Paul Hornung, the so-called “Golden Boy” running back who starred for Notre Dame and in the 1960s championship years of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, died today in his hometown of Louisville, KY. He was 84. No cause of death was given by the Louisville Sports Commission.
Hornung is one of only seven players to win the Heisman Trophy and later be named NFL MVP. He won the Heisman in 1956 despite Notre Dame’s 2-8 record, becoming the only player to win the award while starring for a losing team. That year, he led the Fighting Irish in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff returns, punt returns and punting. On defense, he led the team in passes broken up and was second in tackles and interceptions.
Green Bay selected Hornung in 1957 with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. It was a monumental draft for the Pack, which also brought aboard Bart Starr, Jim Taylor and Jerry Kramer — forming the foundation of a legendary NFL team.
They led the Pack to the 1960 NFL title game, a 17-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Hornung was a key to that season’s surge, accounting for an NFL-record 176 points via touchdowns, field goals and extra points — a record that stood for 46 years. He was named a first-team All-Pro that season, repeating that honor the next year, and was also named the NFL MVP.
Overall, he was a key to the Packers winning four titles while he was on the team, including the first Super Bowl.
“In the middle of the field he may be only slightly better than an average ballplayer,” coach Vince Lombardi once said. “But inside the 20-yard line, he is one of the greatest I have ever seen. He smells that goal line.”
But his career was not without controversy. Hornung almost missed the Packers’ 1961 title game when he was called up for duty by the Army. President John F. Kennedy made a call and allowed him a leave to play in the game. Kennedy said: “Paul Hornung isn’t going to win the war on Sunday. But the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day.”
Hornung rewarded that faith by scoring 19 points, a title-game record, in the Pack’s 37-0 win over the New York Giants.
He was not so fortunate later. He suffered a pinched nerve in his neck that created problems in his performance. He also was implicated in a a gambling scandal and was suspended for the 1963 season by Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who claimed Hornung and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras had bet on NFL games and associated with “known hoodlums.”
Hornung was reinstated in 1964, but his career was on the downslope. He rushed for 299 yards in the Packers’ 1965 NFL championship season, then 200 yards in nine games in 1966, when the Packers won the first Super Bowl, though Hornung didn’t play in that game.
He was then selected in the 1967 expansion draft by the New Orleans Saints but never played a game for them, retiring instead.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement that Hornung “thrilled a generation of NFL fans with his versatility, athleticism and personality.” Goodell added that Hornung was “instrumental in growing the popularity of the Packers and the National Football League.”
Born on December 23, 1935, in Louisville, Hornung was inducted into the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame and later became a TV booth announcer, working for CBS alongside legendary broadcasters Lindsey Nelson and Vin Scully. He also was active as an actor, appearing in the films Run to Daylight, The Devil’s Brigade and Semi-Tough.
Hornung also was part of the popular TV ads for Miller Lite beer in the 1970s, adding to the back-and-forth on the “Tastes Great/Less Filling” debate.
Hornung is survived by his wife of 41 years, Angela. There will be a private funeral mass at St. Louis Bertrand Church in Louisville, followed by a private burial. A public celebration of his life will be held at a later date, the Packers said.