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Yes, that was Paul Hornung on Packers' sideline in Ice Bowl

Could extinguishing the “Curse of No. 5” yield more Super Bowl trophies?

Paul Hornung (on the right, in two-toned stocking hat and long coat) joins an Ice Bowl huddle
Paul Hornung (on the right, in two-toned stocking hat and long coat) joins an Ice Bowl huddle

Tim of Wauwatosa, WI

In the Ice Bowl photos published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (and Green Bay Press-Gazette), I noticed a shot of someone who looks a lot like Paul Hornung in street clothes in a makeshift dugout next to several players. Then that same person appears in another photo standing on the field with some coaches talking to Bart Starr. First, was this really Hornung? And if so, what's the story behind him being there? As far as I know, he had retired from the New Orleans Saints before the season.

Yes, that was Hornung you saw in the Packers' bench area during the Ice Bowl. In fact, there's a video where he's standing with Vince Lombardi and Starr during the Packers' final timeout before the game-winning sneak. It also looked to me like Starr handed Hornung his gloves before he headed back to the huddle. And, yes, Hornung had retired as a player the previous July after New Orleans had selected him in its expansion draft. Doctors at three different clinics had advised him that he was at risk of suffering irreparable damage to his spinal cord if he continued playing.

Why was Hornung on the Packers' sideline for the Ice Bowl after serving as a sportscaster in New Orleans that fall, while also working with the Saints' running backs as a de facto assistant coach? From what Hornung said, Lombardi ordered him to be there and then to spend the afternoon watching from the sideline, despite the minus-46 wind chill.

The reason?

I think Lombardi answered that question six weeks into the season when the Packers were 3-1-1, coming off a 10-7 loss to Minnesota where his offense was sputtering. Lombardi told The Milwaukee Journal that week the biggest problem with the 1967 Packers was the absence of Hornung's leadership.

"We've lacked the people to carry us," said Lombardi. "I don't mean we lack talent. It's not that. It's the spirit that Paul Hornung used to supply. That's where we miss him most because he somehow had the knack of lifting the whole ball club."

Lou from Kohler, WI

You once expertly debunked a current cyber metrics analyst's evaluation of Hornung's Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials using both basic playing statistics and perceived team intangibles backed with solid references by top NFL executives, coaches and Hornung's teammates and peers. In Ron Wolf's book, "The Packer Way," on page 105, he states, "On another wall I have (a picture of) Paul Hornung, who according to the guys who coached here was 'Lombardi's best player.'" In reference to Mark Murphy's requirements, Hornung's number was retired soon after he retired by the man whose name is on the NFL Super Bowl Trophy. Rightfully so. Your thoughts?

I grasp that in today's world there are stat geeks and basement bloggers who post online screeds debunking Hornung's place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame without having any clue about his role on Lombardi's teams.

That as the halfback, Hornung was what Lombardi called "the key operative" in his offense. That Hornung was the ball carrier on the power sweep and the lone threat to throw the option pass, the two plays Lombardi built the rest of his playbook around. That one of the reasons for Jim Taylor's success was that Hornung was widely viewed as the best blocking back in the league on a team that dominated like no other in NFL history thanks to an infrastructure built on power football.

Beyond that, Hornung also was the heart-and-soul of the 1960s Packers and their unquestioned team leader. And perhaps most importantly, he was the player who consistently rose to the occasion and made the big plays in big games on Lombardi's first three championship teams. It wasn't until the last two that Starr assumed that role.

That, in sum, was why Lombardi called Hornung "the greatest player I ever coached," and most of his assistants and probably a majority of key players from the 1960s agreed with him.

During a recent NBA playoff game, TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy made the point that one can't just judge a player from a stat sheet. What's more important is examining how the team functions when that player is in the game.

Those who followed Lombardi's Packers, as you did, and paid close attention to what he said about his players may remember that injuries never seemed to faze him other than when Hornung's availability was in doubt, despite having more depth at halfback than probably any other position.

Let's not forget that Lombardi reached out to the president of the United States to make sure Hornung would be available for a full week of practice before the 1961 NFL Championship.

