With the Green Bay Packers, Ray Nitschke was one of the most menacing middle linebackers of the 1960s.
Nitschke leveled ball carriers such as Bobby Mitchell, Tommy McDonald, and Preston Pearson into oblivion.
After Nitschke laid them out, he’d snarl at them and expose his missing front teeth—a look that made his appearance even more menacing and intimidating.
Nitschke did not have a stellar reputation off the field when he entered the NFL in 1958.
However, when the Packers hired Vince Lombardi before the 1959 NFL season, Ray Nitschke’s pro football career soared to new heights.
Nitschke earned one Pro Bowl, two First-Team All-Pro, and five Second-Team All-Pro selections from 1962 to 1969.
He also helped build the Packers’ historic dynasty in the 1960s. With Nitschke at middle linebacker, Green Bay won three NFL championships and two Super Bowl titles.
Nitschke eventually earned his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1978.
This is Ray Nitschke’s inspiring and remarkable football story.
Raymond Ernest “Ray” Nitschke was born to parents Robert Sr. and Anna in Elmwood Park, IL on December 29, 1936. He had two brothers: Robert Jr. and Richard.
Ray is of European descent. His dad Robert Sr. had German blood while his mother Anna came from a Danish background.
Robert Nitschke, Sr. worked for the Chicago Surface Lines, the company which ran the city’s railway system during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
When Ray entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in the summer of 1978, he recalled the time when his father Robert Sr. passed away due to a fatal car accident when he was just three years old in 1939. Ray’s dad was on his way home when a wayward trolley smashed into his car.
Consequently, Ray’s older brother Robert Jr. (nicknamed “Bob”) acted as his surrogate father. Bob helped set young Ray on the right path through sports.
Bob also started working for the local railway company when he was just 14 years old to supplement the family’s meager income.
After her husband died, Anna Nitschke worked as a waitress at Pete’s Place, a local tavern. A relative, Pete Rasmussen, owned the establishment. Young Ray peeled potatoes and did other chores while his mother served customers.
The road did not get any easier for Ray Nitschke as he was on the verge of adolescence. His mother Anna succumbed to a blood clot in 1949. She was just 41 years old.
Consequently, his brothers Bob and Richard picked up the slack and raised him from that point onward.
A Troubled Teen
Ray Nitschke held a grudge against the world after his mother passed away. He also became a recluse who played football and basketball mostly by himself.
Ray hardly represented the elite middle linebacker he became in the pro football ranks while he was growing up in the outskirts of Chicago, IL.
According to Ray’s 2002 biography, Nitschke: The Ray Nitschke Story by Edward Gruver, he chugged on whiskey and got into fistfights with reckless abandon in his youth.
Ray Nitschke was born in Elmwood Park and went to Proviso East High School in Maywood before attending the @UniversityofIl to play football. He went on to play for the @NFL and spent his 15-year career with the @GreenbaypackNFL. #IllinoisProud #Illinois200 #ILBicentennial pic.twitter.com/k8T1EFXa3t
— ILikeIllinois (@ILikeIllinois) December 29, 2017
Ray also became a golf caddie at an upscale River Forest neighborhood in his teens. Caddie Day gave him the opportunity to play and take out his frustrations on the golf course.
The love and passion Ray developed for golf never left him until he became a born-again Christian in the mid-1990s.
Ray also developed a fondness for football. He grew up following the Chicago Bears and idolized Sid Luckman and Bronko Nagurski, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Martin Hendricks.
When Ray was a teen, he also hawked Chicago Tribune newspapers in his neighborhood. Ray was so strong, he broke countless windows and porch lights whenever he launched them into someone’s property.
High School Days
Ray Nitschke attended Proviso East High School in Maywood, IL. The future Hall of Fame linebacker with the Green Bay Packers played quarterback for the Proviso East Pirates.
Nitschke also excelled on the baseball diamond and basketball court for the Pirates. As Ray’s high school athletics career wound down, he reached a crossroads. He had to decide whether to play football or basketball over the long haul.
Nitschke was an outstanding pitcher and left fielder for Proviso East in the early 1950s. He could hit for power, too. He once launched a 560-foot home run in a high school state tournament game, per Gruver.
The St. Louis Browns (now known as the Baltimore Orioles) dangled a professional baseball contract in front of Nitschke with a $3,000 signing bonus during his high school days.
