Its 1967. Breath hangs lazily in Wisconsins frigid winter
air at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.. In a place with so many people,
it is eerily silent. Poised and ready to strike, Ray Nitschke, middle
linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, surveys the opposition. When the
ball is snapped, Nitschke springs into action as the crashing of helmets,
pads, flesh and bone shatters the Sunday afternoon serenity. Nitschke
plows into, then past a blocker before drilling the running back and
driving him into the frozen tundra. The roar of the crowd is deafening
as Nitschke stands to his feet and throws a dangling chunk of grass
from his facemask. Once again he is victorious. He buttons his chinstrap
and heads back to the huddle. His demeanor tells his teammates he is
good to go again.
Thirty-one years later, family, friends, fans and former players gather
at Bayside Christian Fellowship in Green Bay to say good-bye to Nitschke,
who, at 61 years old, has died of a heart attack.
Bart Starr, the Packers prolific quarterback and most valuable
player of Super Bowls I and II, addresses those gathered. "He was
rough and tenacious and committed on defense," Starr says. "But
he walked away from the field as a very gentle, caring, kind person."
Though Nitschke had been immortalized as a football legend since his
playing days, his greatest transformation, according to family and friends,
occurred when he committed his life to Christ two years before his death.
"He was ready for death and for what he believed came after it,"
Arni Jacobson, Nitschkes pastor at Bayside Christian Fellowship,
Such faith had not always been the underpinning of Nitschkes
life. The reason: anger and bitterness toward God.
When Nitschke was 3, his father was killed in a car accident. When
he was 13, his mother died of a blood clot. "Sports was the only
thing that saved him back then," Amy Klaas, Nitschkes daughter,
says. "The only reason he went to college was he knew he needed
something to continue in sports."
After earning a scholarship to the University of Illinois as a fullback
and playing well there, Nitschke was drafted by the Green Bay Packers
in the third round of the National Football Leagues 1958 draft.
Being a professional athlete gave Nitschke a new and bountiful slate
of temptations. On the field, Nitschke epitomized Vince Lombardis
Green Bay Packers. But his actions off the field nearly ended his football
career. "He was somebody who felt he needed to prove himself over
and over, and not in a good way," Klaas says. "Coach Lombardi
gave him an ultimatum: that he either straighten out his life and quit
drinking or he would no longer be a Green Bay Packer."
Nitschke took Lombardis words seriously and made much-needed
changes in his life. His focus became even sharper when he met Jackie,
the woman he would eventually marry. Jackie was not impressed with his
rough and tumble demeanor. But as Nitschke channeled his anger into
his game rather than into his life, Jackie fell in love with him. Jackie
would also play a pivotal role in Nitschkes surrendering his life
Soon after Jackie began attending Bayside Christian Fellowship she
fell into a coma, but recovered after Jacobson and others prayed for
her. Nitschke, impressed by Gods power, committed his life to
Christ. For the next two years, he was actively involved at Bayside
When Jackie died one year after recovering from the coma, Nitschke
was shaken, but his newfound faith pulled him through, says Klaas.
"He didnt get into heaven because he was a great father,"
Jacobson says. "He didnt get in because he signed autographs
for everybody. He got in because the road to heaven goes through a personal
relationship with Jesus Christ."