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Paul Hornung, ‘Golden Boy’ for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, dies at 84

Paul Hornung carries the ball in 1959.
Paul Hornung carries the ball in 1959. (AP)
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Paul Hornung, the original “Golden Boy” of football, who won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame and was a star running back for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers dynasty of the 1960s, only to have his reputation tarnished by a one-year suspension for gambling, died Nov. 13 in Louisville. He was 84.

The death was announced by the Louisville Sports Commission in Mr. Hornung’s hometown. The cause was complications from dementia.

In 2016, Mr. Hornung filed a lawsuit against Riddell, a manufacturer of football helmets, charging that he suffered frequent concussions while playing football, leading to dementia “caused by repetitive head trauma.”

During the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Hornung, with his wavy blond hair and roguish, affable personality, was one of the most glamorous and charismatic athletes in the world of sports. He starred as a halfback and place-kicker for Lombardi’s Packers, the NFL’s dominant team of the 1960s. He led the league in scoring three times and won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1961.

In 1960, he had 15 touchdowns, 15 field goals and 41 extra points for a total of 176 points, at a time when teams played 12 games a season. It stood as an NFL record until 2006, when LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers scored 186 points in a 16-game season. (Mr. Hornung also passed for two touchdowns in 1960, giving him a hand — or foot — in 188 of his team’s 332 points.)

On a team filled with Hall of Famers, from quarterback Bart Starr and fullback Jim Taylor to defensive standouts Willie Davis, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley and Willie Wood, Mr. Hornung was seen as perhaps Green Bay’s most glittering superstar. He was the only Packer of his era to wear a single-digit uniform number, No. 5.

On the field, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Mr. Hornung had a smooth, gliding running style, with deceptive speed and exceptional balance, and was a strong blocker. He was especially dangerous on the team’s most memorable play, the power sweep.

As a runner, he became more powerful and elusive when he got closer to the goal line. A quarterback at Notre Dame when he won the Heisman Trophy in 1956, he was always a threat to pass.

“Paul Hornung is the greatest player I’ve ever coached, and the greatest I’ve ever seen on the football field within the 20-yard line,” Lombardi said in 1967. “He was more than just a player; he was like a son to me.”

Vince Lombardi dead at 57; funeral Monday in New York

Off the field, Mr. Hornung had a reputation that matched his image as the Golden Boy, a nickname he acquired in college. He was often in the company of beautiful women and was known for epic drinking bouts with teammates.

Lombardi forgave him for breaking team rules because he trusted Mr. Hornung to be at his best on Sunday afternoons. In the locker room before games, Mr. Hornung was quiet and intense, chain-smoking cigarettes before leading his team onto the field.

In 1963, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Mr. Hornung and another star player, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras, for betting on college and pro games.

“Rozelle had me, and I knew he had me,” Mr. Hornung told Sports Illustrated in 2002. “But I told him, ‘Pete, we both know that other guys are betting. I know who they are, and I am not answering questions about anybody else.’ ”

As if his public humiliation and one-year suspension weren’t enough, Mr. Hornung had to face a higher authority: Lombardi.

“You stay at the foot of the cross,” the coach said, invoking their shared Catholic faith, according to David Maraniss’s 1999 biography of Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered.”

“I don’t want to see you go to the racetrack. I don’t want to hear about you going to the [Kentucky] Derby. I don’t want to hear about you doing anything. Keep your nose clean and I’ll do my best to get you back. But, mister, stay at the foot of the cross.”

When Mr. Hornung was reinstated in 1964, he kept his word to Lombardi, but he was not the same player he had been before. Yet he still had a final burst of magnificence in him, when, on Dec. 12, 1965, he scored a ­team-record five touchdowns in a key late-season victory over the Baltimore Colts. (The same day, the Chicago Bears’ Gale Sayers, who died earlier this year, scored six touchdowns in a game against the San Francisco 49ers.)

