THE GOLDEN BOY
Paul Hornung Played Hard at Notre Dame and Green Bay and He Lived Even Harder (Most of Those Stories Are True) But He Always Went Home to Louisville and That’s Where You Can Find Him Today, Prosperous and Still Having Fun
This is Paul Hornung’s town. The one-time Golden Boy of Green Bay and Notre Dame was born here half a century ago. And though he has traveled widely for the last 25 years, Hornung always comes back to Louisville.
“Who wouldn’t?” he asked the other day. “Like the man said, I’ve never met a Kentuckian that wasn’t on his way home.”
In the years when Hornung was an All-American quarterback at Notre Dame, he returned to Louisville every month or so to spend a day or two with his mother at her house, where he lived until he was 30.
“I always hitch-hiked,” he recalled. “I must have made 30 or 40 round trips to South Bend in those days, and it was my thumb that did it every time. Never went any other way.”
Later, when Hornung was an All-NFL running back with the Green Bay Packers, he cruised back to his old Kentucky home each winter in a new convertible.
“Been driving new Cadillacs for 28 years,” he said.
This month he came home from Honolulu in a jet.
“Only way to go that far,” he said.
Hornung, now a Louisville businessman with holdings mostly in real estate, ventured to Honolulu last month at the request of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which introduced him there as a new member.
It was a long time coming. Nine other Packers preceded him into the Canton, Ohio, hall despite Hornung’s 1960s status as the champions’ big gun.
Or as an old friend, Packer guard Jerry Kramer, put it: “He was always the star of our team, even after he stopped being the best player.”
Just to keep him humble, though, his teammates called him Goat Shoulders.
At the height of his career, Hornung lost a year when he was suspended for betting on NFL games. He bet on his own team. The episode bothered some members of the Hall of Fame selection committee, which delayed his admission until this winter.
But Hornung’s bitterness, if any, isn’t evident.
“The thing I’m proudest of is that I made the College Hall of Fame as a quarterback and the Pro Hall of Fame as a running back,” he said.
The Golden Boy at 50 isn’t quite as golden as he used to be. These days he is a gray-toned blond who comes to work in old jeans or old cords and pullover sweaters. The sweaters fit snugly.
He admits to 255 pounds, but it’s more. The familiar 215-pound athlete disappeared when he quit smoking several years ago but kept on eating.
“Paul is always on time for dinner,” said Angela, his second wife.
He also travels extensively as a football announcer for WTBS, visiting different cities each fall weekend.
The distinctive Hornung trait is his gait, which is fast-forward. A bundle of nervous energy, he always seems to be in motion. He says he can get in and out of any restaurant in America in 28 minutes.
Though his reach reportedly isn’t that fast when the check arrives, Hornung is essentially a good-hearted, open, unreserved and trusting person. Particularly loyal to old friends, he has asked one of them, Max McGee, to make his Hall of Fame presentation this summer.
McGee, who doubled as a wide receiver and fun-loving curfew-buster on the Hornung teams at Green Bay, has also settled down, married, and gotten rich in Minneapolis, where he ran a Mexican restaurant into a franchise operation and a bundle.
McGee said, a bit sadly, “You can’t party all your life.”
Hornung remembers when they tried.
“Max was my roommate on the Packers, and one year at training camp, he was out every night,” Hornung said. “I know, because once or twice I had to get him up and make him come along.”
No Packer was more persuasive than Hornung.
“He was our leader,” McGee said. “He led us on the field, and when the game was over, he always led us to the nearest bar.”
Those were the days.
The great Kentucky flood of 1937, the year the Ohio River overflowed in Louisville, changed Paul Hornung’s life.
He was 2 years old when, terrified, he clutched his mother’s hand on the roof of their submerged house while the river rose.
Just in time, a man in a small boat came round the corner, rowed up, and rescued them.
“That was the start of a very beautiful friendship,” Hornung said.
The man was Henry Hofmann, a real estate investor-developer and family benefactor known to Hornung as Uncle Henry.
Hornung’s father, who had been an insurance company executive, left the family early in his son’s life, a victim of alcohol. Hofmann replaced him as adviser, friend and football fan.
