Paul Hornung’s greatness went beyond legendary Packers career
The Game would be starting in about 30 minutes, and that was the order of business for the day, but the folks gathered around the table in the Lambeau Field press box wouldn’t let Paul Hornung leave. He’d held court for an hour, telling stories while his rapt audience munched cheese curds and guzzled hot coffee.
The Packers were playing host to the Giants in the NFC Championship game that afternoon, Jan. 20, 2008, and the only thing on everyone’s mind was the weather, which was supposed to dip to 10 or 20 below with the wind chill. And so the Ice Bowl was on everyone’s mind.
Hornung had retired a few months before that forever game matching the Pack and the Cowboys back in December 1967, yielding both to a catalogue of injuries and the fact he didn’t want to play for the Saints.
“The Old Man left me exposed in the expansion draft,” Hornung said, using the familiar nickname he always used for Vince Lombardi. “He figured it was more humane than simply telling me I was all done.”
Hornung was supposed to work the Ice Bowl for CBS, offering halftime commentary with Frank Gifford. Before the game he visited his old pal and running mate Max McGee, and stood in front of a heater before he could escape upstairs. But the Old Man saw him, called him over, insisted he stay on the sidelines instead.
“By halftime, my mouth was literally frozen,” Hornung said, roaring. “Giff saw me, and took mercy. He told the TV crew, ‘Paul is stiff — and not the kind of stiff (as in from drinking) he usually is.’ So instead of humiliating myself on TV I snuck back up to the press box to thaw.”
More laughs, because there were always laughs at Hornung’s table, and then he added his signature line, one he repeated thousands of times across 84 years of a most remarkable life: “You’re looking at a guy who lived his life on scholarship. Full ride.”
Hornung died Friday, the fourth member of the dynasty Packers to pass in this most wretched of calendar years, joining his old teammates Willie Wood, Willie Davis and Herb Adderley. He won a Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame where he picked up one of sports’ forever nicknames, Golden Boy. He won an MVP award and four championships with the Packers. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
But he was so much more than that.
We can appreciate the full breadth of who Hornung was this way: the two most glamorous football heroes in New York’s football history were Frank Gifford and Joe Namath. Hornung was Gifford cross-pollinated with Namath.
When Lombardi went to Green Bay he took one look at Hornung on film, playing quarterback for a hapless 1-10-1 team and announced: “He’s no quarterback! He’s my new Gifford!” Back home in Louisville, Hornung was making a killing in real estate and not much enjoying losing in Green Bay. Lombardi called him with his new plan.
“I can do that,” he said, and together they did, together Horning and Jim Taylor brought Lombardi’s power sweep to life, to devastating effect. Like Gifford, Hornung was gifted enough to do just about anything on a football field: throw, catch, run, kick.
Like Namath, he was gifted off the field, too, the Golden Boy writing a template that Broadway Joe would follow a few years later. Dick Schaap, writing an article on Hornung, spent seven days chronicling a typical Hornung week: “Sixty drinks, a couple hundred cigarettes, companionship every night (without ever doubling up) and then a win on Sunday.”
Hornung himself — happily married the last 41 years to Angela — famously quipped not long after his first marriage, in 1968: “Never get married in the morning. You never know who you might meet that night.”
Still, the defining relationship of his life was with the Old Man, with Lombardi, who often admitted he envied the way Hornung could embrace the good life, in a way he never did — or could. It was Lombardi who, as the Packers cruised toward their first NFL title in 1961, reached out to a football fan named John F. Kennedy about allowing Army reservist Hornung a furlough to play in the championship game against the Giants.
“Paul Hornung isn’t going to win the war on Sunday,” Kennedy said. “But the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day.”
Hornung ran for 89 yards that day, caught three passes for 47 yards, kicked four PATs. The Packers won, 37-0.
Two years later, when Hornung was suspended for gambling on football games — copping to the charge, refusing to name other names — it was the Old Man, the surrogate father, who reproached him but also said: “You stay at the foot of the cross,” and welcomed him back a year later. When Lombardi died, 50 years ago, Hornung admitted a lot of his fire for football was extinguished.
But there was so much more to his life, this full, amazing life, all the way to Friday, even as the Golden Boy reached his golden years.
“Nobody in this life,” he said in the press box that day in 2008, “has more to be grateful for than me.”
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