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From fear to faith: the story of Ray Nitschke

By Isaac Olivarez

It’s 1967. Breath hangs lazily in Wisconsin’s 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, Nitschke’s pastor at Bayside Christian Fellowship, says.

Such faith had not always been the underpinning of Nitschke’s 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, Nitschke’s 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 League’s 1958 draft.

Being a professional athlete gave Nitschke a new and bountiful slate of temptations. On the field, Nitschke epitomized Vince Lombardi’s 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 Lombardi’s 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 Nitschke’s surrendering his life to Christ.

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 God’s power, committed his life to Christ. For the next two years, he was actively involved at Bayside Christian Fellowship.

When Jackie died one year after recovering from the coma, Nitschke was shaken, but his newfound faith pulled him through, says Klaas.

"He didn’t get into heaven because he was a great father," Jacobson says. "He didn’t get in because he signed autographs for everybody. He got in because the road to heaven goes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Isaac Olivarez is a Pentecostal Evangel staff writer.

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