Oct. 12, 2016
By Karl F. Schmitt, Jr.
The way Paul Hornung recalls the story, he was summoned from class one December afternoon in 1956 during his senior year at the University of Notre Dame by Charlie Callahan, then the athletics public relations director for the Fighting Irish.
“Callahan handed me the phone and said, ‘Here, tell your mom she’s going to New York.’ That’s how I learned I had won the Heisman Trophy.”
Nicknamed the Golden Boy for his golden locks, Golden Dome at Notre Dame and a similar touch with the football, Louisville native and lifelong resident Paul Vernon Hornung is considered by many the best all-around player in the history of college and pro football.
“The most versatile man ever to play the game,” said NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi of Hornung, who won four NFL championships as a member of Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in the early 1960s and later was named to both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Hornung rose from humble beginnings in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood, where he was a three-sport star at Flaget High School. He selected football at Notre Dame over the University of Kentucky, then coached by Paul Bear Bryant, at the strong suggestion of his mother and Sherrill Sipes, his best friend.
Four years later, Hornung graduated with a business degree and to this day is recognized as one of the top players in Notre Dame history. A two-time All-American at quarterback, Hornung played every position in the offensive backfield during his three-year varsity career from 1954 to 1956 and was a top-flight defensive back and placekicker. As a senior, Hornung led the Irish in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff and punt returns, field goals, extra points and passes broken up and was second on the team in interceptions and tackles.
“I always thought defensive back was my best position,” Hornung once deadpanned to a sports writer. “But I stayed with offense and that worked out pretty well for me.”
He earned the Golden Boy moniker following a sensational spring practice as a freshman--and as a sophomore in 1954 Hornung played every position in the Notre Dame backfield as a substitute. He also played basketball for the Fighting Irish that year, averaging 6.1 points per game. He started at quarterback as a junior in 1955 and compiled 743 yards passing and 472 yards rushing. He finished the season ranked fourth nationally in total offense with 1,215 yards and led the Irish to wins over fourth-ranked Navy and a come-from-behind win over Iowa.
A sequence in that memorable performance against the Hawkeyes provided a glimpse of Hornung’s versatility and willingness to play any position to help his team win. With the Irish trailing 14-7 late in the game, he returned a kickoff to midfield, threw a long touchdown pass, kicked the extra point, kicked off and made the tackle on the two-yard line. Hornung played defense to hold Iowa, then drove the Irish down the field as the quarterback and kicked the winning field goal with 2:15 on the clock for the final 17-14 margin. The field goal came after an Irish player tossed a kicking tee onto the field and Notre Dame was penalized 15 yards for “coaching from the sideline.”
That game featured a record Notre Dame Stadium crowd (59,955), it came after three inches of snow fell the night before—and it was a brutally physical contest with the Irish using only 19 players. Hornung was one of four who played every down.
Here’s how the South Bend Tribune described what happened: “Hornung, a junior meteor on a day when seniors were supposed to sparkle in their final home appearance, was carried off the field by his teammates and a wild student throng who then tore down the goal posts for the first time in history.”
Hornung against Iowa ran for 34 yards, completed six of 10 passes for 108 yards, kicked two extra points and the winning field goal and punted six times for a 36.6-yard average.
“That play was supposed to be a screen pass to the eight,” said Irish coach Terry Brennan of the tying Notre Dame touchdown play that saw Hornung nearly lose 20 yards before finding Jim Morse alone in the end zone.
“Hornung had three receivers on the right but they were all covered.
“I think after today, that anything anybody ever said about the fighting spirit of this Notre Dame team is very true. It was simply amazing the way they refused to quit time after time and held Iowa at crucial spots. This is the greatest bunch of fighters I have ever seen.”
Hornung threw for 354 yards in a 1955 loss to USC, the best mark by an individual in the NCAA that season. He finished fifth in the Heisman voting behind winner Howard “Hopalong” Cassady of Ohio State.
In 1956, he was named the 22nd winner of the Heisman Trophy, although his team won only two of 10 games, and Hornung remains the only player in Heisman history to earn the coveted award while playing on a losing team. He was the first player to win the award despite not leading in first-place votes – he earned 197 first-place votes, eight shy of Tom McDonald’s (Oklahoma) 205. Hornung finished among the top two in voting in three of the five voting regions, including first in the Midwest. Hornung earned 1,066 total Heisman points in the voting. Johnny Majors of Tennessee was second with 994 and McDonald was third with 973.
Hornung won the award in a season in which Notre Dame appeared only three times on television, all of them one-sided Irish losses—a national appearance against Oklahoma (a 40-0 defeat at home) and regional appearances against Navy (a 33-7 loss in Baltimore) and at home versus Michigan State (a 47-14 defeat).
Hornung led the Irish to a combined 19-12 record during three years at Notre Dame, including two seasons with eight or more wins. He finished his Notre Dame career with 1,696 passing yards and 12 touchdowns, 1,051 rushing yards and 15 TDs, 10 interceptions, 25 PAT’s, two field goals and 23 kickoff returns for 663 yards.
Hornung led Notre Dame in seven statistical categories, ranked second in final NCAA statistics in kickoff returns, 15th in passing and 16th in scoring. Only Stanford quarterback John Brodie had more total yards than he did.
In 1957 the Green Bay Packers selected Hornung with the first pick in the NFL Draft with a supplemental pick, the start of his nine-year career with the franchise. His pro career started slowly as he divided his time between fullback and quarterback his first two seasons for two different head coaches. That changed, however, when Lombardi was named coach and made Hornung his starting halfback in 1959.
Even though the Green Bay Packers had quality players at almost every position during the dynasty years of the 1960s, many insist that Hornung was the most important contributor to the Packers’ successes.
Hornung won NFL Championships with the Packers in 1961, 1962 and 1965 and Super Bowl I in 1967. Hornung suited up for the Super Bowl but did not play due to a neck injury. He was the first player selected by the New Orleans Saints in the 1967 expansion draft but never played due to injury.
Upon retirement from football, Hornung continued a successful real estate and investment career with hometown friend and mentor Frank Metts, and launched a career as a sports radio and TV commentator and speaker.
In 2010, in partnership with the Louisville Sports Commission, he launched the Paul Hornung Award, given annually to the most versatile player in major college football.
“The time and the circumstances were right,” Hornung said, in reference to creating an award in his name. “Louisville is my hometown, my businesses are here and I love this city. The Sports Commission will ensure that the Paul Hornung Award is first class and remains here long after all of us are gone.”
In its brief seven-year history, the award has captured the national attention of the college football world and in 2016 earned a spot as a member of the National College Football Awards Association. Winners include current NFL stars Odell Beckham, Jr., Tavon Austin and Shaq Thompson and Stanford’s all-purpose threat, Christian McCaffrey.
“This award is not about speed, strength or statistics,” Hornung said. “The Paul Hornung Award is about players who demonstrate versatility at a high level and do whatever their coaches ask to help their teams win, which is how I played the game.”
Hornung has authored multiple books, including, “My Private Collection: The Paul Hornung Scrapbook” published in 2014; and “Lombardi and Me: Players, Coaches, and Colleagues Talk about the Man and the Myth,” published in 2006.
Karl F. Schmitt, Jr., is the president and CEO of the Louisville Sports Commission and 1971 graduate of the now defunct Flaget High, the same Catholic school in Louisville that Hornung attended.