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Chapter 10: Football as It Was Meant to Be
As far as I'm concerned, and I'm admittedly prejudiced, the 1960s was the golden era of the National Football League. At the beginning of the decade, there were thirteen teams in the NFL and eight more in the brand-new American Football League. By the end of it, the NFL and AFL had merged into a 26-team league and the Super Bowl, first held in 1967, was fast becoming bigger than baseball's World Series.
We didn't pay much attention to the AFL until the bidding wars for college players got crazy in the mid-1960s. Heading into the 1966 season, for example, the AFL had beat out the NFL for such exciting young stars as Joe Namath, Daryl Lamonica, Mike Garrett, and Lance Alworth.
The upstart league also had a bunch of veterans who had made their names in the NFL, most notably George Blanda, the ageless quarterback and placekicker for the Oakland Raiders. The AFL just seemed more exciting than the NFL, which came off as rather stodgy in comparison.
Although we were the NFL's "Team of the '60s," we didn't exactly win our championships by default. Nobody gave us more trouble defensively than the Detroit Lions, especially such formidable players as Alex Karras, Roger Brown, and Joe Schmidt.
The Lions also had one of the game's all-time great defensive backs in Dick "Night Train" Lane. In 1963, Lane's wife, singer Dinah Washington, died suddenly the week before the Lions were to play the Bears in Chicago.
The Packers were pulling for the Lions because, if they won, Green Bay and not the Bears would go to the NFL championship game against the Giants. But without Lane, who was so saddened by his wife's death that he couldn't play, the Bears' receivers had a field day in the secondary and earned the right to play the Giants, whom they later beat, 14-10.
"The Bears seemed to me to be really lucky that year," Jerry Kramer once said. "They were playing good and they were a good football team. But it's also true that the ball always seemed to bounce into their hands when they needed it.
"I remember saying to Doug Atkins, 'You lucky sonofabitches. Every time you turn around, the ball bounces right.' And he said, 'Jerry, you're absolutely right. I remember one game where we fumbled, but the ball bounced into one of our guys' hands. That's when I said, "Boys, it's our year, it's our turn." Everything we did turned out right.' "
Atkins, who played college ball at Tennessee, was the best defensive end I ever played against. He was 6-9 and maybe 275 pounds, and he could run. You couldn't block him, and he was such a wild man that Bears coach George Halas couldn't coach him. Atkins and I developed a relationship based on mutual respect because of what I did once when we were playing the Bears.
Atkins had a knee injury, and, on this one play, I had a great shot to put a crackback block on him. He didn't know I was coming. If I had hit him, it would have been all over for him. I could have really wiped out his knee. Instead I yelled, "Doug, I'm coming!" That gave him time to protect his knee.
He really appreciated that. To pay me back, he never "clotheslined" me. That was the technique by which a defensive player would come up on an unsuspecting runner and hook him with his arm around the neck. It was devastating when you weren't expecting it, and Doug was a master at it. The NFL subsequently outlawed it.
Once, after Doug had clotheslined Elijah Pitts, Pitts came to the bench and said, "Damn, Hornung. He must not like blacks. That's the only reason I can figure that he clotheslines me every chance he gets and never clotheslines you."
I told Elijah what I had done for Doug, and he understood.
The Bears hit almost as hard as the Lions did. They had guys like Atkins, Dick Butkus, and Bill George. Because of our long history together and the proximity of Chicago and Green Bay, they always were our most hated rivals. We would always go to Chicago or Milwaukee by train, and that gave us a great chance to gamble on card games. We loved the train. We'd play blackjack and poker up and back.
I always felt the Packers had a good draft when they got me as the "bonus" pick and Ron Kramer as the No. 1 pick in 1957.
But the Bears had the greatest draft in NFL history in 1965 when they got Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus.
Before we played them at home on October 3, 1965, somebody knocked on our dressing room door. When Bud Jorgensen, our trainer for more than forty years, opened it, there stood Halas. "Tell Coach Lombardi I want to talk to him," he said.
After checking with Lombardi, Jorgensen ushered Halas into a small room in the locker room, where Lombardi was waiting. "Vince," said Halas, "I just want to tell you this: you'd better have your boys ready today because we're going to kick your ass." And then he left.
Lombardi was so flabbergasted that he was distracted all during the game, wondering why Halas had done that. This, of course, was exactly what Halas had intended. He wanted to get into Vince's head. But besides that, he knew he had a couple of rookie superstars in Sayers and Butkus.