However, Bob Nitschke and Pirates head football coach Andy Puplis urged Ray to pursue his first love: football.
Although several big-name college football programs had Ray Nitschke on their radars, he ultimately wanted to play for a Big Ten team and have a chance to suit up in the Rose Bowl.
For Nitschke, the Illinois Fighting Illini checked both of those boxes. He decided to remain in his home state and eventually blossomed into an elite pass rusher with the Illini over the next four seasons.
College Days with the Illinois Fighting Illini
Ray Nitschke attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, IL from 1954 to 1957. He suited up for Illinois Fighting Illini head football coach Ray Eliot.
One of Ray’s teammates with the Illini was future Washington Redskins Hall of Fame running back Bobby Mitchell.
Ray always referred to Mitchell by his middle name, Cornelius. When the two men played in the pro football ranks years later, Ray screamed, “Here I am, Cornelius!” whenever he tackled Mitchell.
Nitschke officially bid farewell to his quarterbacking days when he played for the Illini. Nitschke played on both sides of the ball. He was a fullback on offense and a linebacker on defense.
Eliot informed Nitschke of the changes prior to his sophomore season in 1955.
A distraught Nitschke, who wanted to play quarterback for a Rose Bowl contender, did not take the news very well. He bawled like a baby in Eliot’s office, per Hendricks.
🔶 2-way star at Illinois (LB+FB)
🔷 @ProFootballHOF Member
🔶 One of best LBs in 🏈 history
— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) April 14, 2020
His Signature Look
Nitschke lost his four front teeth in brutal fashion during his junior season in 1956.
Ray did not wear a face mask in a game against Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes that year. When a Buckeyes offensive lineman’s helmet hit him flush on the mouth, the impact dislodged four of his teeth.
The cotton in Ray’s mouth was virtually useless, he spat blood for the remainder of the game.
Nitschke’s new look eventually became his trademark. It was that unsightly appearance that threw off opposing players in the NCAA and NFL ranks.
Nitschke could gain serious yardage on the ground. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry as a fullback. He even torched the Northwestern Wildcats for 170 rushing yards as a senior in 1957.
Although Nitschke excelled on both sides of the ball for the Illini, Illinois was an atrocious team that averaged just three wins per season from 1954 to 1957.
To Ray Nitschke’s pleasant surprise, the constant losing would come to an end when he became an integral part of a historic Green Bay Packers dynasty in the 1960s.
Pro Football Career
The Green Bay Packers made Ray Nitschke the 36th overall selection of the 1958 NFL Draft.
Nitschke, a Windy City kid who grew up following George Halas’s Chicago Bears, had hoped he’d remain in Northeast Illinois and play for the Bears.
However, fate had other plans for Ray. The Packers orchestrated a trade with the New York Giants so they could take him off the draft board in the late 1950s.
According to Nitschke’s biographer Edward Gruver, Ray literally had no idea where Green Bay, WI was. Nitschke had to rely on a map so he could find his new adopted hometown.
When Nitschke first wore Packers green and gold, he wore numbers 33 and 72. He eventually wore his famous No. 66 some time later.
When Nitschke became a born-again Christian in 1995, his wife Jackie told Ray he wore that number because there are 66 books in the Holy Bible, per Gruver.
Nitschke had an unusual pregame routine on Sundays. He took out his front teeth, put them in his locker, and then wore his mouthpiece and put on eye black, which gave him a more menacing appearance.
In some of Nitschke’s opponents’ eyes, he was a sight for sore eyes on the football field.
“Probably one of the most ugliest and frightening sights was Ray Nitschke lined up in front of you,” Dallas Cowboys center Dave Manders said (via Nitschke’s 2002 biography). “No teeth, sweating hard, breathing hard, talking a lot of rough B.S.”
Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Tommy Nobis agreed with Manders’s observation. Nitschke was hard to look at without his front teeth.
Nitschke started eight games for Packers head coach Ray “Scooter” McLean in the 1958 NFL campaign. Once Nitschke reported for his first training camp, McLean told him he will play linebacker.
Little did McLean know Ray Nitschke wasn’t an ordinary linebacker. He became an elite one as the 1960s decade kicked off.
Ray had a decent rookie campaign. He had one interception and two fumble recoveries in twelve games for the Packers.
