Hornung was a bigger-than-life figure

Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer Paul Hornung died a couple weeks back at age 84. With his lifelong propensity for breaking records, you’d have thought he was immortal.

Any kid that loves sports finds heroes early on. As a boy, mine were Babe Ruth in baseball and Paul Hornung in football. Not sure why the Babe was on that list, seeing as he died before I was born, but I just knew he had cool nicknames like The Bambino and the Sultan of Swat.

I liked Hornung because he was great in so many areas of the game. In college at Notre Dame, in his senior season,1956, he led his team offensively in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff and punt returns as well as punting.

He also played defense, led the Irish in passes broken up, and was second in interceptions and tackles made. Think about how versatile an athlete he was. Here was a starting quarterback, who was also a placekicker and an outstanding defensive player. Those stats are unimaginable in today’s game. It’s rare nowadays to see a player who contributes on both offense and defense, other than on the occasional gimmick play.

Hornung’s individual accomplishments were so great in ’56 that he was awarded the Heisman Trophy, even though his Irish team won only two games that season. I was just seven years old when he was dazzling the football world, but my father being a big Notre Dame fan, his name was almost a household word in our TV room.

The man they called the Golden Boy for his curly blonde locks and good looks didn’t slow down when he went to the Green Bay Packers as the first overall choice in the 1957 draft. He broke many NFL records as a running back and placekicker, and contributed to four NFL championships and a Super Bowl title for coach Vince Lombardi.

Hornung was nearly as colorful off the field as accomplished on it. His womanizing was legendary, and his gambling habits were great fodder for tabloids. He and Detroit Lions All-Pro tackle Alex Karras were both forced to sit out one full season by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for their betting on NFL games, although neither was ever accused of wagering for or against their own teams.

There was another odd reason that Hornung was my favorite. He had a noticeable nervous habit of twitching his head and shoulders throughout a game. I had that same habit as a kid, and I was teased about it endlessly through grade school. My parents said it was just mind over matter, that if I concentrated, I could stop the twitching.

But the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I consoled myself by thinking if the great Paul Hornung had a nervous twitch, then it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. I even gave the excuse a couple times that I was imitating the Packer great.

Some 50 years after my habit had somehow gone away, I had the chance to meet the Golden Boy in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. I was in the Bluegrass state doing research and interviews for a biography of Las Vegas resident and sports gambler Billy Walters. We’ve hit the pause button several times on the book, but when it’s finally published it will get some serious attention.

Walters is generally regarded as the most successful sports better in history, so much so that a few years ago 60 Minutes did a full segment on his career. It’s a matter of record that he was recently released from prison after a two-and-a-half year stretch for insider stock trading. However, litigation continues with Billy’s contention that the FBI spilled information on its investigation to major news outlets, corrupting the case. He has a good chance of overturning his conviction.

Hornung was a good friend of Walters, and he was more than happy to share several stories about their times together on the golf course, the card room, and the racetrack. Paul couldn’t have been friendlier and more fun in the hour I spent with him, even insisting on giving me autographed bubble gum cards for my then nine-year-old son.

As we concluded the interview, Hornung offered this as a book cover blurb:

“I’ve had just three main heroes in my life,” he said. “Vince Lombardi, Muhammad Ali, and Billy Walters.”

About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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