Skip to main content

Paul Hornung, Packers great and Hall of Famer, passes away at 84

Long before Deion Sanders famously split time between the NFL and Major League Baseball, Paul Hornung pulled the ultimate double-duty: serving in the Army during the week and suiting up for the 1961 Green Bay Packers on a weekend pass.

Football lost one of its true forefathers Friday morning when Paul Vernon Hornung died in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, at 84 after a long battle with dementia. He becomes the second starter from Super Bowls I and II to pass away in the last two weeks, the fourth this year and the eighth in the last 24 months.

Hornung was an athlete, a serviceman, a champion, a ladies' man, a gambler, a broadcaster, a philanthropist -- a diverse range of pursuits, to be sure -- but will be most remembered for his versatility within the sport.

Born Dec. 23, 1935 in Louisville, Hornung became a three-sport athlete at Flaget High School in baseball, basketball and football. He excelled in basketball -- the Kentucky High School Athletic Association credits him with a Louisville Invitations Tournament record 31 points as a senior in 1953 -- but loved playing football foremost. He spurned a scholarship offer from legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant to attend his home state school, the University of Kentucky, in favor of an offer from Notre Dame. Ever the overall athlete, he played a season of Notre Dame basketball, as a sophomore, amid his football career.

Nicknamed the "Golden Boy" during his years at Notre Dame for his curly blonde hair, Hornung's good looks and success with the fabled Fighting Irish from 1954-1956 combined to bring him a level of celebrity few college athletes of that era could hope to achieve.

It didn't come instantly, however.

College freshmen didn't play by rule until 1972, and Hornung's sophomore year didn't propel him into stardom. As a junior in 1955, however, he earned a starting role at quarterback on offense and safety on defense, along with kicking duties he'd begun taking on the previous year. While that kind of versatility is unheard of in modern football, it didn't necessarily distinguish Hornung in the 1950s, when two-way performers were commonplace under rules that drastically limited substitutions.

But Hornung excelled no matter the role and brought a knack for playing winning football. Per a Notre Dame archival account of a 17-14 win over Iowa in 1955, Hornung was carried off the field by Fighting Irish fans after he had thrown a fourth-quarter touchdown pass, then contributed to a stop on defense, and finally kicked a game-winning field goal.

As a senior in 1956, Hornung's play shined in every conceivable situation. He led the team in rushing, passing, scoring, kickoff and punt returns, kicking, punting, and as if that weren't enough, was one of its top defenders at safety. It was enough to make him the only Heisman Trophy winner to play for a losing team.

The Fighting Irish finished just 2-8 in 1956, with Hornung serving as the brightest of bright spots in an otherwise forgettable season. He became the first Notre Dame quarterback to exceed both 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in a single game. He also notched one of Notre Dame's two wins in his final home game, accounting for every point (three touchdowns, three PATs) in a 21-14 win over North Carolina in which he threw for 103 yards, ran for 91, recorded an interception on defense and punted for a 39-yard average.

He earned a business degree from Notre Dame and was selected No. 1 overall in the 1957 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. The draft was held Nov. 27, 1956, four days before Hornung finished his college career with a road loss to USC.

Like his college career, Hornung's pro career didn't get off to a storybook start. He was a part-time fullback his first two years in Green Bay until the 1959 arrival of coach Vince Lombardi, who immediately installed Hornung as the starting left halfback and featured him on the team's fabled power sweep.

Hornung had the speed and instincts to slash for big plays on the sweep and his passing skills made him a threat to pull up on a halfback option and fire downfield passes. It was these skills on the perimeter that earned the Golden Boy his next nickname: Mr. Outside, a tandem persona with fullback Jim Taylor, known as Mr. Inside. He and Taylor formed a devastating rushing duo to lead three Packers NFL Championships (1961, 1962, 1965) in the pre-Super Bowl era. Although Taylor led the Packers in rushing yards in most of their years together, Hornung consistently led the team in scoring with a well-acknowledged knack for being more effective near the goal line.

