By Vaughn R. Larson
Wisconsin National Guard Public Affairs
More than a half-century ago, three members of the golden-age Green Bay Packers took to Lambeau Field on weekends and the training fields at Army bases Monday through Friday.
Even professional athletes were subject to the military draft in 1961, and some sought to fulfill their military obligation in the National Guard or Reserves. However, when Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev reiterated his intent to close West Berlin to the U.S., Britain and France, President John F. Kennedy called for doubling the military draft, increasing the size of the military and its authority to call up reserve components.
That call-up intercepted three Green Bay Packers during their championship 1961 season - running back Paul Hornung, linebacker Ray Nitschke and wide receiver Boyd Dowler, all of whom were serving simultaneously as privates first class in the Army Reserves.
Hornung reported Nov. 14 to Fort Riley, Kan., where he served as a truck driver and radio operator with the 896th Engineer Company. Nitschke and Dowler headed to Fort Lewis, Wash., where they were attached to the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 32nd Infantry Division, the only National Guard infantry division activated for the Berlin Crisis. Nitschke was assigned to the division's quartermaster company. Boyd was assigned to Headquarters Battery, 32nd Division Artillery.
A lingering neck injury Hornung suffered in the previous season raised the possibility that the NFL's leading scorer in 1959 and 1960 might not be fit for duty. He was cleared for duty following a series of physical examinations at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Great Lakes, Ill.
Nitschke "was kind of stunned" when he received orders to report to Fort Lewis and serve with the Red Arrow Division.
"I talked to Coach [Vince] Lombardi and he just said I'd have to go," Nitschke recalled in a 1986 At Ease article. "I was becoming a good ball player, so naturally it was difficult. I really wanted to play."
"They're doing a good job on us," Lombardi said in the Oct. 26, 1961 issue of The Milwaukee Sentinel. "You can't lose three front-liners and keep winning." He added that as many as five other Packers were waiting to see if they would be called up for the crisis.
Lombardi was not the only one concerned about the loss of three key players to a team many expected to return to the championship game that year. Two of Wisconsin's federal legislators, Sen. Alexander Wiley and Rep. Clement Zablocki, requested deferments for the three affected Packers players, prompting Hornung to publicly respond.
"I'm sorry that a few people in politics thought they had to take part in this," Hornung said in a Nov. 4 Associated Press article. "At no time did I or any member of the Packer organization make a request for a deferment through a congressman or anyone else."
Even though the Army ruled against deferments for professional athletes, Lombardi wasn't about to throw in the towel on a promising season. He called Brig. Gen. Francis Schweinler, 32nd Division Artillery commander, hoping to get Nitschke and Dowler on the weekends for the remainder of the season. Schweinler obtained the proper permissions allowing Nitschke and Dowler to fly home Friday evenings, with the requirement that they return before reveille Monday morning.
But the arrangement came with one catch - Schweinler requested game film of the previous Sunday's game be delivered to the Red Arrow each Tuesday.
"I think we can work that out," Lombardi is said to have replied.
Dowler recalled pulling double duty with the Red Arrow and the Green Bay Packers, in a June 23, 2010 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"I played in games on weekends, either on a weekend pass or leave," Dowler said. "I never missed a play. Two terms on active duty with the Army and I never missed a game. That was kind of unusual."
Nitschke missed the Nov. 5, 1961 game against the Baltimore Colts, a contest the Packers lost 45-21.
"I guess they could have used me," Nitschke reportedly said in a Nov. 11, 1961 Milwaukee Journal article. The Veterans Day holiday allowed the linebacker to leave Fort Lewis a little earlier en route to Chicago for a showdown with the Bears.
"Ordinarily he would be on duty until Saturday noon," Lt. Robert Bjorklund, Fort Lewis assistant public information officer, is quoted in the Nov. 11 article. "This will not be a regular thing. Ray even told me that he didn't figure to make the last two games on the west coast when the Packers come out to wind up the season."
Schweinler recalled his initial encounter with Pfc. Nitschke, not long before Lombardi's phone call.
"I was making a check down on the quartermaster area, and here was this great big husky guy picking up 100-pound sacks of potatoes and tossing them up on a two-and-one-half-ton truck with one hand," Schweinler said. Not until after talking with the Soldier did the general realize he was speaking with a Green Bay Packer.
According to the Tuscon Daily Citizen, the Army made a custom set of fatigues for the 235-pound Nitschke to accommodate his 18.5-inch neck.
Kerry Yencer, another Army Reservist attached to the 32nd Division for the Berlin Crisis call-up, recalled the Red Arrow's devotion to the Green Bay Packers.
