The Relationship Between JFK and Vince Lombardi Led to Titletown

JFK in rocking chair

The date on Sunday will be November 22. That’s a date which will forever be ingrained in the minds for anyone who was around on that day in 1963.

That was the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on a sunny Friday afternoon.

Sunday will be the 52nd anniversary of that tragic event.

I can remember precisely where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated on that dark day in American history. I was in the first grade at Corpus Christi grade school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Our teacher sent us all home after lunch after the word came out that Kennedy had indeed been assassinated.

I remember huddling around the television that day and entire weekend with my family as events unfolded. Like so many, I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot by Jack Ruby on national television on Sunday morning, November 24.

Even though the President had been assassinated, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle made the worst decision he ever made running the league and he always regretted it. Rozelle decided that all NFL games would be played that Sunday.

That decision did not sit well with head coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers.

In one of my many conversations with Jerry Kramer, the legendary right guard of the Packers recounted that situation.

“I remember coming out of the locker room when I heard the news that the President was shot,” Kramer said. “I had a sinking feeling down in my gut. I admired him and thought he was a wonderful President. He was cool, classy, bright and just had a lot of things going for him.

“I felt really bad at that moment, like most Americans did, whether you were for him or not. It was kind of surreal. Coach Lombardi didn’t use any motivation or didn’t have any excitement about the upcoming game. It was like, ‘We got to do this.’

“Coach Lombardi was not happy and he didn’t hide the fact that he wasn’t happy. He felt like we shouldn’t be playing that game. We had enough pride to do our job and do what we had to do on the field (the Packers beat the 49ers 28-10 in Milwaukee). Everyone played with a heavy heart.”

Lombardi had become friends with Kennedy over the years and was a supporter of his in the 1960 Presidential election.

Kennedy had always been a football fan his entire life and the Packers were the dominant team in the NFL during his short Presidency.

Kennedy sent a nice telegram to Lombardi and the Packers after they won the 1961 NFL title as a matter of fact.

JFK telegram to the Pack

That dominance began when the Packers won their first NFL title under Lombardi in 1961.

Green Bay had come close to winning it all in 1960, but in the NFL Championship Game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, the Packers narrowly fell to the Eagles 17-13, even though the Pack had dominated the game statistically.

The game ended when fullback Jim Taylor was tackled on the 10-yard line of the Eagles after snaring a pass from quarterback Bart Starr.

But Green Bay was ripe for a NFL title in 1961 and the Packers and the community knew it.

After losing to the Detroit Lions on the opening weekend of the season 17-13, the Packers rolled to six straight dominating wins.

Here were the scores:

Packers 30, 49ers 10

Packers 24, Bears 0

Packers 45, Colts7

Packers 49, Browns17

Packers 33, Vikings7

Packers 28, Vikings 10

Then something happened in October. Because of the increased escalation of the Cold War and the building of the wall in Berlin by the Soviets, the Department of Defense had activated thousands of military reservists and national guardsmen for duty.

That activation included a couple dozen players from the NFL, and three very important players from the Packers.

The players were Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke and Boyd Dowler. As noted in David Maraniss’ book When Pride Still Mattered, Lombardi was very upset by this situation. Lombardi thought that the Packers were hit harder than anyone in the NFL because of the scenario.

Paul Hornung, former halfback fo rthe Green Bay Packers, is seen in an Army uniform, Jan. 17, 1962, at Fort Riley, Kansas. (AP Photo)

It would be one thing to miss a game or two in the regular season if one couldn’t get a weekend pass, but it would be very critical to the Packers chances of winning had anyone of the three Packers missed the NFL championship game, especially Hornung.

This is when the relationship between Lombardi and Kennedy helped make Hornung available for the title game.

Initially, Hornung was not granted access to go back to the Packers for the championship game. That would have been a HUGE blow as No. 5 was the NFL MVP in 1961.

Lombardi was obviously concerned about that situation, so he placed a call to JFK to see if the President would get Hornung a pass to join the team for the big game. Sure enough, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Notre Dame was given a pass to play in the game.

“Paul Hornung isn’t going to win the war on Sunday, but the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day,” Kennedy told Lombardi a few days before the championship game against the Giants.

The Packers battered the Giants 37-0 in that game, and Hornung scored 19 points in that game just by himself.

Titletown was born that year. That was also the first year a title game was ever played in Green Bay.

Lombardi and his Packers brought four more NFL championships to Green Bay (including two more championship games in Green Bay), as well as the first two Super Bowl wins. But 1961 was the start of it all.

And the alliance of Kennedy and Lombardi played a big part in making the name Titletown stick.

Jerry Kramer Talks About Paul Hornung

When Vince Lombardi first came into the NFL, he was the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants from 1954 through 1958.

The G-Men were very successful during that time, as the team won the 1956 NFL Championship, plus lost the 1958 NFL Championship Game in overtime.

One of the big reasons for the offensive success for the Giants during that time was the play of halfback Frank Gifford.

