By the mid to late 1950s, once the 4-3 alignment had essentially become every NFL team’s every-down defense, the middle linebacker was the centerpiece. Six middle linebackers who started their careers during those transitional years and played into the 1960s were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The list is a roll call of legends like at no other defensive position from that period: Chuck Bednarik, Bill George, Joe Schmidt, Les Richter and Sam Huff. Dick Butkus was a latecomer to the group.
But no name was anymore recognizable or synonymous with the position than Ray Nitschke. Not long after Nitschke retired, the middle linebacker disappeared in the 3-4 defense and its role in the 4-3 diminished over time with situation substitution. But there’s no question when the Packers won five NFL championships under Vince Lombardi in the 1960s, Nitschke was the focal point of their dominating defense.
He was as tough as his consonant-rich name sounded and he looked the part of his autobiography’s title, “Mean on Sunday.” In fact, when Lombardi addressed the subject of playmakers in his 1963 book, “Run to Daylight,” he wrote, “When you are flat you’re always looking for that big play or that big man who will bring you out of it … Ray Nitschke has a lot of this on the defense for us…”
Nitschke was named the most valuable player of the 1962 NFL Championship Game when the Packers beat the New York Giants, 16-7, in a brutal defensive battle on the frozen, windswept turf at Yankee Stadium. He recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass that fellow linebacker Dan Currie intercepted.
In Super Bowl II, Nitschke led the Packers with nine tackles in their victory over Oakland, including a direct, behind the line hit on fullback Hewritt Dixon, which set the tone on the first play from scrimmage.
On Dec. 12, 1971, he was honored with Ray Nitschke Day in ceremonies before a Packers-Bears game. On Dec. 4, 1983, Nitschke’s No. 66 was retired by the Packers, also during a pregame ceremony at Lambeau Field. In 1997, the Packers named one of their two outdoor practice fields in Nitschke’s honor.
Nitschke was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.
“Ray played with such a recklessness and fierceness that he developed a reputation fast that here was a guy you avoided, if at all possible,” said longtime teammate Bart Starr. “But he never did things in the sense that he would overrun tackles in a wild rage. He just loved to hit people.”
The Packers selected Nitschke in the third round – the 36th overall choice – of the 1958 NFL Draft after he had doubled as a fullback and linebacker at the University of Illinois during the one-platoon era of college football.
As a rookie, Nitschke started the opener in place of an injured Tom Bettis, but was benched after a bad game against Washington in Week 4 and thereafter shared playing time, basically as a backup, at left linebacker. In 1959, Nitschke had to serve a six-month service stint, didn’t report to camp until Sept. 6 and then was given a look at outside linebacker before being moved to fullback the week before the season opener. When things didn’t work out there, Nitschke moved back to middle linebacker and played behind Bettis in 1959 and then again until the final four games of the 1960 regular season.
Nitschke finished strong and started the NFL Championship Game in Philadelphia, but again lost his hold on the job when he was called into the Army at the halfway point of the 1961 season. Nitschke received weekend passes and played in 12 of 14 games that year, but split time and starts with Bettis the second half of the schedule. Finally, in 1962, Nitschke entrenched himself as the starter and from that year through 1969, the Packers’ defense never finished lower than fourth in yards allowed. In 1971, after the defense had plummeted to 16th the year before, first-year coach Dan Devine replaced Nitschke in the lineup with Jim Carter.
Nitschke announced his retirement on Aug. 28, 1973, after he had seen little action in the Packers’ first four preseason games and was listed third on the depth chart behind Carter and Larry Hefner. “There’s no room on the Packers’ squad for three middle linebackers so I’m retiring,” Nitschke said at the time.
In the end, he played 15 years with the Packers, appeared in 190 games and intercepted 25 passes.
Born Dec. 29, 1936, in Elmwood Park, Ill. Given name Raymond Ernest Nitschke. Died March 8, 1998, at age 61.
- Linebacker: 1958-72
- Height: 6-3; Weight: 235
- College: Illinois, 1955-57
- Inducted Pro Football Hall of Fame: 1978
- NFL 50th Anniversary Team: 1969
- NFL 75th Anniversary Team: 1994
- NFL All-Decade Team: 1960s
- Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1964, ’66
- Other years selected to an all-pro first team: 1965
- Pro Bowl Selection (game played since 1950): 1964
- Packers 50th Anniversary Team: 1969
- Packers All-Modern Era Team: 1976
- Press-Gazette All-Century Team: 1999