A year later when Hornung missed five games and most of two others with a knee injury, and his status was up in the air before the 1962 title game, Lombardi reminded people about this Henry Jordan quote: "Before our 1961 championship game I was under the impression that (Tom) Moore could run as well as Hornung and that Ben Agajanian could kick as well or better, but the week before the game, when Paul got that leave from the Army and walked into that locker room, you could just feel the confidence grow in that room."

In 1965, when the Packers faced Baltimore the second-to-last week of the regular season and needed to win to keep their postseason hopes alive, Lombardi considered it essential to get Hornung back on the field after he had missed two of the previous three games with a pulled groin muscle. In fact, with Hornung having seen limited action since the season opener, the Packers had the third worst offense in the league and were in what Lombardi called "the longest offensive slump a team of mine's ever been in."
Then, after Hornung scored five touchdowns in a 42-27 victory and the Packers took back the Western Conference lead, Lombardi gushed over his decision to play him. "He was my choice all week," said Lombardi. "It was a pressure game, and he's always been good under pressure. A great pressure player."

Even in the days before Super Bowl I, despite the fact Hornung hadn't carried the ball in eight of the previous nine games due to a recurrence of his neck injury, Kansas City coach Hank Stram said he anticipated Hornung playing a significant role because of the stakes and his history of playing well in big games. Lombardi, in turn, also hinted that Hornung could be his ace in the hole, if it turned into a passing game. "Hornung may be the best pass receiver we have as far as running patterns," said Lombardi. "He knows when to stay on 'em and when to break them off. He reads defenses better than anyone else I know."

Based on my interviews with more than 25 of Lombardi's key starters over his nine years as Packers coach, Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley spoke for many, if not most, of his teammates when he said of Hornung: "Vince called him our money player and he was just that. He should have been the first player from our team in the Hall of Fame."

As to your question, the fact is Hornung's number was retired by Lombardi. And when Lombardi made his official pronouncement in the summer of 1967, following Hornung's final season, he might have ranked beneath the team president and executive committee on the Packers' flow chart, but nobody in the organization since World War II has wielded as much authority as he did at that time. But for whatever reason, the Packers waited until 1990 to list their retired numbers in the media guide and didn't include Hornung. Thirteen years later, the numbers were displayed on the Lambeau façade for the first time and again Hornung's was missing.

That's when it should have been done.

But, thankfully, the Packers have had a string of general managers from Ron Wolf through Brian Gutekunst who out of respect for tradition and to uphold Lombardi's wishes have not issued No. 5 to any player for a regular-season or postseason game.

Scotty from Lombard, IL

As we know, our team was the team of the 1960s. No need to go into detail. However, I also believe that there could have been an undefeated season in 1962, and at the least a Western Conference championship in 1963 and '64. I know I'm biased but hear me out. From 1959-61, Hornung played in 36 regular-season games, scoring a total of 416 points, or an average of 11.6 per game. The Packers lost only one game in '62, being dominated by the Lions, 26-14. Hornung did not play. But what if he did and met his average production? The outcome might have been different. In 1963, the Packers lost two games and tied one when Hornung was suspended. With Hornung performing at his prior three-year average, the Packers might have gone 13-1 rather than 11-2-1. Hornung came back to play in 1964, but the Packers fell short several times due to Paul missing either an extra point or field goal. I know we can't change history, but I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Interesting question.

Like so many running backs, the one blemish on Hornung's Hall of Fame resume is his short career. He was clearly the star of Lombardi's first three teams, then lost a full season when he was suspended and thereafter dealt with injuries over much of his last four seasons. And his injuries were anything but minor: The first was a neck injury that sidelined him in the third quarter of the 1960 NFL title game and troubled him for the rest of his career. His other major injury occurred in 1962 and was to the ligaments in his right knee that affected his kicking even two years later.

Just as a reminder, we're not talking about Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, who won two NFL championships in 29 years, or even Bill Belichick's New England Patriots, who won six over a span of 17 seasons. Lombardi's Packers won a still unmatched five in seven years and arguably no player was more vital than Hornung to them winning the first three.

