Monday, December 29, 2014

Pillars of the NFL: Ray Nitschke

In Patrick McCaskey's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships  he covers the ten greatest NFL coaches of all-time.  Among the pillars is Vince Lombardi who coached the Green Bay Packers to five NFL Championships in the 1970s.  Lombardi was one of most gifted coaches who made his mark on NFL history. 

One of Lombardi's great players was Ray Nitschke. 

Ray Nitschke

Ray Nitschke played at the University of Illinois and he was skilled enough to play quarterback, fullback, and linebacker.  He was selected in the third round of the NFL draft in 1958.  Nitschke would develop into a Hall of Fame linebacker who was both feared and revered. 

In many ways Nitschke's sneer was the face of the Packers' defense during the Lombardi years and is still remembered today.  Oddly enough, golden-haired Clay Matthews with his famous muscle-flexing pose is today's replacement for a Ray Nitschke pose on the mud soaked field in the 1960s.  Nitschke left nothing on the field in those days.

In the 1961 NFL Championship game, Nitschke made an interception to set up a Green Bay touchdown.  Although the game was played on New Year’s Eve, it was more like Halloween for the the Packers' foe, the New York Giants.  Things began slowly with no score in the first quarter before the nightmare began for the Giants.  After a Nitschke interception in the first few minutes of the second quarter, Hornung took the ball in from the 6-yard line.  Another Nitschke interception, this one with an assist by Green Bay tackle Henry Jordan who tipped the ball, gave the Packers the ball just 33 yards from the end zone.  Nitchke and the Packers won the game 37–0 and gave the Giants a whopper of a 1961 football hangover. 

In the 1962 NFL Championship game, Nitschke recovered two fumbles and was named the game's MVP.  On the Giants first possession, they drove the ball down to the Packers’ 16 with a good mix of runs and passes.  The Giants famed quarterback, Y. A. Tittle looked sharp, but his arm was whacked by Nitschke while throwing and the resultant wounded-duck pass was intercepted by Dan Currie, killing a promising Giants’ drive.  

Two of the game’s top competitors, Sam Huff, the Giants’ great middle linebacker, and Jim Taylor, the Packers’ rugged fullback, went toe-to-toe on several plays during the game.  Huff always had an extra whack for Taylor on each tackle and Taylor, who was known to take any impediment of his progress personally, was riled up.  When Phil King of the Giants fumbled on the Giants’ 38 and Green Bay recovered, the Packers were poised to make the most of it.  Hornung threw a halfback option pass to Boyd Dowler who ran to the Giants’ 7-yard line.  Taylor took the ball right up the gut through Huff’s turf and into the end zone for a score.  The Packers led, 10–0.

In the second half, the Giants’ offense stalled, but the defense scored a touchdown when Jim Collier recovered a blocked punt in the end zone.  Jerry Kramer kicked his second field goal from 29 yards out and then his third field goal from 30 yards out late in the game.  Green Bay won 16–7.  Lombardi’s Packers had their second championship.

In Super Bowl I, Nitschke made six tackles including a sack. In Super Bowl II, he was the leading tacker with nine tackles. 

Raised by his older brothers after his parents died young, Nitschke was a angry young man who struggled in his studies.  He had a long career in Green Bay and played for 15 seasons.  His tenacity and play would often be compared to Dick Butkus who followed him at the University of Illinois.  

 See "The Day Dick Butkus Caught a Bobby Douglass Pass for the Win."