In the wonderful football movie entitled Brian’s Song, Chicago Bears’ running back, Brian Piccolo, played by actor James Caan, was in the hospital. The doctor asked Piccolo if he was allergic to anything. Piccolo responded, “Just Nitschke.” That would be Ray Nitschke #66, middle linebacker of the Green Bay Packers.
Ray was 53 when I met him. His head was large and his shoulders square, like a deck of cards. He was bald, his forehead and the bridge of his nose were scarred; he wore black-rimmed glasses, and was missing his two front teeth. He also walked proudly yet gently, as if every step he took made something hurt. His hands looked like shovels, and his fingers were bent and broken. He looked like a middle linebacker should look. Ray could snap a ball carrier in half like a bag of dry spaghetti. He admitted freely that he enjoyed hitting people on your team or his. He changed when he stepped onto the football field. He became quiet and as dark as the inside of a football. Off the field he appeared gentle and kind, but you never let your guard down. It had been said by his teammates that he could remove the lug nuts from the wheel of a car with his teeth. I was pretty sure the story was not true; at least I hoped it wasn’t because I still had 17 holes of golf left to play with this guy. You see, it was January 1989, the week of the Super Bowl back on the mainland, yet I was in beautiful Hawaii at a company meeting, and Ray Nitschke and former Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Bert Jones were our guest speakers. Although I was not a good golfer by any means, I considered this spot of ground a little piece of heaven.
After my tee shot, Ray addressed his ball. I stood quietly behind him and closed my eyes and whispered to myself, “I’m playing golf with Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers.” Nitschke, Dick Butkus and Johnny Unitas had been my football heroes growing up. They all had one thing in common, toughness.
Ray was born December 29, 1936, in a tough neighborhood known as Elmwood Park, Illinois. Ray was the youngest of three sons. By age 13, he had lost both his parents and was raised by an older brother, Robert. His father had been killed in a car wreck when Ray was four, and his mother died of a blood clot when he turned 13. Ray learned to use sports as a way to vent his anger at life. He became an All-State quarterback at Proviso high school where they won the state title. He also played baseball and turned down a minor league contract from the St. Louis Browns, in 1954. He had been a fine pitcher and left-fielder. He decided to accept a full scholarship to the University of Illinois to play fullback and linebacker. He also became a smoking alcoholic, a belligerent wild man whose grades suffered. He was mad at the world and would fight at the drop of a hat. Even though Ray scored four touchdowns against Iowa State, NFL scouts considered him to be a born linebacker.
On December 2, 1957, the 1958 NFL draft was underway. Although Ray had dreamed of playing for the Chicago Bears, the Packers chose three players that day that would become the heart and soul of their team’s future success: fullback Jim Taylor, linebacker Ray Nitschke and right guard Jerry Kramer. At the age of 20, Ray started eight games as a rookie on a team that finished with the worst record in the entire league, but help was on the way. Thirty days after the 1958 season ended, one of the NFL’s best coaches “ever” arrived in Green Bay, and his name was Vince Lombardi. In three short years, Lombardi would lead the Packers to a title game against the Philadelphia Eagles. With names like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Ringo, Willie Wood, Willie Davis, Herb Adderley, Henry Jordon, Forrest Gregg, and Nitschke, the Packers would win five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls. Ray proudly wore the ring of the 1961 championship team and the watch of the 1962 championship team. Ray won the MVP honors of the 1962 championship game and received a brand new Corvette. Another teammate of Ray’s, by the name of Lew Carpenter, was a friend of mine, and loved to tell stories about his old Packer days. One day the metal observation tower on the field collapsed during practice and fell on only one player, Nitschke. Lombardi comes running over screaming what the hell happened here. When Vince was told that the tower had fallen on Nitschke, he said, “Oh its Nitschke, then he’ll be fine. Get back to work.” Lew said that the tower had driven a metal spike into Nitschke’s helmet but did not injure him. “That helmet with a hole in it is on display at the Packers’ Hall-of-Fame Museum in Green Bay,” said Lew.
Nitschke was the typical Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde. After he married his wife Jackie, she had a calming influence on him away from the game. He stopped drinking and became a steady husband and father to three adopted children. While he was mean on Sunday and considered the greatest hitter in the NFL, he would be a steady husband and father whose family always came first. Nitschke retired in 1972 at the age of 36. You think Mickey Mantle had leg problems. Ray had to tape his legs from ankle to waist just to play. There are many films of Ray returning interceptions for touchdowns while gimping along on one leg. He was chosen first or second team NFL honors seven times during his career. He had 25 interceptions returned for 385 yards and two touchdowns. He is the only linebacker named to the NFL 50th and 75th Anniversary teams. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, and Green Bay retired his #66 in 1983. He continued to live in Green Bay and you could find his address and number in the phone book. I’ll never forget the time we spent together or that gravely voice.
As for the winner of that golf game? Sure Ray won; he didn’t know how to lose. On March 8, 1998, one of my childhood heroes left us. He suffered a heart attack at age 61. I wonder how Ray would judge today’s game we call football.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.