's leading rusher that season with 1,544 yards, Nitschke intimidated the Browns' running back so much that he dropped what would have been a touchdown pass as the Packers went on to win, 23-12. For the game, Brown ran for a microscopic 50 yards as Nitschke's assignment was to follow the talented Cleveland runner whereever he went.

"I noticed that Ray Nitschke was keying in on me," Brown said following the game. "He's as tough as anybody."

Tough. Perhaps no other word in the English language underscores any better what Nitschke was all about. He was, simply, a football player. Nothing more, nothing less.

Tough even in practice

Unquestionably, the best – and looking back, the funniest – story regarding Nitschke's toughness ocurred during a training camp practice. With a rain strom quickly approaching, Nitschke decided to seek shelter under a large scaffolding observation tower which was used by coaches to watch and film practice.

A strong gust of wind swirled around the Packer practice field, ultimately catching the tower and knocking it over on top of Nitschke. Everyone stopped and ran over to the debris, which Nitschke was under, and bedlam ensued. Lombardi, reportedly in a near panic, began to ask who was under the steel pile. When someone yelled to the coach that it was Nitschke, Lombardi apparently calmed down and simply returned to practice.

A beam from the tower had actually pierced Nitschke's helmet and had he not been wearing it, he would have been seriously hurt, if not killed.

Years later, players chuckle about the incident because they remember hearing an angry Nitschke hollering from under all of the reckage. If an offensive lineman couldn't stop him, maybe a pile of steel could do the trick.

"He was always so wound up," Biever remembered. "He was so intense, on every play he was in the ballgame and on every play he was on the sideline. He was always very active, very observant. Most guys, when they go on the sideline, sit on the bench and talk to their buddies. But Ray was always watching the game, figuring things out. He was a football player from the very beginning. He will be greatly missed."

Not only by Packer fans, but by football fans, as well.

Editor's note: The late great Ray Nitschke died on March 8, 1998. This story appeared in the March issue of Packer Report after Nitschke's death.

Packer Report Top Stories