You can’t have a conversation about the greatest NFL linebackers of all time without Ray Nitschke. The Green Bay Packers legend played 15 seasons in the green and yellow and led the team to five NFL championships. But Nitschke wasn’t just an incredible player and a fiery leader. He was a beloved member of the Packers organization throughout his career and into retirement. His tragic death in 1998 shook the organization to its core.
Ray Nitschke’s NFL career with the Packers
Nowadays, NFL players swap teams seemingly as often as they get new haircuts. There’s barely any loyalty around the league anymore. Hell, even Tom Brady moved on from the New England Patriot after 20 historic years.
As for Ray Nitschke, you could never question where his allegiance stood. Nitschke was drafted in the third round of the 1958 NFL draft by the Packers, and he never looked back. The linebacker went on to play all 15 of his professional seasons in Green Bay.
Nitschke was the leader and captain of the Packers defense throughout the entire 1960s. Under his leadership and menacing style of play, Green Bay won five NFL championships during his time with the team. The Packers won the first two Super Bowls in NFL history thanks in large part to Nitschke.
The NFL legend was twice named a First-Team All-Pro, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.
USA TODAY ranked Ray Nitschke No. 42 on its NFL 100 list
In 2019, USA TODAY compiled a group of 19 veteran reporters to vote on and rank the 100 greatest NFL players of all time. With some of the brightest minds in the sport weighing in, Ray Nitschke was ranked No. 42 on the NFL 100 list.
Nitschke ranked ahead of Chuck Bednarik, Mike Singletary, and Roger Staubach on the list.
It wasn’t just the All-Pro honors or the five championships that made Nitschke great. It was his passion for the game, and the way he could flip a switch once he walked over the painted sideline.
Nitschke is considered one of the toughest NFL players to ever live. In such a violent sport, that’s a pretty elusive title to hold. No one ever instilled fear in their opponents quite as Nitschke did.
Maybe it was the missing teeth or the oversized facemask, but no NFL player wanted to meet No. 66 in the open field.
The tragic death of Ray Nitschke shocked and saddened the Packers organization in 1998
In 1998, Ray Nitschke was living comfortably in Naples, Fla. He was a frequent golfer in retirement, and he loved to spend time with his children and grandchildren.
On March 8, Nitschke took a drive with his daughter, Amy Klaas, and her one-year-old daughter to a friend’s house. Nitschke started to feel sharp chest pains during the drive, and he pulled over to a nearby rest stop.
Klaas walked inside to grab a few drinks, but Nitschke suffered a heart attack while sitting in the parked car. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital later that day. Nitschke was 61 years old.
“He was a wonderful human being. He was like the epitome of what a football player should be,″ Klaas told the Associated Press after her father’s death. “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 legacy stretched far beyond the football field. He touched everyone he met with his kindness and generosity. Packers fans around the world will never forget the gentle giant that was Ray Nitschke.