Raymond Ernest "Ray" Nitschke (December 29, 1936 – March 8, 1998) was a professional football player who played his entire career as a middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers of the NFL. Wearing #66, he played fifteen seasons, from 1958-72.
Nitschke was born on December 29, 1936 in Elmwood Park, Illinois, the youngest of three sons to Robert and Anna Nitschke. His father was killed in a car accident in 1940, and his mother died of a blood clot when Ray was 13. Older brothers Robert Jr. (age 21) and Richard (age 17) decided they would raise Ray on their own.
Ray entered Proviso High School in Maywood shortly before his mother's death. The loss of both parents enraged Nitschke, and the lack of a parental disciplinarian to quell his rage, caused him to engage in fights with other kids in the neighborhood. His freshman year at Proviso, Ray played fullback on one of the school's three football teams. He was a poor student at school and his grades eventually caught up with him as he was declared academically ineligible to play sports his sophomore year. This embarrassment he would lament for the rest of his life.
He succeeded in raising his grades sufficiently enough in his sophomore year to allow him to engage in sports his junior year. By his junior year he had grown significantly to stand at 6' and his quick temper had become notorious. His junior year he became the quarterback on offense, and safety on defense of the varsity football team, for coach Andy Puplis. He played varsity basketball and was a pitcher and left fielder for the varsity baseball team. His baseballs skills brought him an offer from the professional St. Louis Browns with, what Ray considered an astronomical amount, a $3,000 signing bonus. Ray was also offered scholarships from college football programs around the country. Puplis advised him to accept a football scholarship. His desire to play at a Big Ten college, with a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, caused him to accept a football scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1954.
In the rural community, which his University was set in, Nitschke soon relished and embellished his role as a streetwise punk. He smoked, drank heavily, and fought at the drop of a hat. Never a good student in high school, his grades suffered at college. Similar to his contemporary, Jerry Kramer, Ray was ostracized by his professors because he attended the university as the result of a football scholarship.
In his sophomore year, due to a depletion of players in the offensive backfield, Illini head coach, Ray Eliot moved Nitschke from quarterback to fullback. His childhood dream of quarterbacking a team to a victory in the Rose Bowl was shattered. At this time, college football had reverted to single-platoon football. Single-platoon football meant those players that were on offense had to switch to defense, and vice-versa, when ball possession changed. On defense, Nitschke moved to the linebacking position. He proved to be a very skilled player and an absolute brutal tackler as a linebacker, so much so that, by Ray's senior year, Paul Brown considered him the best linebacker in college football. Growing up in the outskirts of Chicago, Ray had always idolized the Bears and he hoped to be chosen by them in the 1958 NFL draft. However, on December 2, 1957, Nitschke was chosen by Jack Vainisi, in what is considered the greatest drafting year in the history of the Green Bay Packers franchise, as a second pick of the third round.
He was selected, at age 20, in the third round of the 1958 NFL Draft, the 36th overall pick. This draft, held on December 2, 1957, included two other significant Packers of the 1960s: fullback Jim Taylor of LSU (2nd rd., 15th overall) and right guard Jerry Kramer of Idaho (4th rd., 39th overall). Their rookie season in 1958 was dismal, recording just one win (and one tie), finishing with the worst record in the 12 team league. Ray wore the number 66 on his jersey his entire career with the Packers.
A month after the 1958 season ended, Vince Lombardi was hired as head coach. Nitschke became a full time starter in 1962, the anchor of a disciplined defense that helped win five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls in the 1960s. He was the MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game, accepting the prize of a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette. In the game, Nitschke recovered 2 fumbles and deflected a pass that was intercepted. The Packers won the game, 16-7, and finished the season with a 14-1 record. In Super Bowl I, Nitschke contributed 6 tackles and a sack. In Super Bowl II, Nitschke led Green Bay's defense with 9 tackles.
On December 17, 1972, the 9-4 Green Bay Packers traveled to New Orleans to play the 1-11-1 Saints at Tulane Stadium for Nitschke's last regular season game of his career. Nitschke recored the only pass reception of his career in this game, a 34-yard gain on a blocked field goal attempt for which he was blocking. The Packers won the game 30-20 to clinch the NFC Central division title, and their first playoff berth since Super Bowl II. They lost on the road to Washington 16-3 in the first round of the playoffs.
Although Nitschke was known for his hard hitting, he was a good all-around linebacker who also intercepted 25 passes over his career.
Lombardi gave partial credit to Nitschke's success to Ray's wife, whose calming influence helped him focus on his career.
Nitschke remained popular in Green Bay after retiring, even having his phone number and home address published in the Green Bay phone book. Soon after his death, the city of Green Bay named a newly constructed bridge, connecting Dousman Street to Main Street, in his honor.
His #66 was retired in 1983, the fourth of only five numbers retired by the Packers. The only other Lombardi-era player to have his number retired is quarterback Bart Starr, whose #15 was retired in 1973. Also, the team has named one of its two outdoor practice fields "Ray Nitschke Field".
Every year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a luncheon the day before its induction ceremony, attended by most of the living members and honoring the new inductees. Nitschke always spoke at this luncheon, telling the new inductees what a great honor they were receiving, and that they were now members of the greatest team of them all. Following his death, the Hall named the luncheon after him.
In 1969, he was awarded as the NFL's all-time top Linebacker by the NFL in honor of the NFL's 50th Anniversary. Thus he is the only linebacker to have made both the NFL's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.
Nitschke was known for his strength and toughness. Once, the bleachers on the Packers practice field collapsed on top of Nitschke. Lombardi ran over to see what had happened, but when told it had fallen on Nitschke, said, "He'll be fine. Get back to work!" According to Nitschke's biography, a spike was driven into his helmet, but didn't injure him. The helmet (with the hole) is currently on display in the Packer Hall of Fame in Green Bay.
Nitschke appeared on What's My Line following the 1962 NFL championship game, wearing his standard black rimmed glasses and not looking at all like one of the most feared players in pro football. It all went for naught, as panelist Bennett Cerf, who had attended the game, guessed his identity immediately.
In the ABC movie Brian's Song, NFL running back and cancer victim Brian Piccolo claimed the "only thing (he was) allergic to is Nitschke."
Nitschke is referenced in the cartoon Danny Phantom in the episode "Bitter Reunions." The primary villain, Vlad Masters, is revealed to be a Packers fanatic, and his most prized possession is a Nitschke-autographed football.
He appeared in the comic film Head, starring The Monkees, as a footballer who repeatedly tackles Peter Tork in a mock war movie sequence. His character is listed in the credits as "Private One" because his jersey is emblazoned with the number "1". Also appeared in 1987 Miller Lite beer commercial. Nitschke also appeared in the film, "The Longest Yard" as Guard Bogdanski.