The Green Bay Packers of the 1960s under head coach Vince Lombardi always seemed to have a great set of linebackers on the field. Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Phil Bengtson, the linebackers for the Packers were always good, no matter who they were. Just take a look…
- Ray Nitschke was named to one Pro Bowl squad and was a two-time First-Team All-Pro. Also named to the NFL All-Decade Team for the 1960s. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.
- Dan Currie was named to one Pro Bowl squad and was a First-Team All-Pro once.
- Bill Forester was named to four Pro Bowl squads and was a three-time First-Team All-Pro.
- Dave Robinson was named to three Pro Bowl squads and was a First-Team All-Pro once. Also named to the NFL All-Decade Team for the 1960s. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
- Lee Roy Caffey was named to one Pro Bowl squad and was a First-Team All-Pro once.
There was another linebacker who played for the Packers for just a brief period who had the potential to be as good, if not better, than any of the linebackers named above.
I’m talking about Nelson Toburen. The Packers selected Toburen in 14th round in the 1961 NFL draft out of the University of Wichita. The draft took place a month after super scout Jack Vainisi had passed away. In the ’61 draft, the Packers also selected Herb Adderley in Round 1, plus also selected Ron Kostelnik in the second round, Lee Folkins in the fifth round and Elijah Pitts in the 13th round.
Another rookie made the team in 1961 as well. I’m talking about defensive lineman Ben Davidson, who Lombardi had acquired from the New York Giants. The G-Men had selected Davidson in the fourth round of the ’61 NFL draft.
That’s six rookies who made the first team which won a NFL title for Lombardi in 1961.
I had a chance to talk with Toburen earlier this week and I asked him about his expectations regarding the NFL draft.
“Bob, I had no concept about playing pro football,” Toburen said. “Nobody contacted you prior to the draft like they do now. I was told by the coach that I had been drafted.”
Like a lot of players back in college football then, Toburen played both ways. He was both an offensive end and a defensive end. But Toburen knew what side of the ball he would be playing in the NFL.
“There was absolutely no question that I was going to play defense in my own mind and I’m sure in theirs too,” Toburen said. “That was my forte.”
In the 1961 season, the year the Packers became Titletown, Toburen played in all 14 games and was a special teams demon.
Before the 1962 season started, Toburen went face to face across the desk with Coach Lombardi (who was also general manager) to talk about his contract for 1962.
“You were just totally at Lombardi’s mercy,” Toburen said. “We had no power. What he said was it. The only time I ever negotiated with him was after my rookie season. I kept telling him that I wanted to make five figures. Which was $10,000. Coach just grinned and said I’m giving you a big increase, which was from $7,500 to $9,000.
“From a percentage-wise outlook, that was a nice raise. But finally he agreed that if I started or played so many minutes that I would get a bonus of $1,000 which would take me to $10,000.”
In the 1962 season, the 6’3″, 235-pound Toburen was a terror on special teams for the Packers again and finally got a chance to start in Week 10 of the season when Currie couldn’t play. It was an exciting time for Toburen and his family.
“My wife was with all the Packer wives who got all dressed up with their high heels and fancy clothes for that game,” Toburen said. “My dad took his first airplane flight in his lifetime from Denver to Green Bay for that game. Plus, dad was on the sidelines, as Vince made sure he got him a sideline pass for the game.”
But all of that excitement and happiness turned into a very scary moment for Toburen and his family in the game against the Baltimore Colts and quarterback Johnny Unitas.
The Packers were undefeated going into the game against the Colts and were fortunate to get a win in the first game (and last game) that Toburen ever started. The Packers won 17-13, even though the team only had 116 total yards. Special teams and defense were the reason the Packers won that day. Adderley returned a kickoff for 103 yards for a score, plus picked off a pass. Toburen also caused a Unitas fumble on what turned out to be the last play of his NFL career.
Toburen talked to me about that play.
“I tell people the story about my career that has been told multiple times was not about my playing football, but about my injury,” Toburen said. “I believe it was mid-4th quarter and it was a close game. The Colts were across the 50 and Unitas went back to pass and then started to run. I’m thinking to myself that we have to stop this guy.
“I set out to make Unitas fumble. I was in the flat and Nitschke was more in the center of the field when Unitas started running. Quarterbacks in those days didn’t slide and I got to Unitas well ahead of Nitschke and I hit him hard enough to cause him to fumble, which Nitschke recovered.
“But at that moment, I was done. I just dropped to the ground and my arms were on fire. I hurt like nothing I could ever explain. Obviously the brachial plexus area, the nerves that run up to your neck were being pinched. So the trainer came out and saw me and said, ‘Pinch nerve, get him up.’
“But about that time, Dr. James Nellen arrived. I was conscious all this time. And Nellen said, ‘No, no no. Don’t touch him.’ So Dr. Nellen asked me what was going on and he held my head in what was a traction position. And that relieved the pain in my arms somewhat. Back then, they just had the old Army stretcher in those days, the two sticks with canvass, so they put me on the stretcher.
