Jerry Kramer got to know middle linebacker Ray Nitschke pretty well when both played for the Green Bay Packers under head coach Vince Lombardi.
Kramer was part of the same draft class with Nitschke, which was the class of 1958. That class also included linebacker Dan Currie, who was drafted in the first round, fullback Jim Taylor, who was drafted in the second round, Nitschke, who was selected in the third round and Kramer, who was selected in the fourth round.
All four of those players had excellent careers in the NFL, with two of them (Taylor and Nitschke) getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are many, including myself, who believe that Kramer deserves the same honor.
In his career, Nitschke was named All-Pro six times and was named to only one Pro Bowl squad for some ridiculous reason. Nitschke was also MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship game against the New York Giants, as he deflected one pass for an interception and recovered two fumbles, as the Packers won 16-7.
Coincidentally, in that same NFL title games versus the G-Men, Kramer was responsible for 10 of the 16 points that the Packers scored in that game, as he doubled as kicker and right guard in a game which was played in frigid and windy conditions at old Yankee Stadium.
Kramer received a game ball from the players and coaches for his efforts in that game as well.
Nitschke, like Kramer and a number of other players, were part of teams which ended up winning five NFL championships (including the first two Super Bowls) in seven years under coach Lombardi in Green Bay.
Kramer also got to know Nitschke well on the practice field.
Nitschke played hard at all times, whether in practice or in games, and he would use his most famous defensive technique often. That would be using his forearm as a formidable weapon. No. 66 would usually deliver that forearm blow to the head of an opponent, whether it was a ballcarrier or a blocker.
Now Nitschke usually reserved that aggressive style of play versus the opponents of the Packers, but he also sometimes put a vicious hit on a teammate on offense at practice.
That included Kramer at times.
Kramer also had a tradition with Nitschke before games, just before kickoff. Nitschke would pound Kramer twice on the shoulder pads and slap No. 64 on the side of the helmet.
That would definitely knock out the cobwebs for No. 64 before the official game started.
Kramer would do the same pre-game ritual to Nitschke, except for the slap to the helmet.
Kramer also got to know Nitschke off the field as well, where the former Fighting Illini star was a bit of a wild child his first few years in Green Bay.
Kramer reflected about the years he spent with Nitschke in Green Bay.
“Raymond probably had the greatest journey of anyone who ever played,” Kramer said. “In the early days, he was a drinker, a pain in the ass and a loudmouth. He was vulgar, rude and was just a real jerk.
“I almost got into it one time with him while we were having a few beers. I had him by the throat one time and threw him up against the wall. Ray didn’t want to fight because we were teammates, so I ended up just giving him a lecture about his obnoxious ways.
“About his third year with us, he met a lady who loved him and he quit drinking. He also found a team that loved him. And he became the most thoughtful, caring, loving, polite, decent, wonderful human being I’ve ever known.
“That also led him to become a hell of a football player and a great competitor.”
Besides being a great football player, Nitschke was a great athlete overall.
“I played golf with him one day and Ray shot a 67,” Kramer said. “We were playing with Jan Stenerud and Willie Wood. Stenerud said, ‘Jesus Christ, I shoot a 71 and get beat by four strokes.’
“Ray was a hell of a baseball player too. He could throw a football close to 80 yards as well. Plus, Ray also was a wonderful basketball player. All-around, Ray was really an exceptional athlete.”
And like so many of the players who played under coach Lombardi in Green Bay, Nitschke became an exceptional human being as well.