"In the middle of the field he may be only slightly better than an average ballplayer, but inside the 20-yard line he is one of the greatest I have ever seen. He smells that goal line," Lombardi wrote in his book "Run to Daylight".

His peak years of effectiveness were from 1959-'61, a stretch in which he led the NFL in scoring three times, was twice named All-Pro, went to two Pro Bowls and won an NFL MVP. His 176 points in 1960 broke an NFL record, a mark that stood for 46 years until LaDainian Tomlinson scored 186 for the San Diego Chargers in 2006. The NFL season was 12 games long in Hornung's day; Tomlinson played in the 16-game era and broke the mark in San Diego's 14th game.

In '61, Hornung juggled an MVP season with active military duty in the U.S. Army, and over the last half of the season, played for the Packers on weekend passes. When Lombardi learned that the Berlin Wall Crisis would keep Hornung on duty in Fort Riley, Kansas, for the NFL Championship Game, he called on President John F. Kennedy, who arranged a leave for Hornung to play in the game. In a 37-0 win over the Giants, Hornung scored a touchdown and kicked three field goals as the game's MVP.

"Paul Hornung isn't going to win the war on Sunday," Kennedy reportedly said, "but the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day.'"

Hornung (along with Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras) was suspended for the 1963 season by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozzelle for gambling on NFL games, which Hornung admitted to and for which he was deeply apologetic.

In Hornung's final NFL season in 1966, a pinched nerve hampered him for much of the season, and when the Packers earned a berth in Super Bowl I, he was rostered but could not play. Lombardi exposed Hornung to an expansion draft after the season, and he was selected by the New Orleans Saints but never played an NFL down outside of Green Bay.

Upon learning from doctors that continuing his football career with a pinched nerve in his neck could threaten his long-term quality of life, Hornung retired before the Saints could put him on the field, closing a storied one-team career as the do-it-all star of the league's best franchise. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985, and to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

"He could pass. He could run. He could kick. He could catch. He could block," Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Doug Atkins once said. "They say, 'Well, he couldn't run as good as so-and-so. He couldn't do this.' I say, 'Who the hell could do all those things?' He could run like hell and do these things in key situations."

In retirement, Hornung became a broadcaster, working as a radio color analyst for Minnesota Vikings games in the early 1970s and eventually CBS games in the late '70s. He also worked as a sideline reporter for CBS at Super Bowl XII.

He always had a soft spot for his hometown of Louisville, residing there in retirement. He was a benefactor and fundraiser for the Sister Visitor Center, a branch of the city's Catholic Charities program that helps needy families with food, clothing, medical supplies and more. In 2010, the center expanded with a new building named the Paul Hornung Annex.

That same year, the Louisville Sports Commission established the Paul Hornung Award, which is presented annually to the most versatile player in college football. It has since become the targeted individual honor for college players everywhere who are asked to play more than one position. It's 10 winners include NFL stars such as Odell Beckham, Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley, each of whom excelled on both offense and special teams at the college level. Playing both offense and defense isn't nearly as common in college as it was in Hornung's day, but two who did so -- former first-round draft picks Jabrill Peppers Peppers and Shaq Thompson -- won the Hornung Award as well.

College stars winning the Hornung Award, however, are just the next crop, not the first, of do-it-alls to have their names tied to his. Long before the award's inception, pros did, too.

Jim Jensen, who played multiple roles for some of Don Shula's best Miami Dolphins teams.

Kordell Stewart, who earned the nickname Slash for his ability to rush, pass and receive with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Sanders, whose Hall of Fame career as an elite cornerback and return man also dabbled in receiving.

Troy Brown, who was a wide receiver, return specialist and eventually cornerback for Bill Belichick's New England Patriots.

Indeed, it can't be said that Hornung was a pioneer as a multi-positional player because he came from an era full of them, and many with great versatility came before him. Perhaps it's all the more noteworthy, then, that he stood out among them. That over his key role for an NFL dynasty, over any particular record or season or game, he'll be remembered for a sprawling skill set that could deliver a winning run, throw, tackle or kick on demand.

Hornung is survived by his wife of 41 years, Angela Hornung.