Birthday Boys

December 29 is a birthday shared by two of the most popular of Lombardi’s Packers: Ray Nitschke and Fuzzy Thruston. 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.

On the other side of the ball, Fuzzy Thurston was the left half of Lombardi’s All-Pro guard tandem. Lombardi said of Fuzzy in Run to Daylight, “He’s a good short-trap blocker and he’s got enough quickness, size, strength and determination so that, when he and Jerry come swinging around that corner together like a pair of matched Percherons, you can see that defensive man’s eyeballs pop.” So you don’t have to look it up, a “Percheron” is an intelligent, muscular work horse or war horse. Imagine Bill Belichick saying that…maybe if he had W.C. Heinz as a co-author.

Fuzzy didn’t get quite the same notice that Kramer did, but he had just as big a personality. Lombardi referred to him in his book as “an intelligent clown,” and he meant that as a compliment – someone who helped keep the team loose and united. And Thurston was a champion when he came to Green Bay. Drafted out of Valparaiso by Philadelphia in the fifth round in 1956, he spent some time in the military and passed through both the Eagle and Bear organizations before landing as a reserve on the 1958 Colts who won the first sudden death overtime NFL championship game over the Giants that year. That was Lombardi’s last game as the Giants’ offensive coach. Needing a guard the next year in Green Bay, he sent linebacker Marv Matuszak to Baltimore for Fuzzy.

Fuzzy was not exceptionally big or talented but was thorough and hard-working. His strongest area was pass blocking even though he had a short, squat build at 6’1” 245 pounds. He told Bud Lea, “When you’re protecting the passer, you’re being belted by some of the biggest men in the sport who have the power and brute strength to overrun you.” Thurston countered with cunning, quick feet and positioning and was a five-time All-Pro.

(adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

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Custom card of Nitschke in Packer uniform is colorized.

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