Ray Nitschke (December 29, 1936 – March 8, 1998) was a professional American football middle linebacker who spent his entire 15-year National Football League (NFL) career with the Green Bay Packers. A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was the anchor of the defense for head coach Vince Lombardi in the 1960s, leading the Packers to five NFL championships and victories in the first two Super Bowls.
Born in Elmwood Park, Illinois, Nitschke played his college football at Illinois. On December 2, 1957, Nitschke was chosen by the Green Bay Packers as the second pick of the third round of the 1958 NFL Draft in what is considered the greatest drafting year in the history of the franchise. This draft included two other significant Packers of the 1960s, fullback Jim Taylor of LSU (2nd round, 15th overall) and right guard Jerry Kramer of Idaho (4th round 39th overall). Their rookie season in 1958 was dismal as the Packers with just one win and one tie finished with the worst record in the 12-team league. Nitschke wore number 66 his entire career with the Packers.
A month after the 1958 season ended, Vince Lombardi was hired as head coach. Nitschke became a full-time starter in 1962, the anchor of a disciplined defense that helped win five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls in the 1960s. He was the MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game, accepting the prize of a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette. In the game, Nitschke recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass that was intercepted. The Packers won, 16-7, and finished the season with a 14-1 record. In Super Bowl I, Nitschke contributed six tackles and a sack. In Super Bowl II, Nitschke led Green Bay's defense with nine tackles.
On December 17, 1972, the 9-4 Packers traveled to New Orleans to play the 1-11-1 Saints at Tulane Stadium for Nitschke's last regular-season game of his career. Nitschke recorded the only pass reception of his career in this game, a 34-yard gain after a blocked field goal attempt for which he was blocking, and the Packers won the game, 30-20. they had clinched the NFC Central division title the week before, their first playoff berth since Super Bowl II. Green Bay lost on the road to the Washington Redskins, 16-3, in the first round of the playoffs. Nitschke retired during the following year's training camp, in late August 1973. Nitschke was known for his strength and toughness. On September 1st, 1960, a steel coaching tower on the Packers practice field was blown over by a strong gust of wind on top of Nitschke. Lombardi ran over to see what had happened, but when told it had fallen on Nitschke, said, "He'll be fine. Get back to work!" According to Nitschke's biography, a spike was driven into his helmet, but did not injure him. The helmet (with the hole) is currently on display in the Packer Hall of Fame in Green Bay. Although Nitschke was known for his hard hitting, he was an athletic all-around linebacker who also intercepted 25 passes over his career.
His No. 66 was retired in 1983, the fourth of six numbers retired by the Packers, following Don Hutson (14) in 1951, Tony Canadeo (3) in 1953. The only other Lombardi-era player to have his number retired is quarterback Bart Starr, whose #15 was retired in 1973. He was followed by Reggie White (92) in 2005 and Brett Favre (4) in 2015. Also, the team has named one of its two outdoor practice fields "Ray Nitschke Field".
In 1969, he was awarded as the NFL's all-time top Linebacker by the NFL in honor of the NFL's 50th Anniversary. Thus he is the only linebacker to have made both the NFL's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.
He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978. Every year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a luncheon the day before its induction ceremony, attended by most of the living members and honoring the new inductees. Nitschke always spoke at this luncheon, telling the new inductees what a great honor they were receiving, and that they were now members of the greatest team of them all. Following his death, the Hall named the luncheon after him. He was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1981.
Upon the election of former teammate Henry Jordan to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the eve of Super Bowl XXIX in Miami Gardens, Florida, Nitschke flew down to Florida to participate in the game's coin-toss ceremonies, joining three other 75th Anniversary Team representatives--Otto Graham (1950s), Mean Joe Greene (1970s) and Gale Sayers (1960s), all three of whom had been announced as representatives of their respective decades in the ceremony months prior to the PFHOF election—as well as three of Jordan's fellow Class of 1995 newcomers, all of whom represented the 1980s: Kellen Winslow, Lee Roy Selmon, and then-U.S. Congressman Steve Largent, who ended the pregame ceremonies by flipping the coin.
In 1999, he was ranked number 18 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, making him the highest-ranked player coached by Vince Lombardi, second among Packers behind Don Hutson, and third among linebackers behind Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus.
Nitschke was married on June 26, 1961 to Jackie Forchette. Jackie was unable to have children, so they adopted three: John in 1963, Richard in 1966, and Amy in 1972. Ray and Jackie had a winter home in Naples, Florida. Lombardi gave partial credit to Nitschke's success to Nitschke's wife, whose calming influence helped him focus on his career. Nitschke remained popular in Green Bay after retiring, even having his phone number and home address published in the Green Bay phone book.
In the late 1980s, Nitschke owned an automobile dealership in Green Bay. He performed several of his own TV commercials in which he brought out his dog, "Butkus", named in honor of his Chicago Bears nemesis, Dick Butkus (who like Nitschke, played for the Illinois Fighting Illini). He appeared in the comic film Head, starring The Monkees, as a footballer who repeatedly tackles Peter Tork in a mock war movie sequence. His character is listed in the credits as "Private One" because his jersey is emblazoned with the number "1". Nitschke also appeared in the 1974 football comedy The Longest Yard as Guard Bogdanski.
Nitschke died of a heart attack in Venice, Florida at the age of 61 in 1998. He had been driving to the home of a family friend, according to his daughter, Amy Klaas, who was with him when he was stricken. He was pronounced dead at Venice Hospital.