"It didn't take long to realize what the small black-and-white television in the dayroom would be tuned to on a Sunday afternoon," he wrote in a Jan. 21, 1997 column as the executive sports editor for The Cedartown Standard in Cedartown, Ga. "It's almost as if one of our general orders was to watch the Packers on Sundays. Not only would they watch, they would participate like no fans I've ever seen anywhere."
The game film arrived promptly every Tuesday afternoon, and Nitschke and Dowler would take the film to units throughout the division Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
"It was one of the most beneficial periods for the morale of the men there," Schweinler said. "Here were two well-known men, players - active players - doing this job and answering questions in a man-to-man way. It was just tremendous."
Hornung, too, was given weekend passes to play for the Packers while he was serving at Fort Riley, though he missed the Nov. 19 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Other professional athletes called to serve with the 32nd Division during the Berlin Crisis included Milwaukee Braves outfielder Bob Taylor, Minnesota Vikings fullback Doug Mayberry, Detroit Lions offensive guard John Gordy, St. Louis Cardinal offensive lineman Dale Nemmelaar, Chicago Majors (of the now-defunct American Basketball League) guard Ron 'Sobie' Sobieszczyk, Los Angeles Angels outfielder George Thomas, New York Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek and Los Angeles Lakers forward Elgin Baylor.
"Baylor, like Dowler and Nitschke, always found time to play with the Lakers despite his military duties," Yencer wrote. Baylor was able to play weekend games, but not games during the week.
Nitschke and Dowler were some of the professional athletes to play for the Fort Lewis Army basketball team, coached by Army Reserve Special Services officer Ken Anderson - also a successful basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. That team notched a 41-5 record that year. Nitschke also played for the quartermaster baseball team. The 32nd Division won the Athletic Award for all of Fort Lewis.
Lest anyone think that the Berlin Crisis call-up was all fun and games for the 32nd Division, the Red Arrow demonstrated its mettle during that mobilization by becoming a certified Strategic Army Corps (STRAC) unit, part of the U.S. Army's quick-strike force for what was then called "brushfire wars."
"It's one of the things you have to accept as part of the times," Nitschke said in a Nov. 9, 1961 interview with the Tuscon Daily Citizen. "I took an oath of obligation when I joined the reserves and never considered applying for deferment."
While the 32nd was proving its worth at Fort Lewis, the Green Bay Packers were marching to gridiron glory, winning the Western Division a second consecutive year and gearing up to battle the New York Giants in the NFL Championship Game.
Hornung would find himself in danger of being AWOL for that game. The standard procedure for Christmas leave in his unit was for Soldiers with last names beginning with the letters A through I to take the first two weeks in December, while letters J through Z took leave in the final two weeks of December. Hornung requested an exception to policy to allow him to play in the championship game - a request denied by his commanding officer.
Despondent, Hornung called Lombardi with the news. Lombardi, in turn, reached out to President Kennedy, who called Fort Riley to personally speak to Hornung's company commander.
"The captain didn't believe he was the president," Hornung said in an Oct. 5, 2011 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "But it all worked out and my Christmas leave was changed."
"Paul Hornung isn't going to win the war on Sunday," Kennedy said of arranging the leave, "but the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day."
Hornung - a 1957 Heisman Trophy winner nicknamed "the Golden Boy" - brought more than his considerable talents to the championship game.
"When Paul got that leave from the Army and walked into that locker room, you could just feel the confidence grow in that room," Packers defensive tackle Henry Jordan said in Michael O'Brien's biography Vince.
Hornung scored a touchdown in the championship game's second quarter, breaking a scoreless tie. In an era before specialists, he also kicked three field goals and four extra points to tally 19 points, a record for individual points scored in championship play.
"I owe it all to Coach Lombardi and to the president for making that call for me," Hornung said.
Nitschke's key interception in the second quarter set up the Packers' first touchdown. Dowler kicked five times for a 42-yard average and caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bart Starr.
The Packers demolished the Giants, 37-0, and Hornung was named the game's most valuable player.
"This is the greatest day of my life," he told the New York Times after the game. When the Times asked if the championship game trumped his Heisman Trophy, Hornung replied, "That was five years ago - this was today!"
Before the game, Dowler and Nitschke may have earned the "most valuable player" title from their fellow Soldiers. According to a Jan. 1, 1962 Milwaukee Sentinel article, Dowler and Nitschke were seen carrying a 23-inch color TV into their Fort Lewis barracks before they left the Army base for Green Bay.
"That's for the guys who can't afford or won't get to go home for the holidays," they are reported to have said to the Soldier in charge of the barracks, according to the Jan. 1 article.
While Hornung enjoyed a tremendous game, Nitschke said that the Packers had a good chance for victory even without its Soldiers on the field.
"We had such a great team that two or three guys were not going to make a big difference," Nitschke told At Ease. "I think that was probably the greatest team there ever was."
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