Despite Nitschke’s presence in the backfield, Green Bay was a bad football team in 1958. The Packers had an atrocious 1-10-1 record in Ray’s first pro football season.
The Packers continued their free fall since Curly Lambeau stepped down as their head coach in early 1950.
Green Bay averaged barely four wins per season from 1950 to 1958. The Packers had never tasted postseason football since winning their sixth NFL championship in 1944.
A distraught McLean resigned mere days before the end of the 1958 NFL campaign.
— Packers México (@Packers_Mx) July 10, 2015
A New Coach
When the Green Bay Packers hired former New York Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi prior to the 1959 NFL season, their fortunes changed drastically.
Not only did Lombardi build a championship culture in frigid Green Bay, WI, but he also helped Ray Nitschke’s pro football career reach unprecedented heights.
Lombardi, a stickler for discipline, was the perfect coach for Nitschke. The latter was a wayward and undisciplined football player through his first two pro football seasons. He hardly resembled the Hall of Famer he would eventually become.
Nitschke, who had been drinking heavily since his high school days, continued downing alcohol when he turned pro.
“Raymond was headed for bad trouble,” Hall of Fame halfback Paul Hornung said (via Gruver). “His drinking was out of control.”
Nitschke even taunted Lombardi from the sidelines and dared to call him a judge because he frequently sat on the bench. Lombardi’s son, Vince Jr., always saw Nitschke screaming from the bench in his raspy voice.
Lombardi and his staff were worried Nitschke’s undisciplined ways might end his football career sooner than later. The Packers’ head coach even thought Ray “might kill somebody,” so he threatened to send him to another team in 1960.
Lombardi, a hard-nosed tactician, yelled at Nitschke and told him to shut up.
Before long, Lombardi’s take-no-prisoners approach worked like a charm. He simply brought out the best in Ray Nitschke.
When Nitschke earned his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH in 1978, he sang Lombardi’s praises in his enshrinement speech:
“Words cannot really demonstrate how I felt about Vince Lombardi. I loved him very dearly and he inspired me immensely and gave me a lot of different ways of values that I needed. I needed to be motivated. Coach Vince Lombardi really motivated me. I owe a lot to Vince Lombardi.”
Changing His Life
Lombardi’s arrival, Nitschke’s marriage to the former Jackie Forchette in 1961, and adoption of three kids helped the once-cantankerous Ray mellow out considerably.
Hornung, who was once worried Nitschke’s out-of-control binge drinking might lead to his downfall, was delighted at his teammate’s turnaround.
“It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” Hornung said (via Gruver). “He adopted three kids, became a model citizen, and just did a fantastic job turning his life around. I loved Raymond for that.”
Observers noticed Ray’s turnaround with his newfound devotion to the fans.
Packers wide receiver Boyd Dowler remembered he, Nitschke, and their Green Bay teammates played at least 30 exhibition basketball games every winter.
The players then showered and made their way to the scorer’s table where they signed autographs for the fans. While many of the Packers players wanted to leave, Ray never left until he signed autographs for everybody who fell in line.
Building His Legend
Nitschke hit his stride as the NFL ushered in the 1960s decade.
Nitschke was an individual with a split personality. He was a gentleman off the gridiron but a ferocious and relentless defensive menace on it.
No less than future Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr dubbed Nitschke a “classic example of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde” during their time together with the Packers from 1958 to 1971.
Lombardi made Nitschke his starting middle linebacker at the beginning of the 1961 NFL season. Nitschke exceeded expectations and had 20 interceptions, two forced fumbles, and 15 fumble recoveries over the next nine seasons.
Nitschke also earned a reputation as a hard-hitting linebacker. Journeyman halfback Tommy McDonald always thought Nitschke wore No. 99. However, Nitschke’s actual jersey number was 66.
It turned out McDonald was always looking up at Nitschke after he just knocked him upside down on the football field.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Preston Pearson also got a taste of Nitschke’s jarring tackles in the 1970 NFL season.
The 33-year-old Nitschke showed no signs of slowing down when he smothered Pearson after he took a handoff from Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
Pearson was laid out on the Three Rivers turf looking at the sky and smelling salts from a team trainer mere seconds later.
Pearson swore that was the hardest hit he sustained in his 14-year pro football career. In an era when guys such as Willie Lanier and Dick Butkus annihilated ball carriers with relative ease, Nitschke’s hit got the nod from Preston Pearson.
