Former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung, the 'Golden Boy," dead at 84

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung died Friday at his home in Louisville, Ky., after a long battle with dementia. He was 84.

The Louisville Sports Commission reported Hornung’s death Friday afternoon. He is survived by his wife of 41 years, Angela Hornung.

Hornung, a two-time All-American for the Irish, could do just about everything on the football field. He played quarterback, running back, kicker and defensive back for Notre Dame. He could run, pass, block, cover, tackle and kick. Hornung also enjoyed a 10-year NFL career as a running back for the Green Bay Packers. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985 and Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

In a phone interview with the Tribune, Jim Morse said he knew Hornung better than almost anyone. Morse played right halfback for the Irish and was a captain on the 1956 team. Hornung and Morse came to Notre Dame together as freshmen in 1953. Morse said they were roommates during road trips and became close friends.

“As much as anybody else on our team, he kept our team together,” Morse said. “He’s not only a good football player, but he was fun to be around. He was the kind of guy who you enjoyed being around. He had a great sense of humor. But at the same time, he could be serious when it was time to be serious.”

Nicknamed the “Golden Boy” partly because of his shiny blonde hair, Hornung claimed the prestigious Heisman Trophy, given annually to the top player in college football, in 1956 despite Notre Dame’s 2-8 record. Hornung remains the only player on a losing team to receive the award.

Angelo Bertelli (’43), Johnny Lujack (’47), Leon Hart (’49), Johnny Lattner (’53), John Huarte (’64) and Tim Brown (’87) are the six other Notre Dame players who have won the Heisman Trophy.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Hornung completed 59-of-111 passes (53.2 percent) for 917 yards with three touchdowns and 13 interceptions as a senior. He also totaled 420 rushing yards, 559 return yards and two interceptions on defense. Hornung also briefly played on Notre Dame’s basketball team as a sophomore.

The Paul Hornung Award, which recognizes the top versatile player in college football, was established in 2010. Lynn Bowden Jr. from the University of Kentucky claimed the award in 2019.

“Over all these years I’ve been around, I’ve seen a lot of really good football players,” Morse said. “But I’ve always said that Paul was the best all-around football player that I have ever seen.”

Tony Roberts, the radio voice for Notre Dame football for 26 seasons, said he knew Hornung well. Hornung worked with Roberts following his football career, helping out with Notre Dame’s pregame and halftime shows.

“He was one of those recognizable faces,” Roberts told the Tribune. “He was a very, very handsome man. He never lost his good looks. He never lost his zest for life. He never lost his love for Notre Dame. And he never lost his love for his friends.

“Once you got to know Paul and you were accepted by him, it was almost like the Rat Pack. You are with a guy who is really special. And then all of the sudden, you kind of become special too because you are associated with him.

“He was kind. He was generous. He took care of his friends, and he took care of a lot of other people too who he came into contact with. You couldn’t help but like Paul Hornung.”

Roberts said Hornung brought a larger-than-life personality. He remembers being with Hornung in public and seeing fans treat him like royalty. And the stories were endless.

“One game we had to make a flight,” Roberts said. “So Paul said, ‘We are never going to make this flight, because we have another game tomorrow.’ So he corralled a policeman and said, ‘Look, we have to make this flight. We have to get to the airport.’ So he gave the cop $100. And the cop said, ‘Follow me.’ We got to the airport and we made the flight. That’s Paul. That was the way he was.”

How Hornung stood up for former Notre Dame basketball player Tommy Hawkins is one of his more popular stories. Hawkins, an African-American, was reportedly denied service at an off-campus pizza place in South Bend in 1956. Hornung helped draw attention to the incident, prompting Hawkins to receive both service and an apology.

Tom Potter, another one of Hornung’s close friends, recalled a time a fan approached them at a bar in South Bend.

“’Paul, you are the greatest football player I’ve ever seen,’” Potter remembered the fan saying. “And then Paul said, ‘You are the smartest son of a (expletive) I’ve ever seen.’”

The first overall pick in the 1957 NFL Draft, Hornung went on to lead the NFL in scoring for the Packers in 1959, 1960 and 1961. He won five NFL titles and accumulated 3,711 rushing yards, 1,480 receiving yards and 62 touchdowns across his professional career.

Legendary Packers head football coach Vince Lombardi called Hornung the “greatest player I ever coached.”

“Lombardi loved him, and he loved Vince Lombardi,” Roberts said. “He probably gave Lombardi fits sometimes with some of his antics. But that was Paul Hornung. He just had a zest for life. He wanted to live life the way he thought he could get the most out of it. I’m sure that he did. He really got the most out of it.”

Hornung, despite his accolades and outgoing personality, was not without his controversies. He — along with Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions — was suspended for 11 months and the duration of the 1963 season for gambling on football games.

In 2004, Hornung drew national attention when he said in an interview with a Detroit radio station that his alma mater needed to lower its academic standards to "get the black athlete." He was commenting in the interview about how Notre Dame could consistently compete for national championships.

Notre Dame distanced itself from the comments, calling them "insensitive" and "insulting." Hornung later apologized and took exception to criticism that the comments were racist.

"I was wrong," he told the Associated Press. "What I should have said is for all athletes it is really tough to get into Notre Dame."

In one of his last visits to South Bend, in 2014, Hornung served as grand marshal and presided over the coin flip for a game between Notre Dame and Louisville.

"I've never really done anything like that at Notre Dame," Hornung said before the game. "I think (former teammate) Bart Starr and I did something like that at Green Bay, but that was a long time ago."

Hornung also brought 100 Louisville fans to the game, saying, "We're going to take them around the campus and show them a few things."

The Louisville Sports Commission reported that due to COVID restrictions, there will be a private funeral mass for Hornung at St. Louis Bertrand Church in Louisville followed by a private burial in Cave Hill Cemetery. Owen Funeral Home-Jeffersontown will oversee services. A public celebration of his life will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Norton Sports Health Athletics and Learning Complex via the Louisville Urban League, 1535 West Broadway, Louisville, Ky., 40203; or the Sister Visitor Center via Catholic Charities of Louisville, 2911 South Fourth Street, Louisville, Ky., 40208.

Notre Dame athletics, as well as others in the football community, responded to the news of Hornung’s death via Twitter.

Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung imitates the posture of the Heisman Trophy that he received at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York in 1956. Hornung, who went on to a Hall of Fame NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, died Friday at his home in Louisville, Ky. He was 84.
Former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, shown here in the file photo from the 1980s, died Friday. He was 84.