Paul Hornung and Gale Sayers share assorted memories and stories, membership in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an agent, 40-year-old aches and duties as the featured guests at Sunday’s Super Bowl festivities at the Northern Quest Casino.
They also shared a brilliant afternoon of one-upmanship.
It was Dec. 12, 1965. Hornung’s Green Bay Packers were playing in Baltimore, trying to catch the Colts for the NFL’s Western Division championship. If he was no longer the lead horse for the Packers, Hornung was still capable of getting in harness and pulling, which is why coach Vince Lombardi made it a habit to ask him at breakfast if he was ready to go.
“I always had very good games when he asked me that,” Hornung recalled, “and he was very superstitious, so that’s why he asked me. But I hadn’t expected to play, so I snuck out the night before and was out all night. But I scored five touchdowns that day. I even outran my business partner today, Lenny Lyles, who had run a 9.1 in the 100 for Louisville, wind-aided – he never caught me and he was much faster than I was. I’ve got a big picture of me up in our offices, showing me with no one around, and it says, ‘Lenny, where are you?’ ”
So Hornung was the toast of the NFL. For about three hours.
In Chicago that same morning, Sayers arrived at Soldier Field to find the turf already a muddy mess from a steady rain.
The Bears were playing San Francisco, and the rookie who was the talk of the NFL expected a close-to-the-vest defensive tug-of-war – 14-10, or 21-14.
“But it seemed like everybody was slipping but me,” he remembered. “It turned out to be a great day.”
The Bears won 61-20 and Sayers scored an NFL-record-tying six touchdowns, including a 50-yard run, an 80-yard reception and an 85-yard punt return.
“I never thought we would have scored 61 that day,” he said. “What people don’t remember is that we played the West Coast teams twice in those years, and the 49ers beat us 54-22 in the first game of the season so we had a little extra motivation.”
The Super Bowl was still a year away from its siring then and at least a decade from evolving into a de facto religious holiday. Now the pregame shows stretch twice as long as the games themselves – this after two weeks of buildup and nonsense – and if it all seems too much, understand that there are a few soldiers out there who wouldn’t mind going back in time to be a part of something like it.
“That’s what you play for – and that’s the only regret that I do have, that I didn’t play for a championship team,” said Sayers.
His career cut short after just five full seasons by multiple knee injuries, Sayers is still regarded as perhaps the single most electrifying player pro football produced. On the other side of the ball, the Bears had the game’s most ferocious presence in Dick Butkus. But football champions aren’t one- or two-man operations, though the Arizona Cardinals are doing their damnedest to disprove that theory.
And those Bears tried, too. In 1968, Chicago led its division when Sayers suffered his first major knee injury in the season’s ninth game. The Bears lost three of their last five and finished a game behind Minnesota.
Hornung was never so shackled. Even with his notorious 1963 suspension for betting on games, he played on four NFL championship teams in Green Bay, including the 1966 team that rolled over Kansas City in the first Super Bowl – though he holds a unique distinction.
“I’m a trivia answer,” he said. “I was the only player suited up who didn’t play.”
A pinched nerve – later diagnosed as subluxation of the cervical spine, which ended his career in training camp the next summer – kept him sidelined, and he declined Lombardi’s offer to enter the game for a few plays in a non-contact role. But he was a footnote to the game’s enduring story – the heroics of Packers receiver Max McGee, a season-long bench warmer pushed into action when Boyd Dowler was injured despite, yes, having spent the previous night out on the town.
Who do you suppose was McGee’s roommate?
“He didn’t think he’d play again, so he tried to drag me out,” Hornung said. “I told him, ‘Max, I’m getting married Wednesday – I’m not going to sneak out with you.’ ”
Indeed, that impending wedding forced Hornung to back out of playing golf in the Bob Hope Desert Classic the next week, so he sent McGee as his replacement.
“Who do you think led the Hope for three days?” Hornung laughed. “Max and Donald O’Connor. They didn’t win it – they lost by two shots the last day. I doubt he kept any better hours there. It just shows you what kind of athlete he was. Max McGee was the best putter I ever played with outside of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.”
Those are the best kind of 40-year-old stories – the ones with no aches involved.