Other running backs such as Bobby Mitchell and Ronnie Bull also fell victim to Ray Nitschke’s brutality on the gridiron. They both swore Nitschke hit like a mack truck.
Ray Nitschke became one of the best inside linebackers in pro football. He earned one Pro Bowl, two First-Team All-Pro, and five Second-Team All-Pro selections from 1962 to 1969.
The Associated Press and United Press International also proclaimed Nitschke as the NFL’s best middle linebacker from 1964 to 1966, per Gruver.
One middle linebacker who also stood out during that era was the Chicago Bears’ Dick Butkus.
Nitschke and Butkus, both eventual Hall of Famers, shared the same Prairie State roots. They both hailed from Chicago, IL, and attended the University of Illinois.
In 2002, Butkus told Gruver that he and Nitschke also had a mutual respect for each other. They both played a high-impact defensive position with the same grit and intensity.
Becoming a Dynasty
With Nitschke at the top of his game, the Packers emerged as the best team in the National Football League in the 1960s.
With a core featuring Nitschke, quarterback Bart Starr, fullback Jim Taylor, safety Willie Wood, defensive end Willie Davis, wide receiver Max McGee, and halfback Paul Hornung, the Packers were the team to beat.
Consequently, they built a dynasty that became the gold standard for excellence on the pro gridiron. They set the bar high for subsequent dynasties such as the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, 1980s San Francisco 49ers, and 1990s Dallas Cowboys.
Green Bay averaged ten wins per season and won six division titles from 1960 to 1967. Not only did the Packers end their postseason futility, but they also became perennial title contenders.
Under Lombardi’s leadership, the Packers won three NFL championships and two Super Bowl titles from 1960 to 1967.
Nitschke’s star shone brightest during the 1962 NFL Championship Game against the New York Giants. He had an interception and two fumble recoveries as Green Bay prevailed in frigid conditions at Yankee Stadium, 16-7.
The Packers were so dominant, they manhandled the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders in the first two Super Bowls in league history by a combined score of 68-24.
Nitschke was at his best against the Raiders in Super Bowl II at the Orange Bowl in Miami, FL on January 14, 1968.
He recorded nine tackles while holding off Oakland offensive linemen Jim Otto, Gene Upshaw, and Wayne Hawkins.
Nitschke also hit Raiders fullback Hewritt Dixon so hard, Oakland public relations director Lee Remmel saw him tremble violently afterward. Dixon became a non-factor after Nitschke knocked him silly.
The Packers routed the Raiders, 33-14, and clinched their second consecutive Super Bowl title.
One of Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Phil Bengston’s fondest memories of Nitschke was the 1965 NFL Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns.
Bengston assigned Nitschke to cover legendary Browns running back Jim Brown in the backfield. When quarterback Frank Ryan threw a pass in Brown’s direction, Nitschke appeared out of nowhere and batted it down.
Nitschke’s heroics helped the Packers prevail over the Browns, 23-12. It was Green Bay’s third NFL Championship in five seasons.
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) February 28, 2019
Always Be Prepared
Green Bay had become a juggernaut thanks in large part to Lombardi’s relentless preparation. In 1995, when Nitschke was 59 years old, he told Gruver that Lombardi prepared for every game like it was a postseason game.
That mindset made it easier for Nitschke and his teammates to remain at the top of their game once the postseason kicked off.
“Every game was important to him,” Nitschke told Gruver. “So when we got to the real important games, we were ready to go, man. Every game was a championship, and that made it easier when we got to the big games because we weren’t awed by it, we weren’t nervous about it.”
Ray Nitschke’s achievements on the NFL gridiron were made even more remarkable because he played most of his 15-year pro football career on just one good leg.
Green Bay trainer Domenic Gentile told Gruver in 2002 Nitschke’s left leg diminished in size and wasted away after it took numerous beatings during his high school and college days.
When Nitschke played for the Green Bay Packers from 1958 to 1972, his left leg was already half the size of his right leg.
The End of an Era
The Packers became a shadow of their old selves after Vince Lombardi stepped down as their head coach in February 1968.
Green Bay averaged seven wins per season from 1968 until Ray Nitschke’s final year in pro football in 1972. The Packers reached the postseason just once during those five years.
They lost to George Allen’s Washington Redskins in the 1972 NFC Divisional Round, 16-3. It turned out to be Ray Nitschke’s last game in the National Football League.