When Lombardi saw an opportunity to become a head coach in the NFL in 1959 when the Green Bay Packers came calling, he saw a player that reminded him of Gifford.

That player was Paul Hornung.

That may have been the biggest reason Lombardi decided to accept the job in Green Bay. Jerry Kramer thinks that may be a definite possibility.

“When you talk about Paul, you have to remember how critical he was in the decision that coach Lombardi made to come to Green Bay,” Kramer said. “If you think back, Bart Starr was methane. He was colorless, odorless, tasteless and virtually invisible. We didn’t know who Bart was.

“Bart was competing with a few other guys like Babe Parilli, Joe Francis and Lamar McHan. Bart was back and forth the first couple of years after Lombardi became the coach.

“But I do remember Lombardi saying, ‘that Hornung was going to be his Gifford.’ And remember how critical the sweep was to the Lombardi offense.

“As coach said quite often, ‘This is a play we will make go. This is a play we must make go. We will run it again and again and again.’

“So Hornung may have been the key to getting Lombardi to come to Green Bay.”

The early success for the Packers under Lombardi supports Kramer’s supposition. For one thing, the power sweep averaged 8.3 yards-per-carry the first three years the Packers utilized the play.

The Packers became a force in the running game during that time, as the team averaged 178 yards a game on the ground from 1959-1961.

Fullback Jim Taylor gained 2,860 yards during that time, but Hornung was the star of the offense for many reasons those first three seasons under Lombardi.

During that same time, Hornung gained 1,949 yards rushing, plus scored a whopping 28 touchdowns on the ground.

Hornung was a multi-talented player who could light up the scoreboard. In fact, No. 5 led the NFL in scoring in 1959, 1960 and 1961.

In 1960, Hornung scored 176 points (15 touchdowns, 15 field goals, 41 extra points). This was done in just 12 games. If Hornung had played 16 games that year like the NFL does nowadays, he would have scored 235 points, based on his scoring average per game that season.

Hornung could do it all. He could obviously run, but he also could block extremely well, plus had great hands in catching the football. In addition, Hornung could throw the ball on occasion, as he had been a quarterback at Notre Dame.

Finally, Hornung could also kick. All of those attributes made him an extremely valuable player for the Packers. And as it turned out, No. 5 was also named as the NFL MVP in 1961.

In the 1961 NFL Championship Game in Green Bay, Hornung scored 19 of the 37 points the Packers put on the scoreboard that day, as the Packers blanked the Giants.

Hornung almost didn’t get to play that game because he was on duty with the Army at the time. Fortunately, Lombardi had become friends with President John F. Kennedy and that relationship helped remedy the situation.

Initially, Hornung was not granted access to go back to the Packers for the championship game. That would have been a huge blow, seeing that No. 5 was the NFL MVP that season.

Lombardi was obviously concerned about that situation, so he placed a call to JFK to see if the President would get Hornung a pass to join the team for the big game. Sure enough, Hornung was given a pass to play in the game.

“Paul Hornung isn’t going to win the war on Sunday, but the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day,” Kennedy told Lombardi a few days before the championship game against the Giants.

Bottom line, Hornung had a great career with the Packers, even though he wasn’t quite as effective in his last few seasons with the team due to a shoulder injury.

As it was, Hornung was part of four NFL championship teams with the Packers under Lombardi, including the team which won Super Bowl I.

Hornung is one of only five players who have scored at least 700 points for the Packers. No. 5 finished his career with 760 points on 62 touchdowns, 66 field goals and 190 extra points.

This all led to Hornung being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

But that Hall of Fame career started when Lombardi first saw what Hornung could mean to his offense, much like Gifford had done in New York. And the signature play for that offense was the power sweep.

Nobody ran the play better than Hornung either, as Kramer explained to me.

“Paul had good speed, but not great speed,” Kramer said. “But Paul was smart. He was incredibly bright about using his interference.

“For instance, when I would get out on a cornerback on the sweep, the cornerback had to make a decision. He either had to go down at my knees and take me out, or he had to pick a side or back up. If he backed up, I would just run over him.

“If he decided to pick a side to go around me, Hornung would set him up beautifully by faking to the left or right and set the guy up for me to block.

“Paul was absolutely unequaled in that ability. He was a very, very smart runner and a very knowledgeable runner. He just made the play a lot easier for us to execute.”

It was the power sweep in which Hornung scored his last postseason touchdown. It was the 1965 NFL Championship Game versus the Cleveland Browns, as the Packers won 23-12 at Lambeau Field.

No. 5 scored the last touchdown of the game on that signature play of Lombardi and the Packers. Kramer played a big part in the success of that particular play. No. 64 pulled left and first blocked the middle linebacker and then a cornerback as the “Golden Boy” found the end zone.

Kramer and the rest of the offensive line of the Packers totally controlled the trenches that day under muddy conditions, as Hornung rushed for 105 yards and Taylor ran for 96 more.