Raymond Ernest Nitschke was a middle linebacker that spent his entire 15-year career with the Green Bay Packers. Nitschke was the anchor of the defense under head coach Vince Lombardi in the 1960’s, leading the Packers to five NFL championships and victories in the first two Super Bowls. In 1978, Nitschke received the highest honor in the NFL as he was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame.
Born in Elmwood Park, Illinois, Nitschke was the youngest of three sons to Robert and Anna Nitschke. After the passing of both his parents by the age of 13, Ray was raised by his two older brothers. Due to the loss of both parents Ray suffered from a lack of parental guidance and discipline. He often found himself engaging in fights. Eventually he was declared academically ineligible to play sports his Sophomore year, but after successfully raising his grades throughout his Sophomore year he was allowed to play sports again in his Junior year. At this time he had grown significantly to 6 feet tall and starred on the varsity football team, playing quarterback on offense and safety on defense. He also played varsity basketball, as well as playing pitcher and left fielder for the varsity baseball team. Due to his skills in baseball he was offered a position with the St. Louis Browns, which included a $3,000 signing bonus, a significant amount of money in the early 1950’s, as well as multiple scholarships from college football programs around the country. Due to his desire to play at a Big Ten University and to have a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, Nitschke instead accepted a football scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1954.
While attending college, Nitschke was a bit unruly, smoking and drinking, and was known to fight at a drop of a hat. Still, he overcame that to compile a tremendous college football career.
During his Sophomore year in 1955, due to a depletion of players in the offensive backfield, Ray was moved from quarterback to fullback, shattering his childhood dream of leading a team to a victory in a Rose Bowl as quarterback. At this time, in college football, most players played both offense and defense as the ball possession changed. So, in addition to fullback, Nitschke played linebacker, where he proved to be a very skilled player and tackler, so much so that by his senior year he was considered the best linebacker in college football by none other than Paul Brown.
Known for his toughness, Nitschke lost his four front teeth on the opening kick-off against the Buckeye’s in his Junior year. Ray never wore a face mask and the helmet of an opposing player hit him in the mouth knocking out two teeth initially, while the other two were hanging by the roots. Despite the injury, Nitschke played the rest of the game!
Originally from the outskirts of Chicago, Nitschke idolized the Bears and had hoped to be chosen by them in the 1958 NFL Draft. Instead he was chosen by the Green Bay Packers in the third round that year in a draft that is considered one of the greatest in the franchise’s history. Included in this draft also were three significant Packers of the 1960’s: linebacker Dan Currie, fullback Jim Taylor and right guard Jerry Kramer.
In Nitschke’s rookie season the Packers struggled, compiling the worst record in the twelve-team league with only one win and one tie. In his second season, Nitschke changed his number from 33 to 66 and played the rest of his career with this number. But the most significant change that season was the hiring of Vince Lombardi as the new head coach of the Packers.
In the 1960’s Lombardi made Nitschke the anchor of a disciplined defense that helped win five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls. He was also named the MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game which came with a prize of a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette. During that game, Nitschke recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass that was intercepted. This allowed the Packers to win the Championship game and finish with a 14-1 record. In Super Bowl I Nitschke contributed six tackles and a sack. Nitschke also led the defense with nine tackles in Super Bowl II.
Nitschke played his last regular season game against the Saints on December 17, 1972 where the Packers won and finished 10-4. In that game, he recorded the only pass reception of his career, which was a 34-yard gain after a blocked Packer field goal attempt. With that win the Packers clinched the NFC Central division title for their first playoff berth in five seasons and advanced to the Divisional round. He later returned for his sixteenth training camp in 1973 but ultimately retired in late August.
While in his third season Nitschke showed another example of his strength and toughness. On September 1st, 1960, during a practice a 1,000-pound steel coaching tower was blown over by a strong gust of wind, and toppled on to Nitschke. It has been said that Lombardi ran over to see what had happened but when told it had fallen on Ray, said, “He’ll be fine. Get back to work!” According to Nitschke’s biography, a spike was driven into Ray’s helmet but luckily he was not injured. Currently this helmet is on display at the Packer Hall of Fame. Even though Nitschke was known for his hard hitting, he was an athletic all-around linebacker who intercepted 25 passes over his career.
The Packers retired Ray’s number in 1983 when the only other Lombardi-era player to have his number retired was quarterback Bart Starr. In addition the team has named one of its two outdoor practice fields “Ray Nitschke Field”.
In 1969, he was named as the NFL’s all-time top linebacker by the NFL in honor of the NFL’s 50th Anniversary. He also received the same honor when the 75th anniversary team was named. Nitschke is the only linebacker to make both the 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.
Nitschke was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978. After that, Ray always attended the luncheon the day before the induction ceremony where he spoke to the new inductees telling them what a great honor they were receiving and that they were now members of the greatest team of them all. After his passing the Hall of Fame named the luncheon after Ray.
In 1981, Nitschke was elected in to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 1999, The Sporting News listed the 100 Greatest Football Players of all time, where Nitschke was ranked number 18, making him the highest-ranked player coached by Vince Lombardi, second among Packers behind Don Hutson, and third among linebackers behind Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus.
On June 26, 1961, Ray married Jackie Forchette. During their marriage Ray and Jackie adopted three children, John in 1963, Richard in 1966 and Amy in 1972. Nitschke remained popular in Green Bay after retiring, even having his phone number and home address published in the Green Bay phone book. In the late 1980’s, Nitschke also owned an automobile dealership where he performed several of his own TV commercials in which he brought out his dog, “Butkus”, named in honor of his Chicago Bears nemesis, Dick Butkus.
Ray Nitschke passed away from a heart attack at the age of 61 in 1998 while driving to visit a family friend.
Event USA and Ray Nitschke
Starting in the mid-1990s and until the time of his untimely passing in 1998, Ray partnered with Event USA in promoting the company and greeting Packer Fans from all around the world the weekend of every Packers’ home game, at Event USA fan receptions. At these receptions, Ray became famous for spending large amounts of time with each and every fan, holding the kids on his lap, taking his Super Bowl rings off and letting people wear them and pose for photos with him wearing his rings and endearing himself to all who attended. Ray would nonchalantly pass a Super Bowl ring around the room letting everybody examine it. And he would regale everyone with stories of his days on the Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers.
In January 1997, when the Packers played in Super Bowl 31 in New Orleans, Ray traveled to New Orleans with Event USA and stayed at its fan hotel, mingling with fans throughout the weekend. In one typical moment, a fan had requested at the front desk that a rollout bed be delivered to their room and, as they waited in the hallway, the elevator opened up only to have Ray push the bed out and roll it down the hall and put it in their room. Things like this were characteristic of Ray Nitschke, and epitomize his charm and love for the fans.
As all the years have elapsed since Ray’s passing, we continue to miss him very much as do many of our fans who still remember those great days when Ray greeted all of our customers. We are very grateful for our years of partnering with Ray Nitschke and all the things he taught us about putting the fans first over our thirty plus years in business, and approaching everything we do with a high degree of excellence and dedication.