“They might have given me some pain medication. I can’t remember how they got that helmet off of me. I don’t remember that stuff. Maybe I passed out. I just have a vague memory of Dr. Nellen holding my head all the way to the hospital. They finally got me in traction in that same position to relieve that pain. They spent two or three days trying to figure out what happened. I was told later that they were trying to get an X-ray, but they needed to get in from the side, but my shoulder bones were in the way.
“The injury was in the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae of my neck. Dr. Nellen told me later that that the fifth fractured in half and the sixth moved completely out of position. The only reason that my spinal cord wasn’t cut was because the break came out at an angle. That saved my bacon. And Dr. Nellen did as well. I credited him for saving my mobility. I’m sure had I been lifted up after my injury, that my spinal cord would have been cut or severely injured.”
The tackling form by Toburen on the play is what basically caused the injury. When making a tackle, players are coached to keep their head up when hitting an opposing ballplayer. That did not happen when Toburen hit Unitas.
“The top of my head hit the hip of Unitas,” Toburen said. “It hit a the most solvent point of Unitas’ body. It was a bad hit, no question.. Bad position hit, anyway.”
At one point, Toburen was going to be sent to the Cleveland Clinic to have a procedure done for his neck fracture, as the doctor goes in from the throat to do a bone graft to fix the issue.
I had the same procedure done in 2007 when I fractured my neck in an auto accident. But fortunately for Toburen, he didn’t need the procedure.
“My system was such that it started to heal and calcify on it’s own,’ Toburen said. “Thank goodness they didn’t have to do that. All the repair is what is called a closed reduction. They didn’t have to cut on me at all.”
It wasn’t easy for Toburen as he was recovering from his injury.
“I was in a body cast for a few weeks,” Toburen said. “My head was push way up in the air and the cast went down to my hips.”
While he laid in the hospital recovering from his injury in a body cast, Toburen got a visit from Lombardi.
“Vince and Marie came to visit me at the hospital,” Toburen said. “Lombardi saw me in that cast and immediately chocked up and left the room.”
Still, Toburen planned to return to the Packers and play again in the NFL. That was until he heard from Dr. Nellen about six months after his injury in 1963 when he told him his playing career was over. That was devastating news for Toburen.
“Yes, up to that moment, I was optimistic that I was going to be coming back,” Toburen said. “That news just crushed me.”
Lombardi and the Packers paid Toburen his salary for the 1963 season, which they did not have to do.
Toburen stayed in Green Bay from the time of his injury in November of 1962 to May of 1964.
“It took me some time emotionally and physically to get back on my feet,” Toburen said. “It took me a while to get my emotional state back together. I was going to be a ballplayer and then I had to change course.”
After that, Toburen moved back to Topeka, Kansas where he went to law school and got a degree. Toburen then was invited to join a law firm in Pittsburg, Kansas where he practiced law for 20 years, mostly as a trial lawyer. Then Toburen was appointed to the bench to become a judge by the Governor of Kansas. Toburen then spent 15 years on the bench before he retired.
When I have talked to teammates (like Jerry Kramer) of Toburen who played with him with the Packers, they all have said Toburen was as talented as any linebacker on the team. There is no doubt that without having the career-ending injury, Toburen would have had a fabulous career in Green Bay at linebacker.
“If I hadn’t been hurt in that game, I would have been a starter for the rest of my time in Green Bay,” Toburen said. “There is no question in my mind. I had the position down. Both Forester and Currie were at the end of their careers.”
The Packers drafted Robinson in the first round of the 1963 NFL draft most likely due to the injury suffered by Toburen. The Packers then traded for Caffey in 1964, because the team was in need of additional help at outside linebacker.
“Yes, I have talked to Dave Robinson,” Toburen said. “And he told me that he probably wouldn’t have been drafted if I hadn’t been hurt.”
Toburen has some other memories of his time with the Packers.
“I also remember that everyone smoked cigarettes,” Toburen said. “The light from those old fashioned cameras had to get past that smoke. Everybody smoked it seemed. I remember Paul Hornung distributing Marlboros around the locker room.”
Toburen then reflected back on the beginning of his career in Green Bay.
“Although I never met Jack Vainisi, I read about about all the great players he helped draft for the Packers,” Toburen said. “He was quite a wizard at picking out good ballplayers. Not necessarily the best known players either. Like me for instance. He found players that weren’t All-Americans.”
A great example of that is Bart Starr, who was selected in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL draft after not playing much quarterback at all his senior year at Alabama. All told, Vainisi helped the Packers select eight players in the 1950s who later were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The bottom line is that Toburen’s time in Green Bay is something he will never forget.
“I tell people that it was the most exciting time of my life,” Toburen said. “I don’t think I ever had enjoyed anything more than that period of my life. You just can’t compare it to anything else. I just loved it!”