Paul Hornung was a Vince Lombardi favorite and maybe the most important player on the famed coach’s early championship teams with the Green Bay Packers.
Lombardi loved Hornung for his versatile skill set and clutch play as the featured left halfback in the Packers’ offense, as well as for his fun-loving off-field persona that helped get Hornung the nickname “Golden Boy.”
Hornung, who also won the 1956 Heisman Trophy, died Friday in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, at age 84 after a long battle with dementia, the Louisville Sports Commission announced.
Though Hornung never put up big rushing numbers in the NFL — his single-season high for rushing was only 681 yards — he filled the key position in Lombardi’s offense as a runner in the famed Lombardi sweep and option passer. He was a big back (6-feet-2 and 215 pounds) with a nose for the goal line and for much of his career also was the Packers’ kicker.
His 176 points in the 12-game 1960 season was an NFL record that stood until 2006, 29 years after the league had moved to a 16-game schedule. He was voted the NFL’s most-valuable player that season.
Hornung also was voted a member of the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1960s and into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986 after a nine-year career that ended in 1966. But perhaps the greatest tribute to him came from Lombardi himself in his two-volume book, “Vince Lombardi on Football,” which was published in 1973.
“Paul may have been the best all-around back ever to play football,” Lombardi wrote.
Hornung joined the Packers in 1957 as a so-called “bonus choice,” which was the first overall pick of the draft that rotated among the 12 teams in the league from 1947 to ’58. His career floundered for two years until Lombardi was hired as Packers coach in 1959 and built his offense around the same position that had made Frank Gifford a star when Lombardi was offensive coordinator with the New York Giants.
Hornung immediately thrived and would be a key player on offense from 1960-65, during which time the Packers won three NFL championship games and played in a fourth. He won three NFL scoring titles in that time.
He also was suspended by the NFL for one season, 1963, after admitting to gambling on NFL games. In an indication of the vital role he played in the Packers’ success, the team didn’t advance to the championship game that season after winning the title in ’61 and ‘62.
When former general manager Ron Wolf joined the Packers in late 1991, he made a point of sitting down with the three scouts he inherited who had played or coached for the Lombardi-era Packers. He asked each to pick the player from the Lombardi era they would take first in a draft if all were available. There are 11 players from Lombardi’s teams in the Hall of Fame.
All three scouts said Hornung.
“For them to give that kind of praise to a player, that’s remarkable,” Wolf said. “Think about all those (Lombardi-era) players.”
Hornung played for the Packers from 1957-66. His ’66 season was mostly a washout because of a neck injury so his final hurrah was late in ’65. Because of the neck, knee and rib injuries, he no longer was the starter and shared time at halfback with Elijah Pitts and Tom Moore that season.
But in a key showdown in the second-to-last week of the regular season at Baltimore, their main contender for the West Division title, Hornung was the surprise starter and scored five touchdowns in the Packers’ 42-27 win.
Then in the NFL championship game two weeks later, Hornung rushed for 105 yards on 18 carries in the Packers’ 23-12 win.
Hornung starred in football, basketball and baseball at Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget High School and then attended college at Notre Dame. He won the Heisman in 1956 even though Notre Dame finished 2-8 that year.
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