As long ago as the Notre Dame years, Hofmann, who died in 1983, was investing Hornung’s savings in Louisville real estate.
A few years after the flood, Hofmann rescued another Louisville youngster, Frank Metts. He encouraged Metts to resign as the driver of a milk truck, which appeared to his destiny, and taught him the real estate business.
Today Metts and Hornung are in business together. The firm is Metts Co., where Metts is in charge. Hornung, vice president, focuses on sales, contacts and contracts.
Their holdings consist of shopping centers, rental properties, an equipment manufacturing company and other interests, including two large plants for processing soybean oil.
When Seagram’s sold out of Louisville recently, Metts and Hornung, in association with other partners, bought what had been the state’s largest distillery. They moved some of their soybean operation there, then announced that they’re in the market for other tenants.
“Paul has a good business head, and he gets along with people well,” Metts said. “Those are the two big things.”
In a typical Metts Co. transaction three years ago, the firm bought the abandoned five-story downtown building that for years had housed Levy Bros., one of the South’s largest men’s clothing stores.
“I got my first long pants at Levy Bros.,” Hornung said.
A quaint 1890s structure with a corner turret, the building has become Metts Co. headquarters. There is a restaurant at street level, new apartments are going in on the fifth floor, and the Metts people are on the third.
Hornung sits at a big modern desk in a big corner office, where he catches the eastern and southern sun. He obviously likes bright colors and mixes of modern and antique furniture.
The dominant decoration in his office is an oil portrait of former Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi, painted by a former Ram receiver, Tommy McDonald.
The floors are 1890s hardwood.
“Levy Bros. used to sell their jeans in this corner,” Hornung said.
In fact, he still has a pair. They don’t, however, fit as well as they used to.
A tour of Louisville is also a trip into the past for Paul Hornung, who has traveled from the blue collar west end, where he was born, to the more affluent east side, where he lives now.
“See that house across the street?” he asked, pointing to a tiny, one-story, white-frame cottage. “Mom and I used to live there. We could only afford to rent one room, that front room there. We had two cots, and not much else.”
His grandparents, who once ran a mom-and-pop grocery store in Louisville, had died. His father had left. His mother was just starting in Kentucky’s civil service. When she got a promotion, they rented the second floor of a slightly larger, two-story, white-frame house nearby.
“There it is,” he said, indicating a house in a low-income Portland Street area once filled with an immigrant group known as the Portland Irish. Hornung is Irish and German.
That was his home through high school, and it was to that home that he returned so often from Notre Dame, hitch-hiking as far as possible, then riding up in a Portland St. bus.
“That’s the Marine Hospital across the street,” he said. “As you can see, their front yard is as big as a football field. That’s where I learned to play football. Played every day.”
Earlier, his mother had vouched for that. Speaking as a Hornung fan who saw most of his games at Notre Dame and Green Bay, Loretta Hornung, now 80, said: “No boy was ever crazier about football.”
During his first year in high school, she remembers, there was a September Friday when the coach cut off practice early--as he generally did the day before a game--to save the legs of his athletes.
Paul dressed and made the five-mile trip home on his bicycle, as usual, but when he got there, he noticed that a pickup game was still in progress on the Marine Hospital grounds.
Rushing into the house, he changed clothes again, and played sandlot football until dark.
“That gave him an idea,” his mother said. “After that, he always hurried home when high school practice ended early. He loved playing football twice a day. The day of the game was kind of a letdown.”
Her boy still thinks of his high school years as the best of his life, despite his penniless circumstances, and despite the fame and fun he knew later.
“High school is the only time when you can play every day,” he said. “I looked forward to basketball so much that I couldn’t wait for the football season to end. Then in the late winter, I couldn’t wait for baseball. How could you have a better life? Studies came easy. Mom made sure I studied enough to get to Notre Dame.”
Hornung isn’t the only sports figure who has enjoyed himself in Louisville.
This city of less than one million has proved to be a convenient stage for many others--from the founders of Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, to Howard Schnellenberger, the football coach at the University of Louisville.
Lenny Lyles, a former All-NFL defensive back with the Baltimore Colts, is a Louisville product who came home to found and operate Lyles Mall, a shopping center, in association with Hornung.