In 1961, he was named the NFL's MVP by the Associated Press, despite reporting on Nov. 14 for active Army duty. As a result, he missed two games and almost every practice for a week in early November while undergoing a thorough physical exam at Great Lakes Naval Training Center and then again over the last five weeks of the season. Yet, as a weekend warrior for almost half the season, Hornung still tied Jim Brown for the second most touchdowns by a running back with 10, behind Taylor's 16. In the NFL Championship, the Packers beat the New York Giants, 37-0, and Hornung was named MVP, scoring a championship game record 19 points and rushing for a game-high 89 yards.

In 1962, despite injuring his knee in the fifth game and missing five of the next seven, his 21-yard option pass set up the Packers' only TD and was their biggest play in their 16-7 victory over the Giants in the NFL title game. Before his injury, he also kicked three field goals, including the game-winner with 33 seconds remaining for the Packers' only points in their 9-7 victory over Detroit in what was arguably the biggest regular-season game of the Lombardi era.

In 1965, the Packers won their first five games, averaging better than 28 points a game. Then, over the next six, they went 3-3 and scored more than 13 points only once as Hornung dealt with assorted leg injuries. But against the Colts, with the Packers' season hanging in the balance, his five TDs included pass receptions of 50 and 65 yards, while he also rushed for 61 yards on 15 attempts for a 4.1 average.

The next week, Hornung reinjured his neck after three carries and left the game as the Packers settled for 24-24 tie against San Francisco, forcing a playoff with the Colts. Although Hornung scored the Packers' only touchdown in that game, he was again sidelined off and on with neck and leg injuries as they escaped with a 13-10 overtime victory.

In the NFL Championship against Cleveland at Lambeau Field, Hornung arguably should have been named the MVP – over Taylor – in the Packers' 23-12 victory. Hornung rushed for 105 yards on 18 carries compared to Taylor's 96 on 27 attempts, and delivered three of the game's biggest plays. The first was a 34-yard run that set up the go-ahead field goal early in the second quarter. The others were the game-clinching touchdown on a 13-yard run in the third quarter, which was set up by his own 20-yard run. Taylor's longest run was eight yards, while Starr completed only two passes longer than any of Hornung's three long runs.

Might the Packers have won other titles with a healthy and available Hornung?

Certainly, his loss in the third quarter of the 1960 title game was a blow. And when the Packers finished 11-2-1 but finished second to the 11-1-2 Bears in 1963, the topic of conversation at the so-called Runner-up Bowl in Miami was whether Hornung's suspension had cost them a third straight title.

"The difference between the Packers with Hornung and without him is the difference between first and second place," Minnesota coach Norm Van Brocklin said that week. Bill Glass, defensive end for Cleveland, the Packers' opponent, agreed. "It wasn't just that (Hornung) was such a terrific runner," said Glass. "The thing was when he came at you wide with the ball you never knew whether he was going to keep running or throw the ball. He really tied the defense into knots."

Lombardi, too, blamed the Packers' second-place finish on the loss of Hornung. "Injuries hurt us, as they will anybody," he said at the end of the season. "But our most significant loss – and I've never said this before – we were injured in not having Hornung."

As for the 1964 season, the Packers finished 8-5-1, including three losses by a total of five points. Not only did Hornung have a sub-par year on offense, but his missed field goals and extra points were a factor in all five losses, as well as the tie. Overall, he was a dismal 12 of 38 on field goal attempts and 41 of 43 on extra point tries with both misses proving to be costly.

But in the end, the Packers finished three-and-a-half games behind the 12-2 Colts. Even if they would have had a reliable kicker, they had other problems on offense that probably would have prohibited them from winning a title that year.

That said, Hornung's career as a kicker is also misunderstood due to his one dismal season.

When Don Chandler was acquired in January 1965, Lombardi planned on him being the punter and Hornung's backup as kicker. "I still believe Hornung is one of the best placekickers in the league," Lombardi said after the trade. "All Paul needed last year when he went into that slump was a backup man."

