Ray Nitschke, according to Hall of Fame quarterback and former teammate Bart Starr, was "a classic example of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Off the field, he was a thoughtful, caring person. On the field, he was a ferocious middle linebacker who at times seemed to truly enjoy hitting people. A fierce competitor, Ray was the heart of the great Green Bay Packers defense of the 1960s. The 6-3, 235-pound defensive terror epitomized the hard-hitting tenacity and cool professionalism of the Packers during that period.
Born in 1936, in Elmwood Park, Ill., Ray had to overcome a great deal of personal adversity at an early age. His father was killed when he was three and his mother died when he was 13. He was adopted and reared by a brother who was just eight years his senior. It was his brother who convinced him to turn down a $3,000 baseball contract from the St. Louis Browns in favor of attending the University of Illinois. "It was the smartest thing I ever did," Ray later admitted.
Although he was an all-state quarterback in high school, Illinois coach Ray Eliot quickly moved him from the quarterback spot to the dual role of offensive fullback and defense linebacker. Nitschke initially resented the change, but later realized it was a move that made his pro career possible.
There was never any doubt that the Packers, who drafted him in 1958, had slated Ray for defense. Due to an injury to starter Tom Bettis, Nitschke started eight games at linebacker as a rookie. It wasn't, however, until his third season that he got the job for good. Under fiery head coach Vince Lombardi, Ray developed into one of the game's most feared defensive players. "The guy never let up," Nitschke said of his coach. "But, he was consistent...He wanted me to not only be a good player but be a good guy. I needed that."
Nitschke's reputation as a hard-nosed player was one he enjoyed and lived up to. "You want them to respect you when they run a play," he once stated. "You want them to be a little shy the next time they run a play your way. You want them to remember you're there."
His teammates and opponents certainly remembered Nitschke. "Ray's the core of the Packers," former Baltimore Colt Bill Pellington pointed out. "He's such an inspiration. He's a real hustler and talker. He gives 100 percent all the time."
In addition to being a hard-hitting player, Nitschke was excellent in pass coverage, as his 25 lifetime interceptions attest. In the 1962 NFL title game, the athletic linebacker recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass as the Packers defeated the New York Giants, 16-7, in minus-20-degree wind chill conditions. For his efforts he was named the game's MVP.
Off the field, he was a gentle giant. In his dark horn-rimmed glasses and traditional business suit, he was thoughtful, intelligent, and soft-hearted, traits that his opponents rarely, if ever, saw.
In 1978, Ray Nitschke became the first Green Bay defender from the 1960s to be elected to the Hall of Fame.