RIP to Notre Dame, Packers and Gambling Legend Paul Hornung

Source -  The Louisville Sports Commission announced that Packer icon and Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Hornung died on Thursday.

Hornung’s death comes after a long battle with dementia. He was 84 years old.

Hornung played at Notre Dame and won the Heisman Trophy in 1956 before being selected by the Packers with the first overall pick of the 1957 draft. He played halfback and was prized for his versatility during his 10 years in Green Bay. He ran the ball, caught passes, threw passes, and handled placekicking duties, which led Vince Lombardi to call him the most versatile player in the history of the league.

Hornung did those things well enough to be the league’s MVP in 1961 and make first-team All-Pro twice. He was also part of four NFL champions and the Super Bowl I winners. ... He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

This is one of those moments where a famous person's passing is an opportunity to mourn, of course, but also to celebrate an incredible life well led. Not to cry because they are gone, but to smile because such a person existed. 

To be clear, The Golden Boy Paul Hornung predates me. These Old Balls are not old enough to have ever seen him play. But he's one of those figures whose shadow I grew up in while devouring books about sports history and watching NFL Films shows on the weekend. A larger than life character like Ted Williams or Dick Butkus or Ben Hogan. Someone you knew maybe from commercials or "Sports Challenge," which was hosted by Dick Enberg and co-hosted by his preposterously loud sport coats

You read the above passage about his career. How he did pretty much everything you can do to score points in tackle football. But how good was he? Good enough that the year he won the Heisman Trophy, the Irish went 2-8. Good enough that at the  College All Star Game against the New York Giants in August of 1957: 

Hornung had a famous match race with Abe Woodson. ... Just for fun, Woodson, one of the fastest players ever to put on pads, and Hornung agreed to a 100-yard (91 m) match race.  Hornung won by five yards.

And good enough that Vince Lombardi made him the No. 1 overall pick. And that he set the NFL championship game record with 19 points scored, a record that would stand until James White scored 20 in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons. He also served in the US Armed Forces, while Lombardi pulled strings to get him weekend furloughs so he could play on Sundays.

But to me, the most remarkable thing, was that Paul Hornung was good enough to beat the rap. He touched the third rail of professional sports in America: Gambling. Along with none other than that other iconic pop culture icon, Alex Karras. Mongo himself:

From the SI Vault, April 29, 1963:

Alvin (Pete) Rozelle, the commissioner of the National Football League … has just suspended Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers, the biggest star in pro football, and Alex Karras, All-Pro tackle who was the key to the Detroit Lions' superb defense; he has fined five other Lions, as well, all for betting on football. He took this action without accepting any advice or pressure from the club owners who elected him. In fact, he says he did not advise the owners of his action until just before the news was released. 

"There is absolutely no evidence of any criminality," Rozelle says. "No bribes, no game-fixing or point-shaving. The only evidence uncovered in this investigation, which included 52 interviews with players on eight teams, was the bets by the players penalized. All of these bets were on their own teams to win or on other NFL games."

The penalties were harsh, and deservedly so. The decision he reached in exacting them, Rozelle says, was the "hardest of my life."

Surviving a betting scandal and not only getting reinstated after only a one-year suspension? That is a king doing kingly things. Bearing in mind that this was just 43 years after eight members of the Black Sox were suspended for life. And 26 years before Pete Rose met the same fate. Think about how much juice an athlete would have to have today to get caught betting on games and get the same punishment you get today if you violate the NFL's cannabis policy three times. Hornung and Karras only served four times the sentence Tom Brady did because Roger Goodell doesn't believe in the Ideal Gas Law. And if you're a believer in the conspiracy theory that Michael Jordan's two year Minor League baseball career was a deal with the NBA to keep him from being suspended and save face (I think it's plausible), bear in the mind the difference here is that these guys 'fessed up to it. And still got off with two slaps on the wrist and the immortality of enshrinement in Canton Valhalla. 

So godspeed to a true American icon, a veteran, a man's man, and a football champions. But even more so, a champion at life.