Sayers was in the league for five years, but he was healthy for only the first three and a half. He wasn't the same when he came back from the leg injury that eventually forced him to retire.
When Sayers was healthy it was unbelievable to see him run. Every time he got the football, you edged up to the front of your seat because he was a threat to score. I thought Hugh McElhenny of the 49ers was the best open-field runner I ever saw until Sayers. And once he would shake loose, he had Mike Ditka ahead of him to block the safety or a defensive back.
I could see greatness in Sayers when we played them in '65. We won, 23-14, but after the game I put an arm around Sayers as we were walking off the field and told him, "Gale, if you do things right, you can be the greatest running back ever to play in this league."
A few months later, when I picked up the papers the morning after I'd scored five touchdowns against the Colts, I saw that I'd gotten second billing to Sayers, who had scored six against the 49ers, tying the NFL record. From then on, I called him "the upstaging SOB" whenever I saw him.
As good as Nitschke was for us, Butkus was the best middle linebacker I ever saw. He still may be the best ever to play that position. The first time we played against him in 1965, Lombardi's face lit up with eagerness.
"I want you to take a look at this Butkus," he told us in a film session. "He's a big, sloppy-looking kid. Forrest, you'll be able to kick his ass. He plays way too deep. Jerry and Fuzzy, when we go up the middle, you should have a field day blocking him."
Well, although we had the angles on him, he just threw the blockers away. He was everywhere. The Bears held Taylor and me to a little more than fifty yards on about forty carries, and Butkus made thirty-two unassisted tackles. As we were reviewing the films after the game, Lombardi finally shut off the projector and said, "I'm sorry, boys, but this Butkus may be something special." It was the only time I ever heard him apologize.
From 1960 through '67, we went 12-4 against the Bears and 10-4-2 against the Lions. The only other team that gave us much trouble was the Colts, and we had an 11-5 margin over them.
Many experts regard Johnny Unitas as the greatest quarterback of all time, and he may well have been, but I also think that, like me, he was lucky enough to be surrounded by great players. He had great receivers and runners in Lenny Moore and Jimmy Orr, and Raymond Berry was so smart and disciplined in his routes that he always beat cornerbacks who were faster. Jim Parker was a Hall of Fame offensive guard, and anybody would have wanted John Mackey at tight end.
In 1967, the Colts signed Bubba Smith, the huge defensive end from Michigan State, and he played against the Packers in the College All-Star Game. The newspapers made a big deal of his matchup with Jerry Kramer, and the Chicago Tribune even ran an ad that said, "Come see Bubba Smith beat up on Bart Starr." Well, early in the game, Smith lived up to the hype by getting through Kramer and sacking Starr. As he was going back to his side of the line, Bubba said to Jerry, "All night long, old man, all night long."
Jerry is a proud man and that really pissed him off. So he began calling the plays in the huddle. He'd tell Bart, "Give me a '41 trap." After that, he'd say, "Now give me a '51." Every play we trapped Bubba and drove him back. When we got down to their twenty, after seven or eight straight plays right over Bubba, Smith took himself out. He didn't know what to do because Jerry had just whipped his ass.
I was glad that I had retired and didn't have to play against the 1968 Baltimore team that went 13-1 and ripped Cleveland, 34-0, in the NFL title game. The Colts were coached by Don Shula and had a roster of All-Stars, including several friends of mine. So how in the world did the '68 Colts lose to the Jets in the Super Bowl? Especially since they were 19-point favorites? Namath just had a career day, that's all. Plus, Jets coach Weeb Ewbank, who had been the Colts' coach when they beat the Giants in that historic 1958 overtime game for the title, did a masterful job of preparing the Jets for his former team.
If the Colts had kicked the crap out of the Jets, as everybody expected, I don't know where the NFL would be today.
We never lost to the Giants or Browns during those years, which must have made Vince happy. He liked to beat the Giants because they were his hometown team and he had worked for them, and he liked to beat the Browns because their coach, Paul Brown, was recognized as the league's most brilliant innovator.
