The minds of old sportswriters tend to fuzz up when trying to recall their favorite player interviews, now long buried in time. But Ray Nitschke … well, he was unforgettable.
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It was the spring of 1978 and a young sportswriter was in Green Bay to cover the Packers in the NFL Draft. This would be the draft of James Lofton, and the Packers wisely selected the brilliant wide receiver from Stanford with their No. 1 pick. Lofton was, perhaps, the only good thing to emerge from a dismal decade of Packers football.
But this trip to Green Bay was not about Lofton. It was not about the draft. You see, this spring was merely prelude to the summer of Ray Nitschke’s last great day in the sun. It was the year the mighty middle linebacker, No. 66, would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
An audience with the legendary linebacker was really all the sportswriter wanted. So, before driving to Green Bay, the writer called Lee Remmel, Green Bay’s director of public relations, and asked for Nitschke’s phone number.
“I don’t have it handy,” Remmel said, long before the Internet and text messages. “But Ray’s in the book. Just look him up when you get here.”
How could the man who wrote the book on defense be available in the Green Bay telephone directory? But sure enough, the legend was listed, and he answered on the second ring. There was no mistaking the deep, raspy voice of Raymond Ernest Nitschke.
“What can I do for you?” Nitschke asked, warmly. He agreed to meet for a story to advance his induction into Canton.
“Do you eat breakfast?” he asked.
“Sure,” the writer said.
“Then meet me in the restaurant of the hotel where you’re staying – 8 o’clock, sharp,” So at 7:50 the next morning – not wanting to be late – the writer walked to the reception desk of the hotel restaurant.
“Hello,” the writer said to the woman behind the podium. “I’m here to meet Ray Nits …”
Before he could finish his sentence, the smiling woman blurted, “Yes, we know. Mr. Nitschke is waiting for you around the corner.”
The writer wondered as he walked, how many running backs, coming “around the corner,” had uncomfortable meetings with Mr. Nitschke. This corner, however, was at the end of a partition that led to the dining area, not a clothesline tackle.
The writer spotted Nitschke, the first guest to arrive, behind his dark-framed glasses, sitting at a corner table. He looked like a college professor. A large, menacing college professor.
“Hi Ray,” the writer stammered, extending his hand to Nitschke. “Gee, I hope I’m not late?”
“Naaaah,” he said, squeezing the writer’s hand. “You’re all right. I still go everywhere on Lombardi time. It’s a habit I can’t break.”
So, the interview, like all Vince Lombardi team meetings, started about 10 minutes early. And it soon became evident that Lombardi was more than his old coach. He was the man who saved Nitschke’s career and, perhaps, his life.
Nitschke was a wild, party-loving rookie with Green Bay in 1958, the year before Lombardi stepped in as head coach and general manager of the Packers.
The 1958 Packers were horrible, playing under Head Coach Ray “Scooter” McLean, who had replaced Lisle Blackbourn. In four seasons as coach, Blackbourn compiled a dismal 17-31 record.
But things got much worse under McClean in his one-and-done season. Those Packers had won just one game, finishing the season at 1-10-1. McLean was friendly and well liked all around the NFL, but he just couldn’t coach. He wanted to be pals with the players and that approach, of course, did not work.
Sadly, McLean could squeeze just one victory out of a team that had seven future Pro Football Hall of Famers on the roster: Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Jerry Kramer, Jim Ringo, and of course, Nitschke.
Lombardi came in and became the players’ butt-kicker, not their buddy.
Success Under Coach Lombardi
Lombardi was just the firm hand of discipline that Nitschke needed to begin his journey to Canton. Lombardi built his defense around Nitschke. He traded with Cleveland to acquire defensive linemen Willie Davis and Henry Jordan. He drafted cornerback Herb Adderly No. 1 out of Michigan State in 1961. And he signed free-agent safety Willie Wood. All future Hall of Famers.
Jordan, the team’s funny man, once said of Lombardi, “He treats us all the same – like dogs.” Hilarious, but not true. The players were treated as individuals, with Lombardi adjusting his approach to each personality.
