As a die-hard Green Bay Packer fan, I find it simply amazing that a team with a quarterback on the shelf and injuries to a number of other key players is still in the hunt for a playoff berth.
Contemplating that, my mind wandered back to another day, another era, and another Green Bay Packer team of more than four decades past.
On that long-ago occasion, I sat down at a table in Green Bay. A mammoth of a man sat across from me and a fierce looking older man was beside me.
You bet I was. This was the Green Bay Packers, a team that I’d watched with fervor for more than a decade, a team that had won the first two Super Bowls, a team that had so many players be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame when their careers finally ended.
Across the table was the Packers’ first draft pick that year of 1970 – Mike McCoy of Notre Dame. McCoy stood 6’5” and tipped the scales just a few pounds under 300. Even though he had yet to play a game for Green Bay, you just knew he’d be good – teams like the Packers don’t use the second overall draft pick for a “maybe” player.
The man beside me, though, was one of my personal heroes.
What had drawn me to Green Bay that day was the Packer pre-season media gathering at Lambeau Field in 1970. Four of us sat at the table (the fourth was another Wisconsin media representative, one I’ve totally forgotten in the past 40-plus years; he’s no doubt forgotten me, too). We exchanged small talk as waiters replaced salads with plates of filet mignon before Packer big-wigs spoke.
I looked at my steak, with a baked potato and vegetable “side” when, suddenly, the big man to my left stabbed my baked potato with his fork and whisked it away.
“I’m on a high carb diet,” he said. “I have to eat your potato.”
Before I had time to tell him that I didn’t care; that he could have anything off my plate that he wanted, he put the fork in his filet mignon and put it on my plate. “I can’t have this, so you can have it.”
Not a bad trade, I’d guess. I’d swap a baked potato for a filet mignon any day.
That incident was our informal “how-do-you-do” greeting.
I didn’t know that Ray Nitschke and I would become pretty good friends after a chance second meeting just a few weeks later. But, we struck up a conversation; he seemed genuinely interested to know that I’d only recently been discharged from the Army, that I’d played baseball in Sweden and that I was a big Iowa football fan.
He’d played at Illinois and in those days, Iowa and Illinois never met on the gridiron, the result of an incident that caused some bad blood between the two state universities several years before.
So, we talked about Big 10 football and made small talk about the Milwaukee Brewers who had just moved to the state after playing as the Seattle Pilots in 1969. But, I was very much more interested in his career with the Green Bay Packers.
One thing he told me that I’ll never forget was this: “They call me an animal out there and that really bothers me; I’m not an animal, I’m a human just like everyone else. I just play football as hard as I can.” When he said that, I could tell he was hurt when peopled called him an “animal.”
On that day, I found that Ray Nitschke was just like everyone else who’s ever been bullied. Names can hurt – even if you’re a perennial all-pro linebacker.
I left the luncheon having enjoyed my first “up close” meeting with the Green Bay Packers, not knowing that Nitschke and I would meet again just a few weeks later and that we would keep in contact, if only irregularly, for some time before his untimely death in 1998 when he was only 61.
On a rainy late October night in Wausau, I walked the sidelines at a Wausau West High School football game. There was a stirring behind me; Ray Nitschke had come to the game to see a friend’s son play. He was being mobbed by fans, more interested in him than in the game.
I walked over to the horde of people and yelled, “Hey, Mr. Nitschke, remember me?” He did and I told him to follow me. I walked him around back and up into the sanctity of the press box. I was happy to be up there out of the cold rain, too.
I guess it was on that night we became friends, if not close, at least from afar.
I was thrilled when he was inducted into football’s Hall of Fame in 1978. I was sad when he died 20 years later.
But, I was glad I got to know him, if only for a few years. And, you’ll never tell me that Ray Nitschke was an “animal” on a football field. I knew only the human side of the man.