When the Green Bay Packers returned home from their West Coast trip at the end of the 1959 season, Vince Lombardi’s first as head coach, future Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke poked his index finger at the chest of former Green Bay Press-Gazette sportswriter Lee Remmel while still in the airport at Austin Straubel Field and growled a prediction.
“We’ve got the greatest football team in America right now. And you wanna know something else? We’re going to win the championship next year – and I’ll be in there all the way. They won’t be able to keep me on the bench.”
Perhaps Tom Bettis’ finest testament as a football player is that it took Nitschke almost three years to beat him out and win the starting middle linebacker job in Green Bay.
Bettis, 81, died Saturday. He had been a resident of Katy, Texas, outside Houston.
Bettis was the Packers’ first-round draft choice – the fifth overall pick – in 1955 after playing at Purdue in the one-platoon era of college football. The limited substitution rules at the time meant that Bettis played offensive guard and either middle guard or linebacker on defense.
Bettis played seven years for the Packers, from 1955-61, and didn’t make it easy for Nitschke, a third-round pick in 1958, to win a starting job.
In fact, Bettis started at middle linebacker in 1958 and ’59 after beginning his career as an outside linebacker, where he started as a rookie.
In 1960, Bettis held the starting job until the final three games of the regular-season, although he shared playing time with Nitschke. Even in 1961, Bettis started again for a stretch after Nitschke was called up for Army duty in early November and had to depend on weekend passes to be on hand for games.
In Lombardi’s first season, Bettis not only started but also was the defensive signal-caller for Phil Bengtson, who ran the defense for Lombardi.
“Bettis makes a good signal-caller – he has good qualities of leadership,” Bengtson said following that season.
Bettis, who stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 228 pounds, might not have looked as ferocious as Nitschke, but, in truth, he might have been just as tough.
“He substitutes quickness for size and, of course, he hits with great authority,” said Bengtson.
The Packers traded Bettis to Pittsburgh July 17, 1962 and finally turned over the middle linebacker job to Nitschke for good. Bettis spent one season with the Steelers before finishing his career with the NFL champion Chicago Bears in 1963.
Bettis said in 2009 that he asked to be traded to the Steelers, partly over his loss of playing time to Nitschke.
“I asked for it,” he said. “I didn’t feel (Lombardi) was giving me a fair shot. I’m not going to get into that, but I was glad to get out of there. After the season was over, I just said, ‘I don’t feel like staying here.’ (Lombardi) wasn’t happy. But I had a little altercation with him verbally.”
Bettis coached in the NFL for 30 years, retiring after the 1995 season. He was an assistant with Kansas City when it played the Packers in Super Bowl I and also when the Chiefs won Super Bowl IV. In 1977, he was interim head coach of the Chiefs for seven games.