From 1960-62, Hornung made 60 percent of his field goal tries when 51 percent was the league average. His .681 conversion rate was second to Lou Groza's .696 in 1961; and in 1962, the Packers led the league in field goal percentage with Hornung making 6 of 9 before his knee injury and Jerry Kramer converting 9 of 11 as his replacement. Hornung also had made 96 consecutive extra points when they were no-sure thing, earning him the nickname, "The Golden Toe." When Hornung went without a miss from 1960-62, the league's other kickers missed a combined 45 extra points.

In 1961, when Hornung was 15 of 22 on field goals, the Giants' Pat Summerall, considered one of the better kickers in the game, was 14 of 34. In Chandler's last season with the Giants before he was traded, he had converted only 9 of 20 field goals, with six from inside the 25 and a long of 42.

Here again, when Hornung's naysayers write that he missed 26 of his 38 field goal tries in 1964, it looks abysmal on paper. But do they take the time to research Hornung's overall numbers with other kickers of his day or take into account that he was playing nearly every down on offense leading up to his kicks? That's why his scoring stats were much more meaningful in his day than they would be today.

Bruce from Milwaukee

I'm in a dispute regarding Hornung's diverse talents. I have a grainy recollection that Hornung on rare occasion would line up under center, take the snap and then have the option to run or pass, similar to the wildcat formation today. This was during the early Lombardi years. I have a compatriot who doesn't believe Hornung ever lined up under center during Lombardi's tenure. Can you help resolve the dispute?

I must side with your friend, although we're talking thousands of plays, which means I can't be certain it never happened. But I don't recall ever seeing Hornung line up under center when Lombardi was coach or ever reading in a game story that he did. He did play some quarterback under Lisle Blackbourn in 1957.

Tom from Pine River WI

I've often wondered if the Packers chose Hornung with the bonus choice because they were looking for another Tobin Rote, a big guy who could run and pass.

Certainly a logical question. There were striking similarities between the two, including their size and skill set. And guess what? Blackbourn actually answered your question on draft day. "Hornung is the Tobin Rote type of back, and he'll fit into the Green Bay pattern nicely," Blackbourn said after making the pick.

At the same time, Rote was still the Packers' quarterback and so Blackbourn didn't reveal any specific plans for Hornung. He predicted "he will become an excellent passer," but left open the possibility of him playing fullback, halfback or quarterback. In fact, Blackbourn said Hornung was such a special athlete that he could be an outstanding defensive back.

When Hornung reported to camp the next summer, after playing quarterback for the College All-Stars and the Rote trade, Blackbourn said he had planned to look at Hornung first as a fullback or halfback but because of a camp injury to Starr, he would start him out at quarterback.

Tony from Bronxville, NY

Could Hornung's suspension for gambling in 1963 be a reason for his No. 5 not being on the Lambeau Field façade?

If it was, I'm not aware of it.

Chuck from Green Bay

I grew up in Green Bay idolizing Paul Hornung for both his graceful athleticism and consistent ability to turn a critical play. My family knows my fondness for his playing days and many years ago gave me a No. 5 Hornung jersey that I wear to home games. A couple of years ago I was headed down to our seats and the man behind me, in a well-worn Rodgers jersey, tapped me on the shoulder and asked; "Who's Hornung?" I was a bit surprised, but happy to point up to Paul's name in the stadium's Ring of Honor. It's well known the Packers have had a policy limiting the use of the "5" jersey since Lombardi stated that he wanted to retire Hornung's number. Given how long his number's use has been in limbo and Paul's recent passing, is it possible Packers will now make a move to honor Lombardi's directive and formally retire Hornung's "5"?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions I get, and I'm assuming it comes mostly from people now over the age of 70 who remember the early Lombardi teams as well as the two Super Bowl champions.

But it has been 57 years since Hornung retired and even the former coaches and general managers who participated in the voting for the NFL's All-Centennial Team seem to have a hard time grasping that what Lombardi said about him – "Paul may have been the best all-around back ever to play football" – might still hold true today.

So, no, I don't see anything changing.

Then again, I don't believe in curses whether they're tied to Babe Ruth, the Billy Goat or Hornung and Lombardi, but occasionally I ask myself: Could the curse of No. 5 be the reason for only two Super Bowl titles since 1992?

So who knows?