Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I didn't realize until this morning...

...that two of the greatest middle linebackers in history both went to Illinois, Ray Nitschke (above) and Dick Butkus (below). (And they played against each other in the NFL for seven years.)

According to the Trib's great series, "Countdown to high school football kickoff":

66. Jersey number worn by Proviso (now Proviso East) grad, Illinois great, former Packer and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke. 

According to Wikipedia (all emphasis mine):

Nitschke was born on December 29, 1936 in Elmwood Park, Illinois, the youngest of three sons to Robert and Anna Nitschke. His father was killed in a car accident in 1940, and his mother died of a blood clot when Ray was 13. Older brothers Robert Jr. (age 21) and Richard (age 17) decided they would raise Ray on their own.

Ray entered Proviso High School in Maywood shortly before his mother's death. The loss of both parents enraged Nitschke, and the lack of a parental disciplinarian to quell his rage, caused him to engage in fights with other kids in the neighborhood. His freshman year at Proviso, Ray played fullback on one of the school's three football teams. He was a poor student at school and his grades eventually caught up with him as he was declared academically ineligible to play sports his sophomore year. This embarrassment he would lament for the rest of his life.

He succeeded in raising his grades sufficiently enough in his sophomore year to allow him to engage in sports his junior year. By his junior year he had grown significantly to stand at 6' and his quick temper had become notorious. His junior year he became the quarterback on offense, and safety on defense of the varsity football team, for coach Andy Puplis. He played varsity basketball and was a pitcher and left fielder for the varsity baseball team. His baseballs skills brought him an offer from the professional St. Louis Browns with, what Ray considered an astronomical amount, a $3,000 signing bonus. Ray was also offered scholarships from college football programs around the country. Puplis advised him to accept a football scholarship. His desire to play at a Big Ten college, with a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, caused him to accept a football scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1954.

In the rural community, which his University was set in, Nitschke soon relished and embellished his role as a streetwise punk. He smoked, drank heavily, and fought at the drop of a hat. Never a good student in high school, his grades suffered at college. Similar to his contemporary, Jerry Kramer, Ray was ostracized by his professors because he attended the university as the result of a football scholarship.

In his sophomore year, due to a depletion of players in the offensive backfield, Illini head coach, Ray Eliot moved Nitschke from quarterback to fullback. His childhood dream of quarterbacking a team to a victory in the Rose Bowl was shattered. At this time, college football had reverted to single-platoon football. Single-platoon football meant those players that were on offense had to switch to defense, and vice-versa, when ball possession changed. On defense, Nitschke moved to the linebacking position. He proved to be a very skilled player and an absolute brutal tackler as a linebacker, so much so that, by Ray's senior year, Paul Brown considered him the best linebacker in college football. 

Growing up in the outskirts of Chicago, Ray had always idolized the Bears and he hoped to be chosen by them in the 1958 NFL draft. However, on December 2, 1957, Nitschke was chosen by Jack Vainisi, in what is considered the greatest drafting year in the history of the Green Bay Packers franchise, as a second pick of the third round.

Nitschke, of course, went on to play for the Packers until 1972 and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1978.

Dick Butkus, who played for the Bears from 1965-1973, was also elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1979. 

From his Wikipedia page:

The youngest of eight children of an immigrant family from Lithuania, Richard Marvin "Dick" Butkus grew up in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. He played high school football for coach Bernie O'Brien at Chicago Vocational High School.

Butkus played center and linebacker from 1962 through 1964 at the University of Illinois.

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