GOLDEN BOY

By Paul Hornung, as told to William F. Reed

Simon & Schuster. 291 pp. $25

Younger readers probably know Paul Hornung as an amiable, funny, opinionated, irreverent television personality who covers football games -- just another face in the 24/7 gong show that passes for televised sports journalism. But older readers know Hornung as something else altogether: the last of the complete players -- for Notre Dame in the 1950s he played both offense and defense; for the Green Bay Packers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he ran, he passed, he place-kicked -- and one of the most exciting players of his time.

He also was and presumably still is a good guy. Not a goody-goody -- quite to the contrary -- but a free spirit who thumbs his nose at convention just about everywhere he encounters it. He has sailed through life with delight in its pleasures and indifference to the occasional inconvenient detours along his personal Yellow Brick Road. All the evidence suggests that Ron Kramer, his friend and former Green Bay teammate, was right when he told a reporter that Hornung is "charming and generous and just a beautiful guy to know."

Those words, Hornung writes in "Golden Boy," are "more precious than gold" in his exchequer. The friendships he made on the playing field and in the locker room seem to matter more to him than anything else in an eventful life that "was all about games, girls, gambling and gin joints, not necessarily in that order," and he's maintained many of those friendships from his teens and twenties into his late sixties. Plenty of people have looked down their long noses at him -- "I was the opposite," he says, "of what's known today as 'politically correct' " -- and he had to sit out the 1963 season "for breaking the league's rule against gambling," but none of that has stopped him from having one hell of a good time.

He doesn't mind quoting other people's kind words about him -- perhaps in unconscious rebuke to all the prigs and bluenoses -- and he obviously takes particular pride in the words of Vince Lombardi, his coach at Green Bay. Lombardi was as square as Hornung was hip, and the two had plenty of run-ins over the years, but the affection between them was genuine and deep. "Hornung has three things that make him special," Lombardi told reporters once. "First, he's got heart. He's got all the heart in the world. Second, he's handsome. And third, he's a great big ham."

No wonder they called him "Golden Boy." He was tall, he was blond, and he had a smile that, as the saying goes, lit up any room he was in. He got the Heisman Trophy in 1956 probably as much on charisma as on performance -- it should have gone to Jim Brown, "the best football player ever, period, but he didn't win the Heisman, because blacks were only starting to enter the mainstream of college football" -- and Hornung kept the golden glow through a decade in the pros.

"I really have enjoyed a golden life," he says, and he obviously enjoys looking back on it. "Golden Boy" is actually his second as-told-to memoir. "Football and the Single Man" was published nearly four decades ago, with Al Silverman serving as pen for hire, but it's now hard to find, and in any case plenty has happened in Hornung's life in all those intervening years. The prose in "Golden Boy" has the machine-processed tone typical of as-told-to books, but William F. Reed (formerly of Sports Illustrated) manages to write in a voice that sounds convincingly like Hornung's. Like most others in its genre, "Golden Boy" is almost entirely devoid of weight, but it's good fun, which is probably all that the authors mean it to be.

Hornung was born 68 years ago in Louisville and lives there to this day. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother worked. He almost never saw his father, and "the guiding male influence in my life until the day he died in 1984" was "a kind, gentle man named Henry Hoffman," whom he called "Uncle Henry" out of affection rather than any blood relationship. By the time he reached high school Hornung's exceptional athletic ability had asserted itself, and the college recruiters began pouring into the unimpressive little apartment where he and his mother lived.

He chose Notre Dame, mainly to please his mother, "the kind of Catholic mom who could imagine no bigger honor than having a son who graduated from Notre Dame." At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds he was a big running back by the standards of the time, but he was fast and agile; he played fullback, quarterback and defensive back, and played all of them well. Notre Dame was its usual powerhouse self his sophomore and junior years (freshmen didn't play varsity ball in those days) but fell to "a stunningly poor 2-8" his senior year, its "first losing season since 1933 and its worst record ever to that point." Still Hornung finished second nationally in total offense, led his team in just about every offensive statistic, and picked up his Heisman at season's end.

Green Bay drafted him in 1957 "to be the savior for a team that existed in the NFL's smallest city and had endured ten straight losing seasons," but the real savior -- Lombardi -- didn't arrive until two gloomy, losing years later. The turnaround was immediate and dramatic. The team started to win and Hornung went crazy: "Under Lombardi, no player thrived more than me. The left halfback spot turned out to be perfect for me. Running, throwing, and catching, as well as handling the placekicking, I made the Pro Bowl for the first time [in 1959] and scored a record thirteen points then with a touchdown, a field goal, and four extra points."

Hornung says now, "As far as I'm concerned, and I'm admittedly prejudiced, the 1960s was the golden era of the National Football League. At the beginning of the decade, there were thirteen teams in the NFL and eight more in the brand-new American Football League. By the end of it, the NFL and AFL had merged into a 26-team league and the Super Bowl, first held in 1967, was fast becoming bigger than baseball's World Series."

He's right. Those were exciting days. The stodgy NFL looked at the AFL contemptuously, but everyone knows now that it was the AFL's challenge that brought pro football into its modern era and that it was the New York Jets' victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl that turned the merged NFL into the behemoth it has been ever since. Hornung may remember the "golden era" fondly, but he's realistic enough to know that the NFL needed a kick in the pants and that the AFL -- most particularly Joe Namath -- delivered it.

The one blot on Hornung's record is his suspension (along with Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions) for the 1963 season. True to the lessons he'd learned as a boy in Louisville -- "a city of whiskey distilleries, cigarette factories, and gambling" -- he was an inveterate gambler and he hung out with some pretty shady guys. "The concept of guilt-by-association never entered my mind," he says; "gambling to me was just another form of fun and entertainment, sort of like chasing girls and going out on the town." His offenses were petty by comparison with those committed later by Pete Rose, and unlike Rose he was contrite and apologetic, but Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, did the right thing in suspending him and the right thing in reinstating him for the 1964 season.

Since his retirement in 1967, Hornung has done television, been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, chased more women than anyone could count before settling down in 1979 in a solid marriage to his second wife, Angela DiBonaventura Cerelli, and made a decent pile of money. He's a happy man, and he has every reason to be. Along the way he's made plenty of other people happy as well, yours truly among them.