In the beginning it was like old times. With metronomic perfection the Golden Toe swung thrice—once from 52 yards—and suddenly three field goals were on the board, the hated Bears were demolished in the season opener, and the Packers were off and running once again as if 1963 had never happened. Paul Hornung was back, and all was well in Green Bay. But not for long. In the very next game the Golden Toe developed a bad case of tarnish that no one has been able to eradicate since.
Until a few weeks ago field goals and extra points were as inevitable in Green Bay as frostbite. Somebody snapped the ball, somebody else held it—Bart Starr, one assumed, without really observing—and then Hornung rhythmically booted it into a swarm of happy kids and unhappy policemen in the bleachers behind the goal posts. The kick was nearly always good. In the Packers' three championship years from 1960 through 1962, Hornung kicked field goals successfully 61% of the time. He kicked them from everywhere except a raft on Green Bay's Fox River, and he added 96 consecutive extra points.
But now Hornung, after that brilliant opening game, has unintentionally brought suspense back to the seemingly automatic process of place-kicking. His average has dropped to 31%. And, at least partially because of his misses, the Packers, still unbeatable on paper, are struggling to finish second in the NFL's Western Division.
Last Sunday in Milwaukee's cold, windy County Stadium, Hornung kicked four extra points and tried—and missed—one field goal, as the Packers beat the Browns 28-21. But Green Bay was out of serious contention for a title long before last week. They lost five of the first 10 games, and the way they did it was worse still. In those games they drove inside opposing 35-yard lines 22 times and did not score. Hornung missed two extra points—to equal his career total. One of them cost the team a 21-20 game with the momentum-grabbing Baltimore Colts. The second, against Minnesota, was blocked. This gave the Packers a 24-23 loss. Then in a subsequent game Hornung missed five field goals, and the result was another narrow loss to the Colts, 24-21. And then a week ago, against the rookie-infested San Francisco 49ers, Hornung missed four more.
November 30, 1964
In the face of such evidence it is a tribute both to Hornung's talents as a player and to his unfailing popularity as a person that no one in Green Bay, in or out of Coach Vince Lombardi's grimly militant office ("he's been known to bite," jokes End Ron Kramer), dared to suggest that the Packers have blown it this year because of kicking. As the season's first snow began settling on the town last week, there seemed to be as many other reasons as there were shovels on the sidewalks.
"It's just one of those years," said a restaurant owner. "Never seen so much bad luck. A kick will be just a foot wide, or a lineman will stick his hand up and get a piece of the ball. Two years ago a kick would be a foot good and a lineman would stick up his hand but miss."
"Injuries," said a bartender. "You can't lose Jerry Kramer, the best offensive guard in football, and be the same team. Thurston [Fuzzy] hasn't been whole. Taylor's been banged up. Paul's got a pinched nerve he don't talk about."
Said an insurance broker, "It's partly injuries, but there's another thing. I heard some of the boys are buying tailor-made suits now. Use to be they all bought readymades. You notice that in a small town like this, maybe they're a little self-satisfied, a little fat. That'll cause those fumbles and penalties and things."
Vince Lombardi skillfully avoids burdening Hornung with the blame that may or may not be duly his.
"He's just been in a rut," said Lombardi. "Like a .300 hitter who gets in a slump, except we can't bench him. With Kramer out, he's our only kicker, and this could put some extra pressure on him, but I doubt it. Nobody likes to win more than Paul. I've said very little to him. Kicking is rhythm. And he's worked himself out of rhythm—maybe by trying too hard.
"I don't talk about injuries," Lombardi continued. "They're part of the game, everyone has them. I keep looking at this team and thinking we're as good as we've ever been. But we haven't won. We get an interception, we get a penalty, we lose a fumble, we miss a kick. I don't know why, or we'd stop doing it. People point to the statistics. We're leading this and that." Vince forced a laugh. "Well," he said, "figures lie, and liars figure."
All figuring in regard to the Packers in 1964, whether Green Bay likes it or not, must ultimately lead back to Paul Hornung's foot. Essentially, Hornung appears to be the same outgoing, confident, sharply dressed young man that he was in 1962 before he was suspended for betting. The Packers still call him "Locks," for Goldilocks, still look to him to lead them to lunch at The Spot, to a movie in the afternoon, perhaps in the evening to Speed's or to the best television program in the house he shares with his roommates, Max McGee and Ron Kramer, the ends. He is still the leader of the club in the same sense that Frank Sinatra, as a supercelebrity, is the leader of another, less endearing group.
