Ray Nitschke, one of the most fearsome middle linebackers in the history of pro football and an anchor of the championship Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s, died yesterday in Venice, Fla. He was 61.
Nitschke, who had a winter home in Naples, Fla., suffered a heart attack while driving to the house of a family friend, said his daughter, Amy Klaas, who was with him when he was stricken. He was pronounced dead at Venice Hospital.
The personification of the rough-and-tumble linebacker who could smother a running back and level a quarterback with equal aplomb, Nitschke was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978 and was selected for the NFL's 50th and 75th anniversary all-star teams.
His old coach Vince Lombardi once called pro football "a game that requires the constant conjuring of animosity." Nitschke was not huge -- he stood 6 feet 3 and weighed 235 pounds -- but he fit Lombardi's mold perfectly, once remarking: "My father died when I was 3, my mother when I was 14, so I took it out on all the kids in the neighborhood. What I like about this game is the contact, the man-to-man, the getting-it-out-of-your-system."
Playing for the Packers from 1958 to 1972, Nitschke teamed up with fellow Hall of Famers such as Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Jerry Kramer, winning five NFL championships and starring on the teams that won the first two Super Bowls, in 1967 and 1968.
Nitschke was an unheralded collegian, having been drafted in the third round after playing fullback at the University of Illinois. But he was named to All-Pro teams in 1964, 1965 and 1966 and was voted Most Valuable Player in the Packers' 16-7 victory over the New York Giants in the 1962 NFL title game. On a windy day, with the temperature 10 degrees at kickoff, Nitschke recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass by quarterback, Y. A. Tittle, that resulted in an interception.
In a recent poll conducted by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel among former Packers players and coaches, he was voted the fourth-best player in Packers history, behind receiver Don Hutson; the current quarterback, Brett Favre, and Starr, the quarterback on Lombardi's teams.
Nitschke, who made his permanent home in Green Bay, often attended Packers practices, traveled to many road games and chatted amiably with fans who approached him for autographs, in contrast to his fierce presence on the field. But the fire still burned.
When the Packers made their Super Bowl run in 1997, defensive end Sean Jones thought back to the stars of the Green Bay teams of the 1960s.
"What people don't understand outside Green Bay is that here we have to exorcise those ghosts -- Willie Wood, Willie Davis, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke," he said. "I think Ray Nitschke thinks we stink."
Nitschke said he did not feel that way, but he made certain that his successors played with the intensity he had.
"Nitschke, he's really intense," star defensive end Reggie White said a few days before that Super Bowl. "He'll come over and smack you in the face and say, 'You can't lose this game.' He's like a coach, but after a while you say, 'Ray, you got to stop smacking me.' "
Nitschke's wife, Jackie, died of cancer in 1996. Other surviving children are his sons John and Richard. The Packers said Nitschke would be buried in Green Bay.
Pub Date: 3/09/98