Phil Simms of the New York Giants began as a high school quarterback in Louisville and plans to return.
Muhammad Ali, the former champion, is one of the few who went away and stayed, although he is still represented by a major Louisville street that was renamed in his honor, Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
It is a measure of Ali’s clout that no Louisville thoroughfares have yet been named for Hornung.
Nevertheless, the curving, hilly street where Paul and Angela Hornung live could well be called Place de Golden Boy. It is a pleasant, carefully landscaped little street in a lush residential area known as Windy Hill. The Hornungs’ condominium overlooks a lake.
When Windy Hill’s dogwood trees bloom at Derby time, the race ranks only second, to some, as a Kentucky attraction.
In the three-bedroom Hornung condo, which is airy and chromatic, there are two prominent bars, one upstairs and one down, and both are stocked with the best in gin and Scotch.
The bottles, however, look like museum pieces--the kind that are often dusted but rarely touched. They are apparently token reminders of a bygone era in the life of a reformed playboy.
Strangely enough, there are almost no reminders of Hornung’s athletic career. Only two trophies are in sight--a golf trophy won by Angela and an official NFL football autographed by Walter Payton, whose versatility Hornung admires.
“I beat Paul once in a while,” Angela said, “when he gives me a stroke a hole.”
The Heisman Trophy he won in 1956 has been “returned"--that’s his word--to Notre Dame. He says the Notre Dame team won it.
In his playroom, the many framed pictures on what he calls the wall of fame are dominated by three framed copies of the Sports Illustrated covers that featured Hornung in his Golden Boy decade, one in 1956, one in 1963 and the last in 1966.
The dominant picture in the master bedroom is an oil painting of Angela Hornung when she had long blond hair.
A bathroom statue and most of the other portraits in the house are discreet nudes.
No Windy Hill resident could ask for more.
Hornung and McGee, two of the NFL’s most celebrated rounders of the 1960s, regrouped a few years ago at the Kentucky Derby, where, as McGee watched respectfully, Hornung demonstrated his personal Churchill Downs system.
“Before each race, Paul walked up and down the track talking to the trainers,” McGee said. “When the trainers bet, he bet, and so did I. It’s a hell of a system--it’s brought me back to the Derby every year. I’ve never left Churchill Downs without more money than I took in.”
Hornung said McGee has just been lucky.
“My system is like all the others,” he said. “It will break you eventually. The only good thing about betting along with the trainers is that your money does last a little longer.”
There are at least two reasons why trainers and other horse racing people discuss racing candidly with the Golden Boy. First, he’s a magnetic celebrity. Second, he has known them most of his life.
Hornung was 14 when he hitch-hiked to Churchill Downs the first time. He has been a regular ever since, frequently as a track employee. Starting as an usher in his high school days--when he was already a famous Louisville athlete--he hardened up for Notre Dame football with summer jobs at the track as a construction worker.
Fast horses are part of the Kentucky landscape. Churchill Downs is a glamour center in the heart of the state’s biggest city. You can walk to Churchill Downs from downtown Louisville.
To a Louisville boy, the race track is as commonplace as his church or school. And to a Kentuckian, the act of betting comes naturally.
From betting on horses, it’s an easy step to betting on baseball and football.
When Hornung was an NFL player, he knew the league had a rule against betting, but the rule was hardly consistent with life as he had known it and lived it in Kentucky.
He didn’t change his life style simply because he had become a football player at Notre Dame and Green Bay. Nor would he go underground. It isn’t like Hornung to sneak around. He associated with the same people he had known and trusted for years.
And eventually he paid for it when Commissioner Pete Rozelle, citing the evidence of Hornung’s gambling, suspended him for the 1963 season.
A few years later, when Hornung had become a football announcer, pairing with Lindsay Nelson, he was flying to a game one day when another passenger came up and consoled him.
“What an s.o.b. that Rozelle is,” the passenger said. “How could he ban a guy for betting on his own team? Worst thing he’s ever done.”
The Golden Boy would have none of it.
“No, sir, you’re wrong about that,” he said. “Rozelle was right, and I was in the wrong. When I broke the rule, he did what he had to do.”
