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Paul Hornung: 1935-2000
A Louisville icon

CRAWFORD | Golden to the end: Paul Hornung did it his way

  • Updated
  • 7 min to read

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Frank Sinatra called him "Pablo." If you want to know what made Paul Hornung remarkable, and more than just a great football player, that’s a good place to start.

If the Chairman of the Board gives you a nickname, well, that’s Page 1 of the bio stuff for most of us. For Hornung, it was Page 201, a throwaway detail in the autobiography he wrote with Billy Reed. Such was the life that ended in the early hours of Friday morning in Louisville, when Horning died after a long battle with dementia at age 84.

"Nobody in sports I know enjoyed life more than Paul," longtime college football analyst Tim Brando said.

That much is inarguable. The subtitle of Hornung’s book with Reed was "Girls, Games and Gambling at Green Bay (and Notre Dame, Too)." Stories, well, let's just say they’re out there. And some of them are so good that they get in the way of the actual picture.

The line between icon and caricature is a fine one. Hornung was iconic. It dripped from every photo, from the Sports Illustrated covers, from his smile and blonde hair and profile that transcended the football field. His nickname, "The Golden Boy," was iconic in itself. Like his hero, Joe DiMaggio, Hornung wore No. 5, and found that his worth went well beyond his sports exploits, considerable though they were.

Sure, Vince Lombardi called him the most versatile player he’d ever coached and the greatest clutch player of his day. That sets you apart in football. That sets you apart in sports. He could pass, run, catch the ball and kicked field goals and extra points. When the Packers got to the red zone – before it was ever called the red zone – it was Hornung’s time to cash in. He scored 176 points in 1960, an NFL record that stood for 46 years, and wasn’t broken until NFL seasons were 25% longer. He was the league MVP in 1961.

That season is all the more remarkable when you consider that Hornung was serving on active duty in the U.S. Army at the time, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. The commanding general there made a deal with Hornung that he could play football on weekends if he'd behave, and give eight speeches for him. But it took the intervention of President John F. Kennedy to get Hornung an additional pass to play in the 1961 NFL championship game, in which he scored a record 19 points.

"Paul Hornung isn’t going to win the war on Sunday," Kennedy told the commander. "But the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day."

With Hornung handling the kicking, Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins wrote that, "field goals and extra points were as inevitable in Green Bay as frostbite. Somebody snapped the ball, somebody else held it — Bart Starr, one assumed, without really observing — and then Hornung rhythmically booted it into a swarm of happy kids and unhappy policemen in the bleachers behind the goal posts. The kick was nearly always good. In the Packers' three championship years from 1960 through 1962, Hornung kicked field goals successfully 61% of the time. He kicked them from everywhere except a raft on Green Bay's Fox River, and he added 96 consecutive extra points."

It wasn’t all open-field running. Hornung was an avid gambler, and was suspended from the NFL after a gambling scandal in 1963. He credited Lombardi for getting him reinstated for the next season, and as a result swore off gambling for the rest of his playing days – even stopped going to the Kentucky Derby – in gratitude. And if you’re from Louisville, or if you knew Hornung, you know that was a sacrifice.

A LIFE 'ON SCHOLARSHIP'

Through all of that, Hornung’s persona grew. He was a frequent topic of the gossip columns. When he won the Heisman Trophy, he was introduced on the Ed Sullivan Show, and when he retired, he talked about the news on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, guest-hosted by comedian Joey Bishop, the Rat Pack member with whom he was friends.

And his success did not conclude with his playing days. He was a natural in the broadcast booth. He was a Marlboro Man, and appeared in memorable commercials for Miller Lite, always with attractive women, feeding his persona. He dabbled in acting. He found success in business. And most of all, he kept being The Golden Boy.

Hornung liked to say that his epitaph should be, "He went through life on scholarship." But Jeremy Schapp said on Twitter on Friday that the statement needed to go further than that. "In the Foreword to his book Lombardi and Me, I wrote that there's an element of truth to that, but Paul also made good on his scholarship — with talent, grace and charisma."

LOUISVILLE ROOTS

Through everything, Hornung was a Louisvillian. His origins were humble, and he never forgot them. His parents were divorced before he was born. He and his mother lived in an apartment at 22nd Street and Portland Avenue. Hornung was big for his age, and took over as starting quarterback as a freshman at Flaget High School. He was highly sought after as a recruit. Kentucky coach Bear Bryant brought Gov. Lawrence Weatherby to his home and, reportedly, offered to give ever senior player on Flaget’s team a scholarship if he came to play for the Wildcats. But Hornung’s mom, Loretta, was a devout Catholic. In Golden Boy, Horning wrote that she considered an offer from Notre Dame, "like a gift from God."