Nitschke needed discipline, a loud voice, and a firm hand. Starr did not respond to yelling, preferring a calm, reasoned, intelligent approach. Lombardi loved Hornung and spoiled him, often looking the other way when the Golden Boy broke team rules to party with his pal, Max McGee.
“If it hadn’t been for Lombardi you wouldn’t be talking to me today,” Nitschke said at breakfast. “Because you would never have heard of me.”
Indeed, Lombardi changed the culture and the lives of several men. Lombardi’s first team turned things around, finishing 1959 with a 7-5 record. In 1960 he had the Packers in the NFL Championship Game, where they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 17-13. After the defeat, Lombardi vowed, “We will never lose another championship game.” They didn’t.
In nine seasons as head coach and GM, Lombardi’s Packers won five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
“Things were bad here and he changed all that,” Nitschke recalled.
The writer had dozens of questions, beginning with Nitschke’s birth in 1936 in Elmwood Park, Ill; extending to the pride and joy he felt at being the first defensive player from Lombardi’s teams to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And the legend graciously and thoughtfully answered them all.
Nitschke, 41 at the time of this breakfast meeting, had lived a life of which most men could only dream: all-state quarterback in high school, who could have signed a professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Browns … won a scholarship to Illinois where he played fullback and linebacker … third-round draft pick of the Packers in 1958 … 25 career interceptions in 15 years with Green Bay … MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game … either first- or second-team All-NFL honors seven times in eight seasons from 1962 to 1969 … defensive leader on five NFL Championship teams, including the first two Super Bowls … his No. 66 retired by the Packers … a brief but memorable acting career.
Nitschke spoke lovingly of Lombardi and his teammates. He talked about how much he missed the game.
In 1969 Nitschke was named the NFL’s all-time greatest linebacker during its first 50 years. A panel of former linebacking stars were asked by a national sports magazine to rate linebackers based on strength, quickness, speed, toughness and leadership. Nitschke ruled nearly every category.
Of Nitschke, the panel said: “The core of the Packers,” … “An inspiration on the field,” … “Gives 100% all the time,” … “Has an overwhelming desire to make the play,” … “Without a peer as a leader.”
And oh, how he loved to play the game. Warm and friendly off the field, he became intensely focused and ferocious when he snapped that chin strap and stepped between the lines. As the title of the book he wrote suggested, Nitschke was, indeed, “Mean on Sunday.”
As breakfast approached the two-hour mark, the writer asked the legend about a play he made in Super Bowl II. Nitschke had met Oakland fullback Hewritt Dixon head on near the line of scrimmage, picked him up, dropped him on his back, then glared down at Dixon with that trademark, lip-curling snarl.
“Do you remember that play, Ray?”
Suddenly, the table began to shake. Nitschke’s fists were clenched and his forearms were vibrating on the tabletop. His eyes widened and his lip curled as he gasped, “Yeah, yeah, … I remember!”
And for a brief moment it seemed like No. 66 had time-traveled back to the floor of the Orange Bowl in Miami and that Super Bowl Sunday in 1968. Then, just as quickly, Superman was mild-mannered Clark Kent again.
Nitschke played 15 seasons with the Packers and, like many superstars, probably hung on a few years too long. But the fans loved him, and he loved them. In 1971 Jim Carter replaced Nitschke as the starter at middle linebacker. Nitschke and the fans had a hard time accepting the move by first-year Head Coach Dan Devine. Carter, just trying to make a living, was loudly booed whenever he stepped on the field.
More than three hours after breakfast began, the writer and the legend shook hands and parted ways. Nitschke, no doubt, would forget this interview. The writer never would.
I would know. I was the writer.
Nitschke, who had a winter home in Naples, Fla., died of a heart attack in Venice on March 8, 1998, while driving to the home of a family friend. He was just 61.
Reading this almost makes me wish I’d grown up as a Packer fan instead of as a Baltimore Colt fan. Almost…