Paul Hornung won the 1956 Heisman Trophy as a Notre Dame quarterback who also starred at safety and returned kicks. He achieved election into the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames as a Notre Dame and Green Bay back who not only had a bloodhound’s nose for the end zone, but the leg to convert the extra point.
And yet Hornung recalls nothing more fondly than his guard play on those occasions he was bouncing a round ball instead of carrying, throwing, catching and kicking an oblong one.
“After my senior season in football, I played three games against the Harlem Globetrotters, a couple in Chicago and another in Michigan City, Indiana,” Hornung said Friday. “Abe Saperstein, the Globetrotters owner, paid me $2,000. It flabbergasted me. I had never seen a check for so much money.”
During the early minutes of the game in Michigan City, as the story goes — Hornung has hundreds of them — he went 4 for 4 from the floor, a development that put a rare scowl on the face of Trotters center Meadowlark Lemon.
“Dammit,” Lemon screamed at a teammate, “get on that boy!”
Having aroused the attention of the Globetrotters — in those days, winning superseded their showmanship — Hornung was shut out the rest of the way.
The NFL’s containment of the 6-foot-2, 215 pound “Golden Boy” was less effective. He scored 176 points in 12 games for the 1960 Packers, a record that wouldn’t be broken until the San Diego Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson — beneficiary of a 16-game schedule — scored 180 points in 2006.
Although a potentially grave neck injury hastened Hornung’s retirement after the 1966 season, his versatility as a multitask master remains a vivid memory for anybody who saw him in his prime.
“When you think of an all-purpose athlete,” said Karl Schmitt, executive director of the Louisville Sports Commission, “you think of Paul Hornung.”
A few years ago, Schmitt conceived an annual award recognizing college football’s outstanding all-purpose talent. Linking the award to Hornung — a native and lifelong resident of Louisville — was a no-brainer. So, too, was the selection of its fifth recipient, Washington Huskies’ “runningbacker” Shaq Thompson.
The junior from Sacramento will be honored during a Wednesday banquet in Louisville, where some 500 guests figure to gasp at the highlight video preceding his acceptance remarks.
“We wanted the highlights to coincide with the description heard during the radio broadcast,” Schmitt said. “Washington sent us some clips that are amazing.”
Assembling the montage for the Hornung Award was a labor of love. Scheduling the banquet, and then rescheduling it, was a labor, well, reflecting the times.
The Louisville Sports Commission originally booked the event for late January, which presented a conflict: Late January is when draft hopefuls such as Thompson are prepping, eight days a week, for the NFL combine.
“We’re proud that it’s gotten some prestige,” Schmitt said of an award whose previous winners included West Virginia’s Tavon Austin (2012) and LSU’s Odell Beckham, Jr. (2013). “But we had to be flexible. We understand that for players headed for the combine, there are literally millions of dollars on the line.”
The NFL has come a long way since $2,000 paychecks startled its presumptive first-round draft choices.
A survivor of a violent game that has debilitated many of his peers, Paul Hornung still keeps regular office hours, and revels in sharing memories of his spectacularly eventful life.
Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, then at Kentucky, recruited Hornung as a football prospect who had intentions of joining Adolph Rupp’s powerhouse basketball program. But Hornung’s mother, a single parent, was a devout Catholic who wished for her only child to attend Notre Dame.
Hornung chose Notre Dame, where he played football and basketball as a sophomore before concentrating on the sport that turned him into a household name as a senior.
The first overall selection of the 1957 draft, Hornung spent his first two pro seasons as a backup fullback and flustered reserve quarterback. He wasn’t keen on his coaches, or Green Bay in general.
But when a short, stocky, former New York Giants assistant showed up looking like anything but a savior — Vince Lombardi wore horned-rim glasses and a rumpled trench coat — Hornung was rescued from football purgatory.
Among Lombardi’s most inspired decisions after his 1959 arrival was to pair the fast and shifty Hornung in a backfield with Jim Taylor, a bulldozer type.
“Coach Lombardi asked me if I wanted to try halfback,” Hornung said. “I told him, ‘Sure.’ I just wanted to play somewhere, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to make it as a quarterback.”
The rest is well-documented history.
“Paul has always been a free spirit,” Schmitt said. “He’s still living life on a full scholarship.”
The Golden Boy turns 80 on Dec. 23, and while the premise of excelling at more than one skill seems as quaint as the dropkick, there still are players such as Thompson.
Too dynamic to be defined, too valuable to be confined, Thompson put together a 2014 season best surmised this way: Worthy of a name plate on a trophy associated with Paul Hornung.