He took it. And he made the most of the gifts God gave him. Because of the gambling scandal, it took him longer than many of his Green Bay teammates, but he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1986.

It should be noted that the celebrated ladies' man met the woman he called "the love of my life" in 1976 and he married her in 1979. Paul and Angela Hornung were together until his death, celebrating 41 years together.

After his playing days, Hornung returned to Louisville and was successful in various business ventures, most with his close friend Frank Metts, whom he called, "the smartest man I ever knew." One of those ventures was a partnership with Lenny Lyles, who came to his defense in 2004 after Hornung remarked in a radio interview that Notre Dame needed to relax its academic standards to get more Black players. The statement drew condemnation from Notre Dame and in the media. Hornung immediately acknowledged that his wording had been wrong, and noted that he should’ve been more clear that the standards needed to be relaxed to get better football players, period, and not just Black players.

Some damage was done, but it was hardly the theme of his life. On Friday, longtime Clemson SID Tim Bourret, a Notre Dame alum, remembered a story about Tom Hawkins, a Black basketball player, not being served at a pizza place in South Bend in 1956. The school barred students from going in, but Hornung had a different idea. He picked up Hawkins and took him in himself. They were served, and the restaurant was thenceforth integrated.

Hornung and Jim Brown came out of college the same year, and at that time, the defending NFL champions used to play an exhibition against a group of college All-Stars. In the 1957 edition of the game, offensive coach Otto Graham benched Hornung and Brown to start the game because neither had been present for a bed check the night before. When they finally got into the game, Hornung said he made a point just to hand the ball off to Brown or throw him short passes. When Graham wanted to put Hornung in but not Brown to start the second half, Hornung told him he was hurt and couldn’t play. As the two sat there to watch the second half, Brown stewed, and finally said, "Let’s get out of here." Hornung later said he thought about it, but then decided they shouldn’t start their NFL careers that way, particularly Brown, who would be a target for unfair treatment because he was Black. A couple of years ago, when he came to town to speak at the Hornung Awards Banquet, Brown said not leaving that game early saved him what surely would’ve been a world of unnecessary troubles in his early NFL career.

LEAVING A LEGACY

It should be noted that after Hornung’s death on Friday, some of the first responses came from charitable organizations around Louisville.

Catholic Charities of Louisville, in a statement, said, "We are saddened by the loss and grateful for the life of a great football player, faithful Catholic, and generous supporter. Paul Hornung was a beloved friend to Catholic Charities of Louisville. In 2010, he led the effort to raise funds for a 3,000-square-foot expansion of our Sister Visitor Center which provides food and emergency assistance to people in the Portland, Russell, and Shawnee neighborhoods. The expansion was named the Paul Hornung Annex."

Horning sold his Heisman Trophy for a reported $250,000, and established a scholarship at Notre Dame for kids from Louisville.

"Beyond athletics, Paul was a larger than life personality, with a unmatched love for Louisville and the entire region," said Tom Miller, CEO of UofL Health, a partner in the Paul Hornung Award, given annually to college football's most versatile player by the Louisville Sports Commission. "He leaves a legacy of outstanding citizenship for this community, including the annual Paul Hornung Awards program that we were proud to support. Our sincerest condolences are with his family."

Karl Schmitt, a lifelong friend of Hornung’s, remembers on many occasions watching him write out checks for players from his era who hadn’t saved or didn’t have a great deal of money.

"He’d just write out a check for $500 and send it," Hornung said.

In recent years, as his health deteriorated, Hornung considered not coming to the banquets that celebrate the award named after him. Every year, all Schmitt had to say was that if he came, they’d raise more for charity, usually the Sister Visitor Center in Portland, but in the most recent instance, the track complex in Louisville’s West End.

Schmitt said he was heartened on Friday when many past winners of the Hornung Award sent requests for pictures with Hornung.

The Golden Boy is immortalized with a statue outside Louisville Slugger Field, and in the memories of countless sports fans, especially in Louisville, where he is among a handful of indelible sports icons, but where people still knew him as flesh and blood, often bigger than life, fun-loving, but also generous and loyal.

Hornung ran in some flashy circles, and that can obscure real life, but he managed always to keep contact to it, no matter how high he flew.

At some point in time, maybe in 1981, Hornung remembered in Golden Boy that he and Angela were leaving a 2 a.m. breakfast at the Jockey Club in Miami when Sinatra rolled up with some others in a couple of limos and said, "Hey Pablo, come on in and have a drink with me."

Hornung asked for a rain check, saying they had an early flight the next morning. From that point on, he remembered, Sinatra hardly spoke to him. You just didn’t say no to him, apparently.

Or, maybe the famed crooner learned an important lesson that night, one the rest of us should remember: He wasn’t the only one who would do things his way. Paul Hornung managed it, too, golden to the end.

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