Paul Hornung legend of his time


When your nickname is “The Golden Boy” living up to that standard doesn’t fluctuate with the minerals market. Mostly through the decades, Paul Hornung, blond, flashy, charismatic, athletic, with a smile that won over strangers, pulled it off.

He won the Heisman Trophy, the NFL’s NFL Most Valuable Player Award and four pro football titles, nearly mining a second Alaska gold strike for his trophy case.

Hornung failed on a large scale just once, disappointing his devoted followers, though somehow rehabilitated himself in a way easier to accomplish before the internet became such an encyclopedia of the past.

Hornung managed well enough the chroniclers of his life who reported on his death from dementia at 84 on Nov. 13 appropriately played up his greatness over his goof.

The last time I saw Paul Hornung in the flesh was at Churchill Downs. He was emerging from trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ barn during Kentucky Derby week when I was heading in.

We talked about the horses of the year and made smaller talk about the old Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi, a subject he was a resident authority on back in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Hornung’s hair had gone mostly white and he walked with a cane, no doubt because the knees go first on NFL football players. But the glittering smile displayed on his 1961 football card was intact. We spoke later in interviews about football, but the in-person sighting always stuck in my head.

That and the old black-and-white, low-quality resolution films of Green Bay’s No. 5 snaking through the holes, leaving a trail like a one-man conga line.

In those days, Hornung’s skills as a big-for-the-time halfback of 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds left wreckage in his wake after taking hand-offs from quarterback Bart Starr. Or by wielding his foot as a weapon.

“He smells that goal line,” Lombardi said.

Hornung had as many tricks churning past the line of scrimmage as a magician does in his bag and combined with the reliable big toe recorded one of the most remarkable single pro football seasons

In 1960, Paul Hornung scored 176 points for the Packers on 15 touchdowns, 15 field goals and 41 extra points. Moonlighting on fancy play calls, he threw two touchdown passes, too. In just 12 games, the NFL season being just three-fourths as long as it is now. Ridiculous.

And Hornung was not even Green Bay’s primary rusher, sharing the ball with grinder Hall-of-Fame fullback Jim Taylor. Starr called Hornung, “One of the best clutch players ever.”

Hornung was as famous as any athlete in the country, gaining recognition in Louisville, where he grew up, and Northern Indiana before his Green Bay splash. At Notre Dame, he won the Heisman Trophy in 1956.

For the Irish, he was a golden domer and the Heisman made him into a golden boy. He lived the lifestyle of playboy, celebrity, and star, but was tough between the lines.

Hornung chose uniform number 5 in homage to hero-of-his-youth Joe DiMaggio. Hornung’s seemed to be a charmed existence on every front, the melding of a man’s man’s traits before Joe Namath caught the wave.

Only in 1963 things went sour and if you know Hornung’s career you know the glaring misstep, the one flaw that spoiled perfection, though it was ultimately lived down.

That season, Hornung and Detroit Lions all-star defensive lineman Alex Karras — who became a television star — were suspended by commissioner Pete Rozelle for gambling on games. Very much a sin then when morality and sports rules were stricter, Hornung considered himself fortunate he was sidelined just one season.

Somehow, the scandal washed off more easily than some of the mud that stuck to Hornung on old dirt fields. Eventually, Hornung was vindicated by his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A talented runner, passer, kicker, he was a born-to-play-the-game football guy. Hornung had always seemed destined for enshrinement in Canton, Ohio, and he deserved it.

He made one mistake, paid for it, and by preponderance of evidence, the voices of his teammates, the proclamation of his greatness by his coach, and achievements on the field, Paul Hornung really was a legendary golden boy.

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