Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Nitschke was born and bred in Illinois, and dreamt about being a star football player for the Chicago Bears someday. An incredible competitor, Nitschke overcame tremendous adversity early on in his life en route to becoming one of the NFL’s greatest linebackers of all-time.
Early on in his life at age four, Nitschke’s father was killed in a car accident. Nine years later at age 13, his mother died of a blood clot. Nitschke, who was raised by his two older brothers, didn’t have the guidance and parental discipline needed throughout his teenage years in high school and the beginning of college.
While attending Proviso High School in Illinois, Nitschke reportedly was involved in many fights with other students. Nitschke’s mean streak attitude and anger helped him become a fascinating football player at Proviso High, as he was a starting fullback his freshman year. Despite his on-field success, Nitschke was a poor student, as he was ruled academically ineligible in athletics during his sophomore year.
As a junior, Nitschke was a starting quarterback and safety for Proviso High. Besides football, Nitschke excelled at basketball and baseball, and reportedly received a contract offer to play professional baseball for the St. Louis Browns.
Nitschke also received several football scholarship offers, and he chose to stick with football despite the Browns’ professional baseball offer. Nitschke reportedly had a desire to play in the Rose Bowl someday while attending a Big Ten university. During his senior season, Nitschke accepted a football scholarship to play at the University of Illinois. At Illinois, his street-punk persona was released throughout Champaign.
As a freshman, Nitschke’s grades reportedly severely dropped as a result of often smoking and drinking heavily, and he was again involved in many fights. Nitschke was reportedly disliked by most of his professors, because he was just “another dumb jock”.
As a sophomore, Nitschke switched positions on both sides of the football, moving from quarterback to fullback and from safety to linebacker. By his senior season, Nitschke was considered one of the best linebackers in all of college football.
Growing up, Nitschke was a die-hard Chicago Bears fan, and he reportedly wished to have been drafted by the Bears in the 1958 NFL Draft. Instead, Nitschke was drafted with the 36th overall draft pick in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft by the archrival Green Bay Packers. After the Bears passed on selecting the future Hall of Famer, Nitschke played the next 15 seasons for the Packers.
By the 1962 season, the 6'3", 235-pound Nitschke became a full-time starter for head coach Vince Lombardi’s defense, and was the team’s starting middle linebacker for the next 11 seasons. From 1958-1972, Nitschke helped the Packers win three NFL Titles (1961, 1962, 1965), and the first two NFL-AFL World Championships (Super Bowls I and II).
In the 1962 NFL Title game, the Packers defeated the New York Giants, 16-7, and Nitschke was named Title game MVP after recovering two fumbles and deflecting a pass which led to an interception.
Nitschke was undoubtedly one of the best of his era, as he was named to seven All-Pro teams in his 15-year career. In his lone Pro Bowl appearance in 1964, Nitschke intercepted a pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown.
In his career, Nitschke was known for his hard-hitting and his excellent athleticism in passing situations. Nitschke intercepted 25 passes in his career, and played 190 games, the second-most in Packers’ team history at the time of his retirement after the 1972 season.
*GREEN BAY PACKERS DID NOT MAKE TACKLES AN OFFICIAL STAT UNTIL 1975*
The NFL named Nitschke to the 1960’s All-Decade Team, and he was the only linebacker named to the 50th and 75th Anniversary teams. In 1978, Nitschke was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and in 1983, the Green Bay Packers retired Nitschke’s number 66 jersey, the fourth jersey number ever retired by the Packers.
In 1997, the Packers named one of their practice fields “Ray Nitschke Field” in honor of their greatest middle linebacker in franchise history. In March 1998, Nitschke died of a heart attack. After his death, the city of Green Bay named a newly built bridge connecting Dousman Street and Main Street in his honor.
In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Nitschke the 18th greatest player in NFL history. Nitschke was the highest-ranked Lombardi-coached player, and the 3rd-highest ranked linebacker (behind Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus) on the list of the “100 Greatest NFL Players."
Nitschke was a punk-turned-gentleman, and every year he spoke at the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s luncheon the day before the induction ceremony. After his death in 1998, the Hall named the luncheon in his honor. Former Packers teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Bart Starr said Nitschke, despite his unfortunate and troubled background, was a true “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” during his NFL career. He was a maniac who loved to hit opponents on the football field, but a genuine and caring person off of it.
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