University of Illinois

1957 Ray Nitschke
(Authentic Reproduction)




As the Illini entered the '57 season, all of the players had facemasks on their helmets, most with one bar protection. The same burnt orange helmet shell was used with a one-inch center stripe in dark navy blue and two-inch thin style identifying numerals were added to the sides of the helmet. Woodson went off to the Forty-Niners for a solid nine-year career as a kick returner and DB. Filling the offensive void was soph end Rich Kreitling who pulled in a dozen passes. Mitchell, a third-team All American and Dale Smith were the outside runners with Nitschke and Jim Brown as plungers. Nitschke was a terror at linebacker, the position that would bring him All Pro glory in a storied Hall Of Fame career with the Packers. Gaining a reputation for being able to knock off the big boys, Illinois managed to beat Minnesota 34-13 while the Gophers were ranked number three. Still, 4-5 was the final tally leaving the Illini mired in the conference's lower division. Mitchell went on to a Hall Of Fame career as a halfback and flanker with the Browns and Redskins and gained a measure of fame by being the first African-American to play for the 'Skins. Unfortunately, since sharing the Big Ten title with Michigan State in 1953, mediocre to poor could have been the most accurate description of Illini football despite the presence of a few spectacular players. '58 would yield more of the same, another 4-5 record. Sophs Bill Brown at FB (130 yards in a limited role), and end Ernie McMillan showed promise, and guard Bill Burrell was one of the best in the country but end Rich Kreitling was the hub, leading the country in receptions and pass receiving yardage and a new NCAA record of 29.9 yards per catch. Joe Rutgens was a dependable tackle.

Orphaned at the age of thirteen and raised by an older brother, Ray Nitschke came out of Proviso East High School in Chicago as a hot-shot All State quarterback with a local reputation as a tough-guy street fighter. He quarterbacked the Illini frosh team but was shifted to fullback as a sophomore, proving to be a rough and tumble inside rusher but with a penchant for backing the line.  On offense, he became better-known as a fine blocker for fleet Bobby Mitchell but his rambunctious and fierce demeanor was better suited for linebacker. His ferocious play was often overlooked by the national media due to the team's mediocre record. As a third-round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers, Nitschke took a while to settle down and apply his talents but once he did, he redefined the middle linebacker position, roaming from sideline to sideline in pursuit of ball carriers and pass receivers, and leading the glory-years Packers with his intensity and fire. His play won numerous All Pro mention and entry to the NFL's Hall Of Fame. He has the distinction of having his number 66 retired by the Packers and their practice facility named after him. A frightening figure on the field, he matched that with his gentleness off of it, adopting and raising a family and becoming an integral and positive force in the Green Bay community.

After a nineteen year tenure, popular coach Ray Eliot would call it quits after  1959 as the Illini head coach. A Bob Zuppke assistant, Eliot and his mentor were the only two head coaches the team had known since 1913. The squad played up from past performances to a 5-3-1 farewell season that ended on a high note of outstanding play. Bill Brown blossomed into a hard-charging FB, the team's leading scorer, rusher (504 yards), and punter. He was backed up by his brother Jim with speedy Johnny Counts as the outside HB threat who added 418 yards to the rush total. Guard Bill Burrell was considered to be perhaps the nation's best lineman as an All American, the Big Ten MVP, fourth in the Heisman voting, and captain of the squad. He teamed with Rutgens and ends McMillan and Ed O'Bradovich to form a powerful force up front. As the team was coming together perhaps as a contender, the hunt was on for a new coach.

For the '60 season Ray Eliot moved into an Assistant Athletic Director's office and another Elliot, spelled a bit differently, moved into the head coaching spot and the hot seat. Pete Elliot, Illinois native and former Illini player, became All Everything at Michigan with his brother "Bump" after the military relocated him there. He won an incredible twelve varsity letters at Michigan and quarterbacked the great unbeaten teams of 1947 and '48. Coincidentally, Bump took the Michigan head job in '59 so it was brother versus brother within the conference. The thirty-three-year old Pete had been a Wilkinson assistant at Oklahoma, head coach at Nebraska for a season, and then took over the Cal program, going to the most recent Rose Bowl with QB Joe Kapp. He took over a team that had not done much in years, but won the spot of pre-season conference favorite based upon its fast finish in '59. Unfortunately, HB Counts left school for academic reasons and played in Canada, returning to the Giants in '62 and '63. With two alternating backfields that included soph QB Mike Taliaferro and both Bill and Jim Brown, the 5-4 record was supported primarily by improved line play. Finishing their Illinois careers, Tackle Joe Rutgens played well for the Redskins for nine years and end Ernie McMillian as an All Pro offensive tackle for the Cardinals from 1961 through '74, squeezing a final year out in '75 with the Packers. End Ed O'Bradovich seemed more suited for defense. Bill "Boom Boom" Brown played for the Bears for one season and then made a name for himself as both the starting fullback and special teams captain for the Vikings from '62 through 1974.

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