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The average athlete begins to wonder when his career is going to end almost as soon as he starts it—knowing that it either can be shortened with devastating swiftness by an injury, or eventually reach the point at which the great skills begin to erode.

Two summers ago I was driving up to Green Bay, Wisconsin, with a football player who had much of this on his mind. His name was Bill Curry, a veteran center who was on his way to the Packers’ training camp where he was going to give football one more try. He had started there ten years before under Vince Lombardi, and now his career, which had been most illustrious with the Baltimore Colts, had come full circle to the club where it had begun.

On the way we spent one night in the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. Curry and I left the hotel early the next morning, planning to arrive in Green Bay before noon. Bill seemed preoccupied. We drove along in silence for a while—the countryside, beginning to shimmer in the July heat, slipping by.

“Curious,” Curry said. “I can never think of the Pfister Hotel without remembering Ray Nitschke—the best middle linebacker there ever was.

“When I first signed with Green Bay, in 1964, I was in awe of Nitschke. Off the field he looked professorial: glasses, a high, balding dome. In uniform he looked powerful and mean. The awe soon became tempered by a sort of hatred. At practices he’d appear on the field padded to the hilt and you came to know it was going to be a long, tough day. He’d run around clotheslining people and crashing into them, even the quarterbacks.

“He was Lombardi’s instrument to instill fear. Lombardi would say something like, ‘I’m going to use fear on you guys. I’m going to make you afraid. I know you’re not afraid of the physical aspects of football, or you wouldn’t be here. But you are afraid of embarrassment. That’s what I’m going to do, humiliate you until you do the job.’

“I didn’t really know what Lombardi meant until one day he said, ‘Well, now we’re going to have a blitz drill.’ In a blitz drill the middle linebacker comes charging toward the line. The center is supposed to drop straight back about three yards, set his feet, and then hit the middle linebacker before he gets to the passer. Nitschke was at middle linebacker, and I wasn’t at all afraid of him. But the first time he hit me was the hardest I’d ever been hit in my life. He knocked me down. A bit stunned, I got up and I thought, Well, I’ll hit him that way next time. But I couldn’t seem to do it! I never did get to where I could block him on those plays. Every time I missed him, Lombardi would go into a tantrum: ‘Goddammit, Curry, can’t you move! Can’t you do anything!’ And then a strange thing happened: I began to dread those blitz drills—with a fear that I had never experienced before in my whole life.”

The last time I saw Nitschke was in 1972. I was with the Oilers, and we were in Milwaukee to play the Packers. I walked into the lobby of the Pfister Hotel, looked around, and there was Nitschke. It was as if I’d walked through a time warp. There he sat, with his gleaming dome, surveying what had been his for many years. He was trying to struggle back for his fifteenth year as an N.F.L. linebacker, but, from what I was hearing through the grapevine, he was not making it.

“After the game I ran over to him and took the hand of this man who had stomped me physically and emotionally during my first two years with the Packers, and I said, ‘Ray, I’ve never thanked you for what you did for me.’ I meant it sincerely, because he helped make me a lot tougher. He had not gone about it very pleasantly, but he had meant to help me improve, and I think we both knew that.

“I watched him run off the County Stadium field for the last time. That big number sixty-six and that unique gait of his, leaning forward, huge shoulders and arms pumping slightly, skinny calves. I realized that I had just touched a legend and was seeing him brought down by the very sport he had helped build.

From “The Final Season,” which appeared in the January 1977 issue of Harper’s Magazine.


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September 2019