Nitschke, Ray(mond) Ernest

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NITSCHKE, Ray(mond) Ernest

(b. 29 December 1936 in Elmwood Park, Illinois; d. 8 March 1998 in Venice, Florida), key defensive player for the Green Bay Packers whose aggressive on-field persona belied a sensitive and caring off-field personality. He overcame a troubled youth to become an inductee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Nitschke was born in a working-class Chicago suburb to Robert Nitschke, a Chicago Surface Line employee, and Anna Petersen Nitschke, a homemaker and later a restaurant cook. Tragedy struck the family early in young Ray's life. His father, coming home from a union meeting, was killed in a car-trolley collision when Nitschke was three years old. To provide for her family of three boys—Ray and two older brothers—Anna Nitschke went to work at a restaurant-tavern owned by Nitschke's Uncle Pete. At an early age, Nitschke also worked at Pete's Place, peeling potatoes and doing other kitchen chores. Life was hard without a father, but Nitschke said, "We were never hungry, and we always had clean clothes."

The family suffered a second blow when Nitschke was thirteen. His mother, to whom he was very close, died from a blood clot resulting from untreated internal bleeding. Nitschke later recalled the devastating event, "All of a sudden, everything fell apart—I was an orphan at thirteen." By his own admission, Nitschke said, "I didn't have a chip on my shoulder, I had a two-by-eight plank on my shoulder. I wanted to fight everyone. I was a skinny runt, but I took on the world." He continued, "I was angry and hurting." Nitschke was always playing some kind of ball with the neighborhood kids, and when he was not, he played ball by himself. "I remember kicking a football, chasing it, and kicking it again," he said. "Sports was what kept me out of real trouble."

Although he weighed only 100 pounds as a freshman at Priviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois, Nitschke played football on a "C" team. Academic deficiencies prevented him from competing in sports as a sophomore, but by his junior year he weighed 170 pounds and played quarterback on the Priviso East varsity. A strong thrower, as a senior Nitschke led his team to the Chicago Suburban League championship. His coach Andy Puplis, who had been an All-America quarterback at Notre Dame, gave him much needed guidance, for which Nitschke later expressed appreciation.

Nitschke was good enough in high school baseball to warrant a $3,000 bonus offer from the St. Louis Browns. Nitschke wanted to sign, but Puplis steered him toward attending the University of Illinois on a football scholarship. Nitschke had earned honorable mention high school All-America selection in football. Nitschke still thought of himself as a quarterback, but the Fighting Illini coach Ray Eliot thought otherwise, saying, "Ray, what would you rather be—second-string quarterback or first-string full-back?" Nitschke replied, "First-string quarterback." Despite Nitschke's answer, he became the Illini fullback. In that single-platoon era, where the starting eleven played both offense and defense, he excelled as a linebacker on defense, but he was still impressive running with the ball. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry as a senior—the average was boosted by an 84-yard touchdown run against Northwestern. Nitschke did not make All-America, but he was selected to play in the Senior Bowl All-Star game and the 1958 College All-Star game in Chicago. As a College All-Star, he was instrumental in the collegians defeating the defending National Football League (NFL) champion Detroit Lions 35–19.

Shortly after the All-Star game, Nitschke reported to the Green Bay Packers training camp as a six-foot, three-inch, 235-pound, third-round draft choice. These were the pre-Lombardi Packers, a motley crew. In Nitschke's rookie season, the Packers won a game, tied a game, and lost ten others. But Nitschke was one of six future Hall of Famers awaiting the arrival of coach Vince Lombardi in 1959—the others were Forrest Gregg, Paul Hornung, Jim Ringo, Bart Starr, and Jim Taylor. Nitschke was a work-in-progress when Lombardi took over. With more money than he had ever seen (even though his early NFL salary was in the $7,500 range) and single, Nitschke was someone to avoid when he was cruising Green Bay's bars—something he did quite often. Nitschke said, "I didn't drink that much, but after just one or two, I started flexing my 'beer muscles.' I was ready to fight anyone who looked at me sideways." That changed in early 1961, when Nitschke met Jackie Forchette. The couple married later that fall, and soon adopted three children. A stable home life settled Nitschke down. He not only appreciated his own children, but also devoted time to children's charities throughout the rest of his life. Nitschke was still "Mr. Hyde" on the field, knocking down opponents with authority. He established himself as the linchpin of the Packers defense, and as one of the NFL's most ferocious tacklers.

The Packers flourished under Lombardi, getting to the NFL title game in 1960 (losing to Philadelphia) and winning championships in 1961 and 1962. On a cold and blustery 30 December 1962 at New York's Yankee Stadium, the Packers defeated the Giants 16–7. Nitschke recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass, and was named the game's Most Valuable Player. Nitschke also stayed over in New York after the game to appear on the popular television show, What's My Line? Prematurely bald and wearing black horn-rim glasses and a three-button suit, Nitschke's professorial look easily stumped Bennett Cerf and his fellow panelists.

Nitschke continued to contribute to the Packers dynasty. The team won three consecutive NFL titles in 1965, 1966, and 1967, and the first two Super Bowls, Super Bowl I on 25 January 1967, and Super Bowl II on 14 January 1968. If anything, Nitschke's reputation as an intimidator grew, and he was acknowledged as the NFL's hardest hitter. Opponents had to account for him on every play, or pay the consequences. He retired after the 1972 season, having been a four-time All-Pro and having played in 190 games—second-most in Packers history. He had intercepted 25 passes and returned them 385 yards—2 for touchdowns. However, the thousands of thunderous, crunching tackles are what teammates and opponents remembered most.

Nitschke stayed in Green Bay after retiring, doing commercials, playing in football-centered movies such as The Longest Yard (1974), working with youngsters, and playing in charity golf tournaments. He was also involved as a publisher and columnist with the Packers Report, a team newspaper. Nitschke was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, and is also a member of the Wisconsin and Packers Halls of Fame.

Nitschke and his family wintered in Naples, Florida, where he suffered a heart attack and died while going to visit a friend in nearby Venice. His remains were cremated.

When Nitschke came into the NFL in 1958, he was an unlikely candidate to play fifteen seasons and establish himself as one of the game's greats. Though inexplicably selected for only one Pro Bowl, he had the respect of all connected with professional football. His Pro Football Hall of Fame induction should allay any doubts about his greatness. So, too, should the fact that he was chosen for the NFL's All-Time teams when the league celebrated its fiftieth (1969) and seventy-fifth (1994) anniversaries. Opposing coach George Allen said of him, "Nitschke was one of those few players who did things others couldn't do. When I was with the [Chicago] Bears we named one of our defenses '47 Nitschke,' because it copied the way Ray played a certain situation. Naming a defense after a player, especially an opponent, is a pretty high compliment in my book."

Nitschke wrote an autobiography with Robert W. Wells, Mean On Sundays (1973). His life and career are also discussed in Chuck Johnson, The Greatest Packers of Them All (1968); Phil Bengtson and Todd Hunt, Packer Dynasty (1969); and Murray Olderman, The Defenders (1973).

Jim Campbell