Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Mystery with Matt

Like all kids who grow up right in Wisconsin, I'm a Packers fan. I was also a Marquette basketball fan like thousands of other kids of that era, thanks in large part to the Al McGuire wins of the late 1970s. Before I left for the South, I was a Badgers football fan too -- again, as is required of sports fans in Wisconsin. 

Thanks to being a band geek, I had a number of friends who eventually did that crazy high-stepping marching stuff at Wisconsin.

In fact, my dislike for the Tennessee Volunteers started thanks to the 1981 Garden State Bowl. Prior to the Barry Alvarez years starting in the early 1990s, the Badgers football team was not a good program -- the Garden State Bowl was only the program's fourth-ever bowl game. It was also the program's first non-Rose Bowl post-season game; the Badgers lost all three of those Rose Bowls (1952, 1959, and 1962).

So, when the Badgers made the 1981 Garden State Bowl, there was a lot of excitement in Wisconsin. Tennessee had other plans, though, and beat the Badgers 28-21. Man, I hated Willie Gault after that game. That win capped off a Volunteer season that started with a 44-0 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium but finished 8-4 for them. This bowl game took place on December 13, 1981 -- crazy how early in December that was.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the entire Garden State Bowl is available on YouTube.

Move forward to the 1990s. From 1990 to 1994, I was at Vanderbilt -- a school whose football history prior to 1990 was close to Wisconsin's history. While the Badgers went to three bowl games in the 1980s to make it 6 total, Vanderbilt made it to just three bowls total in the 20th Century -- beating Auburn in the 1955 Gator Bowl, tying Texas Tech 6-6 in the 1974 Peach Bowl, and losing 36-28 to Air Force in the Hall of Fame Bowl. After that Hall of Fame Bowl, the team went on probation because they were found to have engaged in significant steroid use. No kidding.

Barry Alvarez started at Wisconsin in 1990, and by 1993 he had the team winning the Rose Bowl. Had I not decided to go back to the South and go to Georgia, I probably would have gone to the University of Wisconsin for law school and been a Badger fan for life. 

With all that said, I was still surprised when I got a PWE from Matt of the Summer of '74 blog. It came with a ticket stub and a note.

Here's the Ticket Stub:

As you can see, this ticket stub dates from 1955, and it was good for the game between the No. 16 Fighting Illini of Illinois versus the Badgers at Camp Randall. Needless to say, I had no idea why Matt was sending this to me when I saw it.

Then I read his note:


Huh. This was the "Dairy State Debut" of an "All-Time Great." And, it's something that Matt thought "a Packer fan" would dig. 

So, let's start with logic first. Obviously, we're talking about a Green Bay legend and one guaranteed to be a member of the Lombardi Packers. That's true because otherwise the player wouldn't be a Green Bay player and he wouldn't be an "all-time great." 

Next, since this game took place in November, I immediately guessed that whomever the legend would be had to be an Illinois player because the Badgers had already played four home games at Camp Randall, including their opening game against non-conference foe Marquette.

Thus, I'm now looking at who was playing for Illinois. The minute I pulled up the Sports Reference roster for the 1955 Illinois team, it became obvious. 

Raymond Ernest Nitschke -- a Chicagoland native -- started at running back and linebacker for the Fighting Illini. Nitschke was named the #47 all-time greatest NFL player in 2010 after having the distinction of being the only player named to the all-time NFL 50th Anniversary team in 1969 and the 75th Anniversary team in 1994. 

Nitschke had a rough life growing up -- his dad died in a car wreck when Ray was only 4 years old, and his mom died of a blood clot when Ray was just 13. As a result, he was raised by his brothers.

In college, he was a smoker, a heavy drinker, and a barroom brawler. He was not taken seriously by his professors because of being on a football scholarship. He started as a quarterback, but due to injuries, he was moved to fullback. In those days of the starting 11 being the starting 11 whether on offense or defense, he also played linebacker -- which is where he blossomed. 

Nitschke grew up a Bears fan, so it had to rankle him that the Bears did not selected him before the Packers did in the third round of the 1958 NFL Draft. That draft was incredible for the Packers since the team also selected running back Jim Taylor from LSU and guard Jerry Kramer from Idaho. Taylor and Nitschke are in the Hall of Fame, and Kramer is a senior committee finalist this year who should be in the Hall of Fame. 

Nitschke played for 15 years with the Packers. He retired in the 1973 preseason, in late August. His last game was a first-round playoff loss to the Redskins.

He settled in Green Bay to live during and after football, splitting time between Green Bay and Naples, Florida. His wife Jackie served as a calming influence, getting Ray to settle down off the field. He was beloved in Green Bay -- so beloved, in fact, that he kept his phone number and home address listed in the Green Bay phone book because he just did not mind having fans say hello.

The Packers retired his number 66 in 1983. The other retired numbers for the team include Bart Starr's #15, Tony Canadeo's #3, Brett Favre's #4, Don Hutson's #14, and Reggie White's #92.

Nitschke died young -- aged just 61 years old -- in 1998 of a heart attack. He was driving to a friend's house with his daughter Amy when it happened. The Packers have named one of its two outdoor practice fields for him, and the US 141 bridge over the Fox River in Green Bay is also named for him.

Matt, many thanks for the opportunity to dig into a little Packer and Badger history!