Mr. Hornung often gave his finest performances on the brightest stage. In the week before the 1961 NFL championship game with the New York Giants, it appeared that he would not be able to play because he was fulfilling an active-duty assignment with the Army. It took the intervention of President John F. Kennedy to get Mr. Hornung released from his duties in time to play.

After his teammates cheered his arrival in the locker room, Mr. Hornung scored the game’s first touchdown on a six-yard run, then kicked the extra point. He added three more extra points and three field goals as the Packers routed the Giants, 37-0, for their first championship under Lombardi.

Four years later, on a snowy day in Green Bay, the Packers met the Cleveland Browns for the NFL championship. With the Packers clinging to a 13-12 lead in the third quarter, Mr. Hornung and Taylor took over the game with their powerful running.

On a crucial drive, Mr. Hornung ran off right tackle, dragging defenders through the mud for a 20-yard gain. Then, from the 13-yard line, he took the ball on a power sweep to the left, following the blocks of guard Jerry Kramer and tackle Bob Skoronski, “cutting at precisely the right moment up the alley,” Maraniss wrote, “one more time, gliding through the mud to the end zone.”

During the final seconds of the 23-12 Packers win, Lombardi took Mr. Hornung out of the game to a standing ovation. After the final gun sounded, Mr. Hornung and Taylor hoisted Lombardi on their shoulders and carried him off the field.

“It was,” Maraniss wrote, “the last great game for Lombardi’s glorious running back tandem of Taylor and Hornung, No. 31 plowing for ninety-six yards despite a sore groin, No. 5 stepping his way to 105 with his ailing shoulder, their jerseys and faces caked in mud.”

Paul Vernon Hornung was born Dec. 23, 1935, in Louisville. His parents separated when he was 2, and young Paul grew up with his mother, who worked for the state government.

He attended Catholic schools and excelled in sports, leading his high school football team to the state championship. He turned down an offer from the University of Kentucky, then coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant, to attend Notre Dame.

“I couldn’t say no to my mother,” Mr. Hornung said.

The coach who recruited him at Notre Dame, Frank Leahy, said Mr. Hornung could run through opposing teams “like a mower going through grass.”

He played fullback and halfback before switching to quarterback in his senior season in 1956. As one of football’s last true all-around players, Mr. Hornung ran, passed, punted, kicked field goals and extra points and returned kicks. On defense, he was among his team’s leaders in tackles and interceptions. Despite Notre Dame’s dismal 2-8 record, Mr. Hornung won the Heisman Trophy as the country’s top college player. He is still the only Heisman winner from a losing team.

After graduating from Notre Dame in 1957, Mr. Hornung was drafted by the Packers, but he found little success until Lombardi became head coach in 1959.

Mr. Hornung was slowed by injuries late in his career, including nerve damage in his neck. His nose was broken six times. When the Packers won the first Super Bowl in January 1967, he was on the roster but did not play. Later that year, after he was offered a contract by the New Orleans Saints, an expansion team, he retired. He rushed for 3,711 yards and scored 62 touchdowns and 760 points in his nine-year career.

Returning to Louisville, he had a television sports show and was successful in real estate. He worked as a football analyst for CBS and later for Notre Dame TV broadcasts.

In 2004, Mr. Hornung said Notre Dame should lower its academic standards to “get the Black athlete.” He immediately apologized. He led charity efforts in Louisville and endowed scholarships at Notre Dame.

His first marriage to Pat Roeder ended in divorce. His only immediate survivor is his wife of 41 years, the former Angela Cervelli.

Mr. Hornung was admitted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985 and to the Pro Football Hall of Fame a year later. He published several books, including a 2004 autobiography in which he said he had few regrets about a life that was “all about games, girls, gambling and gin joints, not necessarily in that order.”

Ever popular in Green Bay, Mr. Hornung remained an enduring symbol of the Packers’ golden past.

“Paul was, really,” his teammate Kramer wrote in his book “Distant Replay,” “the only player we had in Green Bay who came in a superstar and left a superstar.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

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