- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

Paul Hornung was pro football’s most glamorous player and one of its best running backs. Alex Karras was one of its best defensive tackles. Pete Rozelle was in only his fourth year as NFL commissioner and had yet to exhibit the dynamism and foresight that would mark most of his ultimate 29-year reign.

Thus, fans everywhere were shocked when, on April 17, 1963, Rozelle suspended Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Karras of the Detroit Lions indefinitely for betting on NFL games.

Both players were suitably embarrassed. And Hornung had the unenviable task of explaining his behavior to rock-rumped coach Vince Lombardi, who was well on his way to becoming the legendary St. Vince after leading the Packers to three consecutive Western titles and two NFL championships in those pre-Super Bowl days.

When he telephoned Hornung to notify him of the suspension, Rozelle called it the “hardest decision I’ll ever have to make.” Later that day, the commissioner told reporters his investigators had conducted 52 interviews relating to individuals connected with eight clubs. He also announced that five other members of the Lions would be fined $2,000 each for betting on the 1962 NFL championship game between Green Bay and the New York Giants. The Detroit club was fined $2,000 for ignoring reports of gambling by players.

Despite the grim nature of these developments, Rozelle was careful to say, “There is no evidence that any NFL player has given less than his best in playing any game. There is no evidence that any player ever bet against his own team. There is no evidence that any NFL player has sold information to gamblers.”

But, Rozelle added, “There is clear evidence that some NFL players knowingly carried on undesirable associations which in some instances led to their betting on their own team to win and/or other National Football League games.”

Unlike Pete Rose years later, Hornung expressed immediate contrition. Swarmed by reporters on the golf course that afternoon, he said tearfully, “I made a terrible mistake. I realize that now. I am truly sorry. What else is there to say?”

Until that day, Hornung’s blessings had seemed endless: a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame and an All-Pro halfback with the Packers, the adoration of countless women, a lifestyle in which fun seemed to be the primary object. Perhaps it could be said that on this spring day, the Golden Boy grew up.

Karras responded differently, insisting he had done nothing wrong.

The suspensions hurt both teams during the 1963 season. Without Hornung, the Packers finished with an 11-2-1 record but trailed the Chicago Bears (11-1-2) in the division. Without Karras, the Lions skidded all the way from an 11-3 mark the previous season to 5-8-1. And nobody knew when, or if, the two stars would return.

“You should have told me [about the gambling] — I think I could have rectified it,” Lombardi griped to Hornung when the two talked by telephone, although 44 years later it’s hard to see what difference that would have made.

Hornung, no dummy, kept his mouth shut and listened. According to author David Maraniss in “When Pride Still Mattered,” his superb 1999 biography of Lombardi, the coach called upon their shared Catholicism in verbally paddling Hornung.

“You stay at the foot of the cross,” Lombardi said. “I don’t want to see you go to the racetrack. … I don’t want to hear about you doing anything. Keep your nose clean, and I’ll do my best to get you back. But, mister, stay at the foot of the cross.”

We can only imagine Hornung’s response was “Yes, sir!

News of the suspensions and fines was front-page stuff in most major U.S. newspapers the next day. Sen. John McClellan, whose Capitol Hill hearings on racketeering had captivated the nation a few years earlier, praised Rozelle for “taking effective action to clean up conditions in pro football.” Meanwhile, most of Hornung’s teammates expressed support. Said guard Jerry Kramer: “You hate to see a good guy like him get fouled up.”

In his 2004 autobiography “Golden Boy” — what else? — Hornung recalled, “The biggest bet I ever made in those days was $800, and I always bet on us to win. But it was just for fun, more than anything.”

How naive was Hornung? Writing in Sport magazine, journalist Dick Schaap told how the player once had placed a bet in front of newsmen.

Despite their dissimilar natures, Hornung was one of Lombardi’s favorites — probably the only reason the coach didn’t boot him out of Green Bay ASAP. Privately, Lombardi was so devastated that he told his wife, Rozelle and close friends that he wanted to quit. All of them talked him out of it.

Eleven months after the suspensions, on March 16, 1964, the NFL released a five-paragraph statement that Hornung and Karras had been reinstated. Hornung, elated, asked Lombardi whether he could begin workouts in early May, 2 months before training camp.

Again, the coach remained in character: “Mid-April would be better.”

Hornung, the Packers’ kicker as well as a star runner in tandem with fullback Jim Taylor, played three more seasons in Green Bay before a pinched nerve in his neck ended his career. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

Karras, a lovable Teddy Bear type off the field, played for the Lions again from 1964 to 1971 and later worked as an actor and pro wrestler. Asked by the referee before a game to call the coin toss, Alex replied puckishly, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m not permitted to gamble.”

Actually, that’s not a joke, because sports history at all levels has been threatened over the decades by gambling and gamblers. Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, it may be said, were luckier than most athletes who get caught.

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