Born in Elmwood Park, Illinois, Nitschke was 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.
Nitschke 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. During his freshman year at Proviso, he played fullback on one of the school's three football teams. He was a poor student and his grades eventually caught up with him as he was declared academically ineligible to play sports his sophomore year. He would lament this embarrassment for the rest of his life.
He succeeded in raising his grades sufficiently enough in his sophomore year to allow him to play sports his junior year, when he had grown significantly (to six feet tall). He starred on the varsity football team, playing quarterback on offense and safety on defense for coach Andy Puplis. He played varsity basketball and was a pitcher and left fielder for the varsity baseball team. His baseball skills brought him an offer from the professional St. Louis Browns with a $3,000 signing bonus. Nitschke was also offered scholarships from college football programs around the country. Puplis advised him to accept a football scholarship. Due to his desire to play at a Big Ten college, with a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, he accepted a football scholarship to the University of Illinois in 1954.
While attending the University of Illinois, Nitschke 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, Nitschke 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, shattering his childhood dream of quarterbacking a team to a victory in the Rose Bowl. At this time, college football had reverted to primarily single-platoon football, meaning those players that were on offense had to switch to defense, and vice versa, when ball possession changed. On defense, Nitschke played linebacker. He proved to be a very skilled player and tackler as a linebacker, so much so that, by his senior year, Paul Brown considered him the best linebacker in college football.
Growing up in the outskirts of Chicago, Nitschke had 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 the Green Bay Packers as the second pick of the third round of the 1958 NFL Draft in what is considered the greatest drafting year in the history of the franchise. This draft included two other significant Packers of the 1960s, fullback Jim Taylor of LSU (2nd round, 15th overall) and right guard Jerry Kramer of Idaho (4th round 39th overall). Their rookie season in 1958 was dismal as the Packers with just one win and one tie finished with the worst record in the 12-team league. Nitschke wore number 66 his entire career with the Packers.
A month after the 1958 season ended, Vince Lombardi was hired as head coach. Nitschke became a full-time starter in 1962, the anchor of a disciplined defense that helped win five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls in the 1960s. He was the MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game, accepting the prize of a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette. In the game, Nitschke recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass that was intercepted. The Packers won, 16-7, and finished the season with a 14-1 record. In Super Bowl I, Nitschke contributed six tackles and a sack. In Super Bowl II, Nitschke led Green Bay's defense with nine tackles.
On December 17, 1972, the 9-4 Packers traveled to New Orleans to play the 1-11-1 Saints at Tulane Stadium for Nitschke's last regular-season game of his career. Nitschke recorded the only pass reception of his career in this game, a 34-yard gain after a blocked field goal attempt for which he was blocking, and the Packers won the game, 30-20. they had clinched the NFC Central division title the week before, their first playoff berth since Super Bowl II. Green Bay lost on the road to the Washington Redskins, 16-3, in the first round of the playoffs. Nitschke retired during the following year's training camp, in late August 1973.
Nitschke was known for his strength and toughness. Once, the bleachers on the Packers practice field collapsed on top of Nitschke. Lombardi ran over to see what had happened, but when told it had fallen on Nitschke, said, "He'll be fine. Get back to work!" According to Nitschke's biography, a spike was driven into his helmet, but did not injure him. The helmet (with the hole) is currently on display in the Packer Hall of Fame in Green Bay. Although Nitschke was known for his hard hitting, he was an athletic all-around linebacker who also intercepted 25 passes over his career.
Nitschke was married on June 26, 1961 to Jackie Forchette. Jackie was unable to have children, so they adopted three: John in 1963, Richard in 1966, and Amy in 1972. Ray and Jackie had a winter home in Naples, Florida. Lombardi gave partial credit to Nitschke's success to Nitschke's wife, whose calming influence helped him focus on his career. Nitschke remained popular in Green Bay after retiring, even having his phone number and home address published in the Green Bay phone book.
In the late 1980s, Nitschke owned an automobile dealership in Green Bay. He performed several of his own TV commercials in which he brought out his dog, "Butkus", named in honor of his Chicago Bears nemesis, Dick Butkus. He appeared in the comic film Head, starring The Monkees, as a footballer who repeatedly tackles Peter Tork in a mock war movie sequence. His character is listed in the credits as "Private One" because his jersey is emblazoned with the number "1". Nitschke also appeared in the 1974 football comedy The Longest Yard as Guard Bogdanski.
Nitschke died of a heart attack in Venice, Florida at the age of 61 in 1998. He had been driving to the home of a family friend, according to his daughter, Amy Klaas, who was with him when he was stricken. He was pronounced dead at Venice Hospital.
Nitschke's number was retired by the Packers in 1983
His #66 was retired in 1983, the fourth of only six numbers retired by the Packers. The only other Lombardi-era player to have his number retired is quarterback Bart Starr, whose #15 was retired in 1973. Also, the team has named one of its two outdoor practice fields "Ray Nitschke Field".
In 1969, he was awarded as the NFL's all-time top Linebacker by the NFL in honor of the NFL's 50th Anniversary. Thus he is the only linebacker to have made both the NFL's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.
He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978. Every year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a luncheon the day before its induction ceremony, attended by most of the living members and honoring the new inductees. Nitschke always spoke at this luncheon, telling the new inductees what a great honor they were receiving, and that they were now members of the greatest team of them all. Following his death, the Hall named the luncheon after him. He was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1981.
Nitschke appeared on What's My Line following the 1962 NFL championship game, wearing his standard black rimmed glasses and not looking at all like one of the most feared players in pro football. It all went for naught, as panelist Bennett Cerf, who had attended the game, guessed his identity immediately.
In the ABC movie Brian's Song, NFL running back and cancer victim Brian Piccolo claimed the "only thing (he was) allergic to is Nitschke."
His autobiography, "Mean on Sunday: The Autobiography of Ray Nitschke" as told to Robert W. Wells, was first published in 1973 by Doubleday.
Nitschke is referenced in the cartoon Danny Phantom in the episode "Bitter Reunions." The primary villain, Vlad Masters, is revealed to be a Packers fanatic, and his most prized possession is a Nitschke-autographed football.