Celebrating the Birthday Boy

December 29, 2015 would haqve been Ray Nitschke’s 79th birthday. One of six Packers whose names have been retired, here is what I wrote about him for Green Bay Gold:

With his angry, toothless snarl, 6’3” 235-pound Ray Nitschke was an intimidating sight across the line of scrimmage for quarterbacks in the 1960s. His was the face of the great Green Bay defense of the time, but the key to that defense was how well everyone worked together, met their responsibilities and didn’t make mistakes. Ray was voted the league’s top linebacker of its first 50 years in 1969, but he actually wasn’t; Bill George and Joe Schmidt were probably better. With Bill Forester and then Dave Robinson to his left, Ray probably wasn’t even the best linebacker on his team many years.

That being said, Nitschke was a great and fierce player, the leader of the Packer defense and a legitimate Hall of Famer. Teammate Willie Wood said on Ray’s death, “He was THE man. He was a guy who played with a lot of tenacity. Every time you saw him, you knew he was ready to play.” Lee Remmel added, “He was a thunderous tackler. He didn’t know the meaning of taking it easy on the football field.”

Nitschke had an odd career for an all-time great. He did not burst onto the scene like a Butkus or Lawrence Taylor; instead, Nitschke struggled to find a place in the starting lineup for three years after he was drafted out of Illinois in the third round of the 1958 draft. T.J. Troup wrote amusingly of Ray’s play as a rookie in The Birth of Football’s Modern 4-3 Defense, “This hustling young man of physical gifts was usually out of control and out of position.” Chuck Johnson wrote in the Milwaukee Journal in July 1960, “He’s strong and mean, but still lacks savvy.” Even under the discipline of Lombardi, Nitschke did not emerge as a starter until 1961 and a star in 1962.

An unnamed assistant coach chronicled the change in Nitschke’s play to Chuck Johnson for Greatest Packers of Them All, “Ray used to play on instinct rather than according to the situation. Now he does what the play call tells him to. He reads the play and coordinates with the rest. This is the only way for an effective defense.”

From 1962-69, Nitschke was among the top handful of middle linebackers in the game. He was a sure tackler who once said, “You want them to have respect for you when they run a play at you. You want them to be a little shy and a little shyer the next time.” But the former college fullback also had good speed and was excellent in coverage. To me, his signature play came late in the third quarter of the 1965 NFL championship game against Cleveland. Ray tightly covered Jim Brown 35 yards down the field and knocked away a Frank Ryan pass in the end zone to maintain the Packers’ eight-point lead.

Over his first 13 years in Green Bay, Nitschke missed just six games: two for Army Reserve duty in 1961, two for a broken forearm in 1963 and two for leg injuries in 1965. When Dan Devine arrived in 1971, though, he benched the popular aging veteran for young Jim Carter and Nitschke’s career came to a disappointing end as an unhappy reserve in 1971 and 1972. Nitschke said at his retirement in 1973, “The only regret I have is that I can’t turn the clock back to 1958 and become a Packer all over again.”

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