"He feels bad about his kicking, sure," says Quarterback Bart Starr. "He feels like he's let the team down. But when you lose five games, nobody is having a good year. He's lost some confidence, but he doesn't show it. He's got a lot of pride. And he knows he's a good kicker and he'll get it back."
The mechanics of place-kicking are not as simple as they may seem. The first requirement is a good snapback—knee-high—from the center to the holder. The man holding must quickly and instinctively spin the ball around so that the lace is facing toward the goalposts before he places it on the ground. "If the lace is slightly off center and there's a wind," says Starr, "it can throw the kick way off." With the ball positioned, the rest is up to the kicker. Some take three steps, but most—like Hornung—prefer two. Forward with the right foot, one more with the left, then into the ball smoothly, following through, the kicker's head always down, as in a golf shot. Between the snap and the follow-through a lot of bad things can happen, and just about all of them have happened to Hornung this year.
"I've missed them every way you can name," he said one day last week as he sat comfortably in The Spot, eating potato soup, a fish sandwich and drinking black coffee. Earlier, in practice, he had casually kicked 28 of 30 field goals from all angles and distances. Now, dressed in a heavy, shaggy sweater and trim slacks, he seemed relaxed and at ease. He smoked an occasional cigarette, signed an occasional autograph and for the first time—"The local writers understand his problem and don't bother him," Packer Publicity Man Tom Miller had warned—talked about the season and the troubles.
"I've stood too close to it," Hornung said. "I've lined up wrong. I've kicked too late and too quick." He grinned. "Baby, I've even shanked a few. You know, like—sideways. I thought I was off to a great year after the first game. I wanted it, too. You know, after being out. And that thing hasn't bothered me, you know. The suspension. Everybody's been great to me. I wasn't bitter about it. I'm just happy to be back. I'm not a bitter guy. I hear all the theories about my kicking. They say the layoff hurt. That's wrong. They say Kramer not being with us has put pressure on me. Man, that's not true. I've been doing the kicking a long time. It's just poor timing. Everything in life is a matter of timing. You get out of the groove, you got to work back in. Like in baseball or golf. I've had a string of three-putt greens, that's all.
"I'll guarantee you one thing," Hornung went on. "It's not the man holding the ball. Bart's probably the best holder in the league. In four years he's never shown me a lace. It's hard to say what we might have done this season if I'd hit more. Our defense has been good all the way. Bart's having a good year, and Taylor'll get his thousand. He's a one thou runner. We gave the Colts a big lift—or I did."
As Hornung talked, other Packers drifted by, as if to get a nod of approval to leave. Ron Kramer asked if Paul intended to go to a movie. Max McGee asked the same thing. Linebacker Dan Currie was next. "Hey, Locks. Gonna make a movie?"
Hornung said he would be along. As an afterthought, he called to Kramer and Currie. "12 O'clock High tonight, babies, World's greatest TV series." He stretched in the chair, got up, poured himself another cup of coffee, glanced out of the window of The Spot to see if the snow was coming down more heavily, and sat down again. He stretched once more.
"I've got this pinched nerve, or something, in my neck," he said. "It doesn't make me miss any field goals, by the way. But it gets pretty painful at times. Don't know where it came from, but when the season's over I'm going to a clinic or something. I've been paralyzed with it a couple of times.
"You never know about this game. One day you get a knock and that's it. I know I want to play in another championship game," Hornung said thoughtfully. "If I've got a wish, that's it. Somebody wrote that I'm more serious than I was before I had to lay off. Well, why not? I'm older."
As Hornung prepared to leave, slipping into a navy-blue greatcoat and pausing at the cigarette machine, a man at the bar said, "Say, Paul. We were just trying to figure what the Colts should be over the Browns if they play for the championship. Whaddya think? About a touchdown?"
Green Bay's truest celebrity welcomed the straight line with a relishing grin. "I'm not too concerned about point spreads this year, you know," he said. Laughter trailed Paul Hornung out the door. On the street a man passed him and asked, "How are you doing, Paul?" Hornung replied, "Oh, I can't kick."