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Jim Carter was an unappreciated but hard-nosed middle linebacker

Ray Nitschke’s successor dies at age 75


Jim Carter, who bore the burden of replacing a legend and never received his due during eight years as a rugged and productive middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, died of cancer Thursday, Nov. 23.

Carter was 75.

Drafted in the third round in 1970, Carter replaced fan favorite and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke as the starting middle linebacker a year later. After Carter made a favorable impression during an April minicamp in Arlington, Texas, first-year coach Dan Devine had him work at middle linebacker with the No. 1 defense starting day one of training camp in 1971.

Carter secured the job during what was then a six-game preseason only to suffer a hamstring injury two days before the season opener. Nitschke started the first game, a 42-40 loss to the New York Giants, but Carter permanently replaced him the next week.

Dave Hanner, who was then defensive coordinator of the Packers, said Carter was the better player of the two at that point and deserved the job.

"He was tougher and could get through trash," Hanner said in a 2005 interview. "(Nitschke) was having trouble with cut blocks and all that. He wasn't quite as aggressive. He could run, but as far as changing direction, he wasn't the same. He was going to get hurt. That's the way all of us felt at the time."

Nitschke remained with the Packers through the 1972 season but played sparingly. He made his only starts during his 14th and 15th seasons on Ray Nitschke Day, Dec. 12, 1971, and on Nov. 5, 1972, when Devine inexplicably benched another future Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson against San Francisco.

In both games, Nitschke started in the middle and Carter at left linebacker. However, in the 1972 game, Nitschke was benched after the first quarter and Carter moved back to middle linebacker with Robinson taking his place on the left side.

Over the two seasons when Carter started ahead of Nitschke, as well as in 1973 and '74, his production and post-season recognition only reinforced the trust that Devine and Hanner had placed in Carter.

In 1972, when the Packers won their only division title between the coaching reigns of Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren, Carter was named second-team all-NFC middle linebacker by United Press International. The Chicago Bears' Dick Butkus, arguably the greatest middle linebacker in the history of the NFL was first team.

That season, the Packers finished second in the NFL in team defense, based on fewest yards allowed, and also were second in run defense, their best showing in that category from 1933, when the stat was first recorded, until 2009, when they finished No. 1. That was a 76-year span.

In 1973, Carter was named to the Pro Bowl, the only Packers' middle or inside linebacker chosen between 1964, the only year Nitschke made it, and 2010, when A.J. Hawk was named. That was a 46-year span. Carter also was named the Packers' most valuable defensive player in 1973. As a middle linebacker, he even shared the team lead with three interceptions.

Carter also was defensive captain of the Packers in 1973 and '74, but asked to be relieved of the duties after the second year because he had crossed his veteran teammates' picket line and reported to training camp during the players' strike that summer.

Carter's strength was playing the run between the tackles. A former fullback and hockey player at the University of Minnesota, he had good range for someone who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed in the neighborhood of 240 pounds. Although Carter had never played defense in college, he proved to be a capable fill-in at outside linebacker as a rookie, when Robinson tore his Achilles' tendon in the fourth game.

Nevertheless, once Carter took over for Nitschke, Packers fans booed him frequently and lustily thereafter. He was booed during player introductions and just about any time he missed a tackle or a pass was completed over the middle, according to newspaper accounts from that time. And he drew cheers only when he was injured and Nitschke would run out on the field to take his place.

Not surprisingly, it left scars.

"If I ever went to Green Bay for an alumni game, I fear I'd get booed," Carter told Jerry Poling, author of "Downfield! Untold Stories of the Green Bay Packers," in 1996. "I never want to go through that again. It had a profound effect on me. It was degrading."

While still playing, Carter took solace in the support of his teammates – other than Nitschke..

"Definitely, the players supported me," he said in a 2010 interview. "I had a lot of good support from them with the stuff with Nitschke, like when he'd come into a game and I'd go out, and (the fans) would all cheer. When I started getting booed, all the players – the defense and the offense, too – were real supportive."

They also respected him and sympathized with what he went through.

"Carter was an excellent linebacker," cornerback Willie Buchanon said in a 2005 interview. "We didn't ask him to cover. All he had to do was go between the tackles. And he did a good job of that. But the fans loved Nitschke. They did more booing of (Carter) than anybody. That was a shame."

Later in his career, injuries also took a toll on Carter's play. He broke his leg in the team's annual Intra-Squad Game in 1975, and when he rushed to get back onto the field – he played in 12 of 14 games that year – his performance suffered. In 1976, Carter broke his arm in the preseason and missed the entire regular season. He returned in 1977 and led the Packers in unassisted tackles but was replaced a year later by second-round draft pick Mike Hunt. As a result, Carter retired before the 1979 season.

More than 30 years after his career ended, Carter returned to Lambeau Field for the first time and was greeted during pregame introductions with cheers that he had never heard as a player.

Carter was again honorary captain for the final game of last season and came back in late September for this season's alumni weekend.

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