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Paul Hornung: Vince Lombardi rescued Green Bay Packers

  • By Paul Hornung, Special to NFL.com
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Paul Hornung played nine seasons with the Green Bay Packers, the last seven for coach Vince Lombardi. The former running back played on four NFL title teams, including the first Super Bowl champion in 1966. Hornung, 77, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As we celebrate what would have been Lombardi's 100th birthday on Tuesday, June 11, here are Hornung's thoughts about playing for a true icon:

Everyone was disgruntled before the hiring of Vince Lombardi as coach. Fresh off a 1-10-1 season in 1958, there wasn't a happy Packers fan in the entire state of Wisconsin. Same with the players. We were absolutely brutal, bad enough that players wanted to leave.

Paul Hornung (left) credits Vince Lombardi (right) with saving his football career.
Paul Hornung (left) credits Vince Lombardi (right) with saving his football career. (National Football League)

I had been doing well with an uncle in the real estate business. I would not have put up with what I endured in my first two seasons with the Packers for much longer. I was prepared to say, "See you later -- I'm going into the real estate business." Until Vince came. That changed everything for us.

We were all impressed with Coach Lombardi immediately. We had a great team meeting, and as we came out of it, we continued to talk among ourselves as players, and it was all positive. Finally, we had somebody in here who was going to be the boss, someone who understood what we aspired to be. We all wanted to play together as a team and -- of course -- win. Everyone had been floundering before that. Bart Starr was. I was. I didn't know what position I was going to play, week to week; I was a halfback one week and fullback the next. Bart didn't know if he was going to be the quarterback from one week to the next. Vince came in and defined our objective.

Henry Jordan had the famous statement that Lombardi treated everyone the same -- like dogs. That wasn't true. I don't think he ever corrected Forrest Gregg. I'd always kid Forrest, "Heck, you never made a mistake. That's very boring."

Vince treated me special. He said, "I'm going to be on your ass because you need it." It didn't bother me. There are a lot of players he couldn't have treated that way. Vince couldn't coach Bart the way he coached me. If he'd gotten on Bart's ass, that really would have affected him.

But he knew he could get on my ass, and it would go in one ear and out the other. He also knew that I was probably the -- quote, unquote -- most publicized player on the team. Other guys were sitting there thinking, "Well, he's on Hornung's ass and he doesn't back off him, so if he's going to get on my ass, fine." But the better we got, the less Vince got on anyone's ass.

And though he was on me all the time, the best thing he ever said about me was: The bigger the game, the more we can count on Hornung. That made me feel good.

Vince made it fun again because we were winning. That's the structure that got in everyone's blood. But we also had great players. Vince was lucky, and I told him that years later. We were lucky to have him, of course, but he was lucky to have us, as well. We had 11 Hall of Famers on that team: Hornung, Starr, Gregg, Jordan, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Jim Ringo, Willie Wood and Dave Robinson.

Robinson was the last of the bunch to earn a bust in Canton, having just been elected to the Hall in February. Super guy, great player. One of the best players Penn State ever had. Former Packers/Lions tight end Ron Kramer told me that he couldn't block him. That says a lot.

Taylor, I think, was the toughest guy to tackle in those days. One man simply couldn't bring him down. He had great balance, was strong and was physically in better shape than the rest of the team. Jim Brown was the best athlete I've ever seen, but when we went to Cleveland in 1961, Taylor really wanted to out-gain him. And he did just that. How? He had five Hall of Famers blocking for him. Jimmy was a great player, but we had a lot of them.

Yes, Vince was lucky. But he also was shrewd. He took advantage of Paul Brown, the Cleveland Browns' iconic coach. Vince just out-traded him. Brown traded five players to the Packers, and two of them (Jordan and Davis) made the Hall of Fame. We also got Lew Carpenter from Cleveland. Vince got players who would help us and traded away players he didn't want.

I think Bill Parcells was similar to Vince. I like Parcells and would have enjoyed playing for him. His coaching style was very reminiscent of Vince's approach. And both men had a tremendous desire to win.

Winning -- to Vince and the rest of us -- was the only thing that mattered. He was a great man.

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