When I was growing up in Louisville, we used to get the Browns' games on TV because WAVE, the only station that carried the NFL, did their games instead of the Bears or Cardinals. So I remember watching players such as Otto Graham, Lou "The Toe" Groza, Dub Jones, Bob Gain, Mac Speedie, and Ray Renfro. Just as the Brooklyn Dodgers had led Major League Baseball in integration, so did the Browns in football. They had great black players such as fullback Marion Motley, end Lenny Ford, and pass receiver Horace Gillom, who had been a track star at Ohio State.
But Paul Brown and Jimmy Brown were the greatest Browns of all. The first time I saw Jimmy at the College All-Star Game in Chicago, he was playing basketball. He could jump well enough to touch the rim and he had this incredible chiseled body. He also was an All-American lacrosse player in college. I really think that if he had ever fought Ali, he could have beaten him. He was that kind of talent.
Black players made a great game better, and they did it at a tough time in our nation's history. I'm sure the white guys, for the most part, didn't have a clue about what those guys were going through in those days.
Today, when a guy makes a routine tackle or a catch, he "celebrates" as if he had done something really significant. That just wasn't done in football, although the taunting antics of my fellow Louisvillian, Cassius Clay, who had joined the Black Muslims and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, were beginning to be mimicked all through the sports world.
From a sheer talent standpoint, I think the guys that I played with or against could more than hold their own against today's stars, especially considering that we didn't have the year-round weight-training programs and exercise facilities that every NFL team has today. Many of us had to work off-season jobs to make ends meet, and that meant that staying in football shape was hard.
Still, the players of our era set standards for future generations. No running back has ever had better balance than Jon Arnett of the Bears. Deacon Jones of the Rams was one of the first defensive ends to be as fast as a back. Nobody won more championships than Otto Graham of the Browns. Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles was the last to play both offense and defense, and Norm Van Brocklin had one of the strongest arms ever.
If I had to pick an all-opponent defensive team, I'd probably go with Doug Atkins and Deacon Jones at the ends; Bob Lilly of the Cowboys and Alex Karras at tackle; Chuck Bednarik at middle guard; Butkus, Bill George, and Joe Schmidt at linebacker; and "Night Train" Lane, Jim Patton of the Giants, and Yale Lary of the Lions at defensive back. Lary is also the best punter I've ever seen. He didn't get as much publicity as Ray Guy got years later, but Lary was better -- he kicked for a better average.
I guess the all-opponent offense would be Unitas at quarterback; Sayers and Jim Brown at running back; Ditka at tight end; Del Shofner of the Giants and Raymond Berry at wide receivers; Bednarik at center; and Jim Parker, Rosey Brown of the Giants, Dick Schafrath of the Browns, and Abe Gibron of the Bears in the offensive line.
When I look at the NFL today, I don't see any coaches who can come close to Lombardi or Halas or Paul Brown. I can't put Weeb Ewbank in their class, even though he won championships both with Baltimore and the New York Jets.
When he was with Baltimore, Ewbank would substitute his guards on every play, a ploy he learned from Paul Brown. But the guards weren't bringing in the plays to Unitas because John called his own plays.
Once, after a timeout in the final minutes of a close game, the guards were huddled with Weeb and then ran out to the huddle on the field. It looked to the fans as if they were bringing in the game-winning play. Unitas, who had never even gone to the sideline during the timeout, asked the guards, "Got anything from the bench?" They said, "Weeb said to tell you to score."
So Unitas called his own play, as usual, and it won the game. Naturally, the writers all called Weeb a genius.
Copyright © 2004 by Paul Hornung
Excerpted from Golden Boy by Paul Hornung Copyright © 2004 by Paul Hornung. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 1, 2005
While so many great books about the legendary Lombardi Packers exist, this is not one of them. It is a juiced up tale of Hornung's football statistics but the annoyingly recurrent theme of his sexual exploits and his gambling success ends up overshadowing the Lombardi team. He's basically just bragging. It is neither funny nor laudable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2005
As a college player I always felt Hornung never received te credit he deserved. If the Heisman trophy is supposed to go the the best college football player Honung was probably the awards most legitimate choice. He possesed all the football skills not just a runner, passer or defender, but did it all on both sides of the ball, plus handled the kicking assignments as well. As a pro, there is no question that Lombardi was the best thing to happen to him. His 176 points in one season and 146 points in another that was shortened by Army duty (how many guys would do that today?) are records that are yet to be broken. His 'conqests' off the field are chronicled, but the football stories and reading about a player, that because of the way the game is played now, we'll never see the likes of again, make the story and book unique.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.