Nelson, who tells the story and who still works with Hornung on WTBS, said: “Paul’s honesty is one of the most appealing things about the guy.”
The thing that appeals to McGee is Hornung’s horse sense.
“He’s got me so interested in horses that I’ve bought eight of my own,” McGee said. “I may enter one of them--a colt named Eight Arrows--in the Kentucky Derby. In my first seven races, I’ve had five winners.”
Hornung’s opinion of that: “He’s just been lucky.”
Other Hornung opinions:
On Bill Hartack: “My favorite jockey. Bill never pulled a horse.
On Swaps: “My favorite horse. Swaps held five world records at the same time.
On Carroll Rosenbloom, formerly president of the Colts and then the Rams: “My favorite owner. You can’t knock an owner who bets on his own team.”
A fan of 1980s football, Hornung identifies a play in the Pro Bowl as the NFL’s play of the season.
It was thrown for a touchdown by a Raider halfback, Marcus Allen.
“As a passer, Marcus is as good as I was,” Hornung said. “And he’s a better runner.”
The others who attempt to throw halfback passes these days, including Walter Payton, don’t fake the run properly, Hornung says.
“Walter and those guys slow down too soon and retreat too fast,” he said. “Marcus does it just right. He’s the best halfback passer since the single wing.”
Hornung was talking about his own best play, one that made him famous.
“It’s the most neglected play in football today,” he said. “Teams like the Raiders should use it all the time. They think it’s a surprise gimmick play, but it isn’t. It’s a game-plan play.
“In one series at Philadelphia (in the early ‘60s) we ran it on every down. It was a regular-season game, but Coach Lombardi thought we needed work on the halfback option. So we ran it for about 65 yards. I mean I was out there throwing or running on six or seven consecutive plays until we scored.”
Otherwise, how good was Hornung? Looking back, how does he compare with other football players?
The record shows that he was unique in many respects:
He is the most prolific NFL scorer the game has known, the only player who ever scored 176 points in one season. In 1960, in a 12-game schedule, he kicked 15 field goals and scored 15 touchdowns, adding 41 extra points.
He is the most decorated football player of all time, the only one who has earned all this:
--NFL MVP twice (1960-61).
--NFL championship game MVP in 1961.
--NFL’s first draft choice of 1957.
--College Football Hall of Fame.
--Pro Football Hall of Fame.
--Heisman Trophy (as a member of a 2-8 Notre Dame team in 1956).
He’s the only player from a losing team to win the Heisman since it was first awarded to Jay Berwanger of Chicago in 1935.
He was the only quarterback to win it in the 15 years between Johnny Lujack in 1947 and Terry Baker in 1962.
Hornung was perhaps the best all-around football player ever. Consider:
--At both Notre Dame and Green Bay, he successfully played all three backfield positions, quarterback, halfback and fullback, excelling as runner, passer, receiver and blocker. He was the blocker for a Hall of Fame fullback, Jim Taylor.
--Hornung also punted, kicked off and kicked field goals.
--At Notre Dame he returned punts and kickoffs.
--A 60-minute player, he also played safety at Notre Dame, where he was second in total tackles one season.
--Hornung alone has made the College Hall of Fame as a quarterback and the Pro Hall of Fame as a running back.
A showman, he was also the first to showboat after touchdowns. By the 1980s, spiking and dancing in the end zone had become tiresome, but in the 1960s it was a novelty when, following a touchdown at Chicago, Hornung threw the football high into the stands at Wrigley Field.
Chicago Coach George Halas, livid, shouted: “You’ll pay for that, young man.”
Green Bay Coach Lombardi, grinning, said: “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it.”
Kramer, summing up Hornung’s career in his most recent book, “Distant Replay,” put it this way:
“Paul was, really, the only player we had in Green Bay who came in a superstar and left a superstar.”
The Golden Boy also came and left a playboy. Former Chicago linebacker Bill George, who drew Hornung as a roommate one week in the era when the Pro Bowl was an L.A. institution, was asked what it was like to room with a legend.
“I never saw him,” George said. “Haven’t seen anything but Paul’s luggage. I roomed with his luggage all week.”