NFL luminaries, fans and family gathered Saturday to remember Green Bay Packers great Ray Nitschke, whose violent tackles became a signature of the Vince Lombardi teams that won five NFL titles in the 1960s.
Some 1,250 people packed the auditorium-like sanctuary of Bayside Christian Fellowship church for an emotional memorial service punctuated by occasional laughter and applause.
Nitschke’s teammates and relatives recalled him as a consummate athlete, loving father and caring, generous man.
“There will be a lot of people that will play middle linebacker for Green Bay and in the National Football League,” said former Packers defensive end Willie Davis, a teammate of Nitschke. “In my opinion, there will never be another Ray Nitschke.”
Nitschke, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker who played for the Packers from 1958 to 1972, died in Florida last Sunday of a heart attack. He was 61. Nitschke and the Bears’ Dick Butkus set the standard for the linebackers who rule the middle of NFL defenses in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nitschke’s daughter, Amy Klaas, tearfully spoke of her father’s compassion and love for people, and asked the assembly to carry on those traits.
“I just pray…that we all learn to be more like him,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’m going to miss him deeply.”
Carroll Dale, Nitschke’s roommate when the team traveled, got the crowd laughing with stories about life on the road.
“He was the reigning madman on the field and a teddy bear off the field,” Dale said.
Several hundred people, including Gov. Tommy Thompson, gathered in the church’s lobby before the service to pay their respects to Klaas, and her brothers, John and Richard.
“We just had to say goodbye to Ray,” siad Linda Robinson, 54, who lived near Nitschke in Oneida and came to the service with her 77-year-old mother. “It’s the closest we can get to Ray, to say goodbye and to say we loved him.”
The lobby resembled an exhibit in the Packers Hall of Fame, with six easels holding photo collages showing Nitschke’s time with the team, his family and his work for charity.
Also on display were a bust of Nitschke, and a trophy commemorating the linebacker’s selection to the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team. About 10 flower arrangements, many of them green and gold, were spread throughout the lobby.
The crowd waiting to speak to Nitschke’ family was a sea of green and gold, most wearing some type of Packers apparel - including jerseys with his No. 66.
One of Nitschke’s former teammates, Bill “Red” Mack, came from South Bend, Ind., to pay his respects. The two played together in 1966, when Mack was a wide receiver for Green Bay.
“I consider him one of my buddies,” Mack said. “They’ll be talking about Ray Nitschke long after I’m gone. He left a lot of memories.”
Former Nitschke teammates in attendance included quarterback Bart Starr, running back Pual Horung, lineman Jerry Kramer and end Max McGee, among others.
Defensive end Reggie White was among the current packers in attendance, along with team president Bob Harlan and general manager Ron Wolf.