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July 07, 2011
With his leadership on the field and his lifestyle off it, Paul Hornung built a legacy that even 36 years after his final game still defined him
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July 07, 2011

Golden Forever

With his leadership on the field and his lifestyle off it, Paul Hornung built a legacy that even 36 years after his final game still defined him

From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, July 15--22, 2002

ON THE SECOND SATURDAY IN JUNE A 66-YEAR-OLD MAN IN A SPORT coat, with flowing gray hair and a prodigious midsection, stood at the curb outside the Surrey Suite Hotel in New York City awaiting his ride to the Belmont Stakes. From the chaos of Manhattan traffic came a piercing voice: "Hey, Golden Boy!" Paul Hornung is not quite so golden anymore, and certainly not a boy, yet people still see him as he once was. Is it the nickname? The everlasting imprint of the Lombardi era? Is it all those wild stories they once heard?

Eight days later Hornung sat lakeside at a festival in Tomah, Wis., dispensing autographs with former Packers teammate Max McGee, connecting townsfolk to the team's glorious past. McGee signed from a stack of artist's prints depicting his famous two-touchdown performance in the first Super Bowl. ("I sort of remember that day," McGee, who had stayed out all night on the eve of the game, tells people, a well-practiced line that he delivers with convincing fogginess.) Hornung affixed his signature to a classic shot, a photograph from 1960 in which he is captured running onto the field at the start of a game, sun illuminating his blond curls, eye black applied to his cheekbones, Green Bay's green-and-yellow helmet dangling from his right hand.

"These guys were the greatest—real football players," said Chuck Roeske, 62, a maintenance machinist at the local VA hospital and a lifelong Packers fan, after getting his autographs. "Paul Hornung, he was the Golden Boy, you know."

Nearly half a century has passed since the afternoon in 1954 when Hornung, an 18-year-old sophomore-to-be from Louisville, played in Notre Dame's spring football game and heralded such great promise that a sportswriter from Hornung's hometown wrote words to the effect that the Golden Dome at last had found its Golden Boy. America was nearing the end of its age of grand nicknames (the Brown Bomber, the Yankee Clipper, the Splendid Splinter), but what a moniker this was, freighted with entitlement.

And what a life the man has lived, worthy of the title. He was a Fighting Irish quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy and went on to run the fabled Green Bay sweep behind Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston. Better yet, Hornung was the paragon of male fantasy, the star with a woman on each arm (every night!) who could party all week and win with style on Sunday.

Hornung walked away from the game at 31, finished by a neck injury that has left his left arm withered and dangling. But he had already jump-started his life beyond football by investing wisely, and now he owns part of a hugely successful business and chunks of real estate all over his native city. Once suspended from the NFL for gambling, he still thrives on action, especially at the racetrack. (He brags that he bet $200 to win on 70--1 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava, a payoff that was worth more than $14,000.) Yet he derives as much pleasure from giving away money as from earning or winning it. About 18 months ago he sold his Heisman Trophy for $250,000, using the money to endow academic scholarships for Notre Dame students from the Louisville area. If you send him a piece of memorabilia to be autographed, Hornung will sign it and send it back with a note requesting that you write a check to Louisville's Sister Visitor Program, which helps provide food and clothing for people in the poor west end of the city.

"People always said he was a playboy because women loved him," says former Packers teammate Ron Kramer. "That's true; they did. But his friends loved him too. And their wives and kids too. And anybody else who was lucky enough to meet him. He's charming and generous and just a beautiful guy to know." Late in life the debauchery is gone (most of it, anyway), but the joie de vivre remains.

FOR HIS FIRST 18 YEARS HE WAS JUST PAUL, A KID from Louisville's west end who lived with his mother, Loretta, in a second-floor apartment over a grocery store. (His father, Paul, was an insurance executive in New York who eventually moved back to Louisville.) At Flaget High, Hornung grew into a terrific athlete—a 6' 2", 200-pound split T quarterback who could run, throw and kick—and was recruited by all the major college powers. Hornung wanted desperately to attend Kentucky and play for its new coach, Paul (Bear) Bryant, but his mother, a devout Catholic, wanted just as desperately for him to play for Notre Dame. "I couldn't say no to my mother," says Hornung. "It just wouldn't have been right."

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