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Fuzzy Thurston, a key player on Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers championship teams of the 1960s, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 15 days shy of his 81st birthday.

His family announced the death on Sunday afternoon via Twitter, prompting an outpouring of sympathy messages from Packers fans. He died of cancer and complications of Alzheimer's disease, according to an obituary prepared by his family.

"My favorite memory of Fuzzy was when he was in Eau Claire signing autographs for a fundraiser; he was wearing a Super Bowl ring, and I was in awe," recalled Packers fan Jason Christopherson of Osseo. "Fuzzy must have noticed. He looked up at me, smiled, took the ring off, and handed it to me to look at. Still the only time I have ever held one.

"He was just a special human being who loved interacting with his fans."

The 6-foot-1, 247-pound Thurston, whose given name was Frederick, teamed with fellow guard Jerry Kramer to clear the way for running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor as part of the famed Green Bay power sweep. He played in 112 games for the Packers, retiring after the 1967 season. He played on five NFL championship teams under Lombardi and was a first-team All-Pro in 1961.

"I got to know Fuzzy over the years and I met him at, I believe, the '06 Fan Fest and he was great," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills. "He was a Packer legend and that's rough. We lost a great one."

Baltimore Colts coach Weeb Ewbank reluctantly traded Thurston to the Packers for journeyman linebacker Marv Matuszak in 1959. The Colts were set at guard with Alex Sandusky and Art Spinney, and Ewbank couldn't wait for Thurston, a rising star, John Unitas Jr. said in his book "Johnny U and Me: The Man Behind The Golden Arm."

Thurston became the Packers' starting left guard upon his arrival in Green Bay. He missed part of the 1965 season because of injury. Thurston's last year as a starter was 1966. He was a backup to Gale Gillingham in his final season, 1967.

Thurston was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1975. He was inducted to the Wisconsin Athletic and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association halls of fame in 2003 and was a member of the Valparaiso Athletic and Indiana Football halls of fame.

"The Packers Family was saddened today to learn of the passing of Fuzzy Thurston," Packers president and chief executive Mark Murphy said in a statement. "Fuzzy was an endearing figure for Packers fans for more than 50 years, going back to his all-pro playing days and continuing through his rousing welcomes at Lambeau Field as a favorite alum. Our sincere condolences go out to Fuzzy's family."

After his playing days, Thurston stayed connected with the Packers and the Green Bay community. He appeared at many team events, and ran Fuzzy's, a bar and grill that started in Allouez and then moved to West Mason Street in Green Bay. Earlier, he was an investor in The Left Guard, a restaurant with several locations in Wisconsin.

"He just absolutely loves being Fuzzy," Kramer said in a 2006 interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "He has as much fun living his life as anyone I've ever known."

Kramer's daughter Alicia said on social media that Thurston's death is affecting the entire Kramer family. Thurston and Kramer, as the lead blockers in Lombardi's famed "Run to Daylight" attack, are inexorably linked in Packers lore.

"We are really struggling with this," Alicia Kramer said. "Especially Dad. I feel bad for Dad."

Born in Altoona, near Eau Claire, Thurston was best known as a basketball player because Altoona didn't have a football team in the early 1950s. Even so, the school's football field is named Fuzzy Thurston Field. He earned a basketball scholarship to Valparaiso and started playing football there as a junior.

He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the 1956 draft. After serving in the military, he spent time with the Eagles and the Chicago Bears, but didn't make either team. Late in the 1958 season, he was signed by Baltimore. There, as a 25-year-old rookie, he won his first NFL championship.

In his later years, Thurston endured bankruptcy and throat cancer, but still maintained his positive outlook on life. A book he self-published in 2006 was titled, "What a Wonderful World: The Fuzzy Thurston Story."

In a story for the Press-Gazette upon the release of Thurston's book, former sports editor Mike Vandermause wrote that Thurston "can teach us all some important life lessons about dealing with adversity.

"This is a man who was born into poverty in Altoona (in western Wisconsin), lost his father at an early age and was sent to live with an aunt in Florida when he was 12 because his mother couldn't afford to take care of him."

In 2011, Thurston was forced to sell his one of his Super Bowl rings as part of a federal tax case dating to his days as one of the owners of the Left Guard restaurants.

Kramer told Vandermause he would always remember Thurston's positive outlook.

"Fuzzy's like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning who gets a box of horse (manure) for Christmas, and he's jumping up and down and going, 'Yippee.' And somebody asks him, 'What are you celebrating?' And Fuzzy says, where there's horse (manure), there's got to be a pony around here someplace."

Asked by Vandermause to share his best piece of advice, Thurston replied: "Never, never quit until it's over. You've always got a chance."

Thurston's wife, Susan, died in 2012. He is survived by two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren.

"A celebration of life" for Thurston will be Friday in the Legends Club of the Lambeau Field Atrium. Visitation will begin at 11 a.m. with the service at 3 p.m. "Packer attire is welcomed," according to the obituary prepared by Thurston's family. A memorial fund has been established in lieu of flowers.

dschneid@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PGDougSchneider; jash@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @JeffAshPG

Packers deaths in 2014

Fuzzy Thurston (guard, 1959-67), Dec. 14.

Don Bracken (punter, 1985-90), Oct. 29.

Leon McLaughlin (offensive line coach, 1975-76), Oct. 27.

Rebel Steiner (defensive back, 1950-51), Oct. 18.

Donnie Humphrey (defensive tackle, 1984-86), Sept. 2.

Perry Moss (quarterback, 1948), Aug. 7.

Ray DiPierro (guard, 1950-51), July 20.

Allen Jacobs (halfback, 1965), April 22.

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