The NFL of the 1960s seemed peopled by mythic and muddy behemoths, most formidable among them its middle linebackers, who were tough enough to jam the straight-ahead run and agile enough to range from sideline to sideline. Their names were Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Chuck Bednarik, Joe Schmidt and Tommy Nobis. The best of them, some said, was the Green Bay Packers' Nitschke, who died of a heart attack on Sunday at age 61.
Balding, almost toothless, playing in a seemingly perpetual rage, Nitschke would have been a caricature of the maniacal middleman except for how well he performed from 1958 until '72. He ran the defense for all of Vince Lombardi's five championship teams. If the power sweep epitomized the Packers' offense, it was Nitschke's traffic-cop command and surprising athleticism—he had 25 interceptions in his 15 seasons—that defined their take-no-prisoners defense.
After his retirement, Nitschke made his home in (where else?) Green Bay. But he did have a part-time career as a celebrity pitchman, his tough-guy looks and gentle demeanor offering a combination irresistible to Madison Avenue. What the general public never saw was his annual performance at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Nitschke spoke of the game he loved. The stage was the annual preinduction luncheon, where all the members (Nitschke made the Hall in 1978) are invited to deliver a short speech. Nitschke would get to his feet almost painfully—he moved in a kind of rolling, limping walk from the years of wear and tear on his knees—adjust his glasses and, in a deep nimble, impart his feelings about the game that had taken this third-round draft pick from Illinois to the top of the spoils world. When it was over, more than a few listeners were left staring at their plates, moved by the emotion shown by this hard, and soft, man.
Walker's Vintage Whine
Rage Against The Machine
Last year Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey got into a snit when Michael Johnson was chosen over him as the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. This year, another Canadian sportsman is having a little trouble with his sportsmanship. Colorado Rockies slugger Larry Walker, a native of British Columbia, griped to the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the selection of Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve as The Canadian Press male athlete of the year. As the first Canadian baseball MVP, Walker said he feels the award should have gone to him, not to "a machine."
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