FB Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke Dies
MILWAUKEE (AP) _ Ray Nitschke, the bald-headed, tough-as-nails linebacker on Vince Lombardi’s title teams of the 1960s, will be remembered for his off-the-field kindness as much as his dominating play, friends say.
The Hall of Famer died of a heart attack Sunday while on a drive with his daughter and granddaughter in Florida, where he had a winter home. He was 61.
``He was one of the great players, not only in Packer history, but in NFL history,″ Packers spokesman Lee Remmel said.
In a recent poll, he was voted the fourth-best player in the team’s history, behind receiver Don Hutson, current quarterback Brett Favre, and Bart Starr, the quarterback on Lombardi’s teams.
Nitschke, a third-round draft pick of Green Bay out of Illinois, played for the Packers from 1958-72, when the team won five NFL titles, including the first two Super Bowls. He was a member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team.
Nitschke and the Bears’ Dick Butkus set the standard for the punishing middle linebacker of the ’60s and ’70s.
``He was a thunderous tackler,″ Remmel said. ``He didn’t know the meaning of taking it easy on the football field. He did that every play of his career.″
The persona had a lasting effect on the Packers, who ended a long drought by winning conference championships the last two seasons and the Super Bowl in January 1997.
``It’s going to be a big loss for us,″ said Packers offensive lineman Adam Timmerman. ``He was a great competitor on the field, and even if you’ve met him since his playing days, he still was a feisty competitor.″
Nitschke made his home in Green Bay after his retirement. He was often at Packers practices and traveled to road games.
He parlayed his celebrity status and friendly nature into a career as speaker, cruise host, charity fund-raiser and pitchman in everything from beer commercials to ads for the state lottery and his alma mater, the University of Illinois.
``He had that ability to make people like him, and for that I would never forget him,″ former teammate Willie Wood said.
As a Packer ``he was THE man,″ Wood said. ``He was a guy who played with a lot of great tenacity. Every time you saw him you knew he was ready to play.″
Another former teammate, Bob Long, recalled joining the Packers as a rookie wide receiver and first meeting up with Nitschke.
``I didn’t know how to block _ I got killed. The guy was so hard,″ Long said. But he survived the Lombardi ``test of courage″ and learned about Nitschke’s other qualities.
``Off the field, I would have to say he was by far the most generous and gentle person I’ve ever met,″ he said.
Friends said Nitschke, a frequent golfer, seemed to be in fine physical shape in recent years.
His daughter, Amy Klaas, and her 17-month-old daughter, Jacqueline, were visiting at his winter home in Naples, Fla., when they took a drive to a friend’s house Sunday.
When her father developed chest pains, they stopped at a service station in Venice, Fla., and she went in for water and a soft drink. When she returned, he had been stricken. He was pronounced dead at a Venice hospital.
``He was a wonderful human being. He was like the epitome of what a football player should be,″ said Klaas, who lives in Spread Eagle, Wis. ``He thought of it as an honor for somebody to ask him for an autograph. He thought that was a privilege. He took time for anybody.″
Nitschke’s wife, Jackie, died of cancer in 1996. Other surviving children include his sons John and Richard.
Services were scheduled at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bayside Christian Fellowship Church in Green Bay.
The death was the second in the past month involving a former member of the Packers’ championship teams of the 1960s. Former defensive end Lionel Aldridge was found dead of natural causes in his suburban Milwaukee apartment Feb. 12, two days before his 57th birthday.