Although Nitschke reported for training camp in 1973, he decided to retire from pro football several weeks later.
Nitschke lost his starting middle linebacker spot to Jim Carter in the 1971 NFL campaign—Dan Devine’s first year as Packers head coach.
When Nitschke was about to enter his sixteenth NFL season in 1973, he was third on Green Bay’s inside linebacker depth chart behind Carter and Larry Hefner.
At that point, the 36-year-old Nitschke knew it was the perfect time to hang up his cleats.
“The spirit is still there, but the numbers game got to me,” Nitschke told The Associated Press (via The Spokesman-Review) on August 29, 1973. “There’s no room on the Packers squad for three middle linebackers, so I’m retiring.”
Ray Nitschke finished his stellar 15-year NFL career with 25 interceptions, two defensive touchdowns, two forced fumbles, and 23 fumble recoveries.
Post-Football Life and Death
According to Ray Nitschke’s 2002 biography, he lived in a two-story brick house in Oneida, WI during his retirement years.
Ray wore many hats after he played his final down at the end of the 1972 NFL season.
Nitschke was featured in 138 TV commercials from 1975 to 1987. He promoted various products and services, including Miller Lite Beer, Oldsmobile, and Clairmont. At one point, Nitschke was the face of a Wisconsin-based dairy company.
Nitschke also forayed into acting. He appeared in his first movie, Head, in his eleventh pro football season. That particular film also starred the television rock group, the Monkees.
Six years later, Nitschke portrayed the prison guard, “Bogdanski,” in the Burt Reynolds movie, The Longest Yard.
"I Want My Maypo" ~ Classic 1960's Maypo Oatmeal Cereal commercial featuring sports legends Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Oscar Robertson, Ray Nitschke, Wilt Chamberlain & Don Meredith! #ThrowbackThursday pic.twitter.com/nUvGovjJoB
— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) November 5, 2020
Whenever Ray was not in the public eye, he supported his wife Jackie’s role with The Bridge, Inc., an organization that assisted individuals who struggled with alcohol.
The couple also became chairpersons of the Cerebral Palsy Telethon, per Gruver.
Always a Packer
Nitschke was actively involved in Green Bay Packers football after he retired from the NFL.
He was a regular feature of the Packer Report publication he helped get off the ground in 1970. Ray also frequently attended games at Lambeau Field.
Ray and his family regularly sat at Section 16 between the 35- and 40-yard lines. As the 1980s decade wound down, they moved to Section 21 near the 40-yard line and behind the visiting team’s bench.
Whenever Ray saw a Packers player make a mistake, he promptly corrected him on the sideline.
Ray Nitschke became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1978. Former Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator and head coach Phil Bengston was his presenter.
According to ProFootballHOF.com, Nitschke was the first defensive player from Green Bay’s 1960s dynasty to become immortalized in Canton, OH.
Part of Nitschke’s enshrinement speech reads:
“I was committed to the game of football and I will never forget the great game that it is and that it gave Ray Nitschke a chance for an education to better himself to be a better human being.
— Mike Pearson (@illinilegends) July 30, 2020
Ray Nitschke is also a member of the University of Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame, the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, the NFL 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, and the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
The Green Bay Packers retired Nitschke’s No. 66 jersey in 1983. Nitschke’s number was the fourth the franchise retired after Don Hutson’s No. 14, Tony Canadeo’s No. 3, and Bart Starr’s No. 15.
Faith and Legacy
When Nitschke converted to Christianity in 1995, he played less golf on weekends and dedicated himself more to his Bayside Christian Fellowship Church community.
Nitschke’s daughter, Amy, told Gruver in 2002 her dad was strongly against abortion. All three of his children were adopted, so he felt abortion was never an option.
Sadly, Jackie Nitschke passed away due to cancer in the summer of 1996. Their son Richard (nicknamed “Richie) told Gruver that Ray was emotionally and mentally distraught after Jackie died.
Ray found solace when he became a new doting grandfather to Jacqueline Ray a few months later.
When Ray, Amy, and Jacqueline Ray traveled to Venice, FL on March 8, 1998, Ray felt chest pains around midday. Alas, Ray Nitschke passed away just one hour later at Venice Hospital. He was 61 years old.
Nitschke left behind his sons John and Richie, daughter Amy, and granddaughter Jacqueline Ray.