For as seasoned of a career on the field and on the speaking circuit as he’s had, the legendary Paul Hornung had never been to Athens until Monday.
The College and Pro Football Hall of Famer mingled with the Touchdown Club of Athens before giving the honorary speech at the group’s fifth seasonal meeting on Monday night at the Athens Country Club.
Hornung touched on topics such as his affection for horse racing, his broadcast career with Turner, his relationship with Vince Lombardi and some of his off-the-field shenanigans –— all sprinkled with humor.
But none interested the crowd as much as his comments on this weekend’s tilt between the Bulldogs and Gators.
“I always had an affinity for the University of Florida,” Hornung said. “I almost went to Florida.”
One of Hornung’s best friends, the late Rick Casares, had made a push to recruit him at Florida. Casares, a senior at the time, was Hornung’s host during his 1952 visit to Gainesville, Fla.
And though Casares couldn’t keep Hornung from signing with Notre Dame, the pair’s paths crossed countless times while playing for the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, respectively.
Hornung said he isn’t just a fan of Florida, but Georgia and the rest of the Southeastern Conference, which he follows as intimately as his alma mater.
When asked whom he would vote for the Heisman Trophy — an award he won in 1956 — Hornung said: “Johnny Football,” in reference to Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.
“He’s a hell of a kid. He had a great year last year and he’s having another outstanding year this year. The kid is a hell of an athlete. I hope he wins my award, too,” said Hornung, referencing his namesake honor presented each year to the nation’s most versative player. Former Bulldog Brandon Boykin took the honor in 2011.
Looking ahead to this weekend, Hornung said that he liked the Bulldogs’ chances, though he wouldn’t make a concrete prediction on the annual Georgia-Florida rivalry game in Jacksonville, Fla. He added that injuries have plagued the positive outlook from earlier this season but that fans shouldn’t panic going forward.
“You’re going to get criticized when you lose one or two in a row, especially when you’re a top-flight program that’s well-respected,” Hornung said. “You start losing one, then maybe two, and everybody starts getting critical. They play Florida this week. Well that’s a good one to be playing to come back with.”
During the ceremony, Hornung turned to former Georgia linebacker Demetrius Douglas, who spoke just prior, and told him that the Bulldogs had better win on his behalf. Douglas grinned widely while the crowd erupted in laughter.
“That’s a tough cookie to follow,” Douglas said of Hornung after the event. “He had a great speech. He’s a legend of the game. Any time I’m in same the presence of someone with greatness, you have to give them respect where it’s due.”
Douglas added that he thinks Hornung enjoyed his trip to Athens. And all indications suggest so.
“I used to do quite a bit of speaking but I don’t do that too much anymore,” Hornung said. “… This is a great football area. They really are football people down here and its great to be amongst them. I love to be around people that love the game.”