Don Horn: A flash in the pan

The human electricity that once regularly warmed the notoriously frigid confines of Lambeau Field had been cut off that cold, clear afternoon of Dec. 21, 1969 in Green Bay. And no one really knew when the power would be restored.

Reality had settled in for Packers fans since the departure of a legend named Lombardi two years earlier. It was a reality further underscored by the melancholic thought that Willie Davis Day would be celebrated that afternoon for the great defensive end who had recently announced his retirement.

Lombardi's old Packers were breaking up.

The dream was over.v Phil Bengtson's 7-6 Packers would play the St. Louis Cardinals that afternoon and then they would quietly go their separate ways, not triumphantly march into the playoffs. And all that the 50,861 bundled fans preparing to sit through this meaningless game that afternoon could dream of was a white Christmas, not another Super Bowl.

"That was the last game of the year,'" Packers fullback Jim Grabowski said. "I think we were all ready to pack it up and get out of town." Not Don Horn, though.

Not the young golden boy whom Vince Lombardi made the Chosen One in 1967 to one day replace Bart Starr as the Packers' quarterback.

Not the personable, charismatic 24-year-old kid with the release of Joe Namath who was schooled at San Diego State by high-tech passing wizard Don Coryell.

After being buried on the depth chart behind Starr and Zeke Bratkowski as a rookie in 1967 and after missing most of the 1968 season while fulfilling a commitment in the Army Reserves, that certain something in Horn that Lombardi sensed was starting to reveal itself. Filling in much of that 1969 season for the injured Starr, Horn was erratic, but occasionally brilliant. Twice that season, he was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Week and his average of 8.9 yards per pass attempt led the league.

It appeared to be only a matter of time before the keys to the Packers' offense would be handed to Horn for the long haul. And on Dec. 21, 1969, his future never was more promising.

The kid started with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Boyd Dowler that 22-degree afternoon. Following two Cardinals touchdowns that put the Packers in a brief 14-7 hole, Horn came back with a 43-yard scoring pass to Dowler.

Then he engineered a drive that ended with Dave Hampton's 5-yard touchdown run. And then a 12-yard touchdown pass to Travis Williams. And, finally, touchdown passes of 34 and 10 yards to Carroll Dale.

Playing against a Cardinals secondary that featured future Hall-of-Fame safety Larry Wilson and rookie sensation Roger Wehrli, Horn completed 22 of 31 passes for 410 yards, with five touchdowns and one interception.

Those passing yards set a Packers single-game record that Horn held until Oct. 12, 1980, when Lynn Dickey passed for 418 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Those touchdown passes tied the team record set by Cecil Isbell in 1942 - three years before Horn was born.

Could it be that a Starr was born that day, when the Packers won 45-28?

"I threw for 410 yards and five touchdowns and after the game was over, I realized that they took me out at the beginning of the fourth quarter," said the 59-year-old Horn, who lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo. "They put in Billy Stevens, who was a backup in '68 and '69. He hardly ever got a chance to play and they stuck him in for, I think, the last 10 or 12 minutes of the game.

"I often wondered after the fact what would have happened and Henry Jordan also brought it to my attention. He said, 'What would have happened if they would have left you in there? You could have thrown for 500 yards and maybe six or seven touchdowns.'

"Who knows? It was one of those shoulda, coulda, wouldas, but I was just so doggone happy. We had a great game, we won, it was Willie Davis Day, Willie's a great guy and I'm happy we won it for him. I was joking that I kind of stole his thunder. There were just a great bunch of guys on the Packers.''

Who could have guessed that Horn seemingly overnight would regress from a quarterback of the future to a journeyman with a bum right knee?

Who could have guessed that 13 months after Horn's performance of a lifetime, new Packers coach Dan Devine would call him, inform him that he had just been traded to the Denver Broncos and then hang up on him?

And who could have guessed that Horn would be out of football before his 30th birthday?

Remnants of how glorious it once was surround Horn in his office in Highlands Ranch, where he works as a regional sales manager for Ryland Homes. A portrait of him and Lombardi. A framed copy of Lombardi's "What It Takes To Be No. 1" creed. Action photos of Horn in his No. 13 Packers uniform.

So distant those memories are. And, yet, so powerful they remain.

"I think about it fairly often," Horn said. "And you have a lot of Packers fans everywhere and a lot of people remember you and they get melancholic and stuff. In my office, I have nothing but Packer memorabilia. I've got shots of me playing and Vince and I together, that type of thing, so I think about that type of thing daily."

If only. Indeed, if only.

"He had a tremendous arm and, having played for Coryell, he understood football," said former Packers running back Donny Anderson, who joined the Packers in 1966. "He was a great quarterback. Unfortunately, he didn't get to excel to his ability."

The passing fool
His college coach was Coryell, who would later design record-setting offenses with the Cardinals and San Diego Chargers.

You might have heard of a few other assistants on that 1966 San Diego State team. Like the offensive line coach who spoke with a lisp named Joe Gibbs. And the hefty defensive coordinator named John Madden.

With Horn, a little college All-American leading the way as a senior in 1966, the Aztecs were some team to watch. They were small and they weren't particularly deep, but did they ever put on a show.

"Pound for pound my senior year we had the best team on the West Coast and those were statements made by Sid Gillman and Al Davis because they had to come out and watch us all the time," Horn said.

It must have been a labor of love for Gillman and Davis, especially when they watched Horn pass for 2,234 yards and 18 touchdowns during his senior season. Just for comparison, 1966 Heisman Trophy-winner Steve Spurrier passed for 2,012 yards and 16 touchdowns for the University of Florida.

"He was probably the most innovative coach that I ever played for," Horn said of Coryell. "He was always willing to try something different and he loved to throw the ball. It could be first down on the 1-yard line either going in or going out and he would throw the ball. He didn't care.

"We'd just throw the ball. I never had so much fun in my life. I was a passing fool, man. We would pass that ball. I mean, I was passing to Gary Garrison and Haven Moses and we had another guy who was even better than them and he never played. He was too small. But we would just throw, throw, throw, throw, throw."

While Coryell made a lasting impression on Horn, so did Gibbs and Madden, who would combine to win four Super Bowl championships.

"You could tell he was going to be a great coach if he chose that career and he was just getting into it back in '65 and '66," Horn said of Gibbs. "He had a very calming effect. When Coryell would get kind of ballistic on the sideline, when he would just rant and rave - and Madden would do the same - the only one who would keep his cool and talk sense to people was Gibbs.

"He would take the team aside and say, 'Hey, calm down guys. Everything is going to be cool. Everything is going to be fine. All we have to do is this and this and this. Just relax and do your job.'"

And then there was Madden, who projected a personality far different than the drinking-buddy image he portrays as Al Michaels' sidekick on Monday Night Football.

"He was tough and ornery," Horn said. "He kept telling Coryell to put a dress on me and stuff because you couldn't hit the quarterback. I had a red vest on and I was persona non grate and you didn't touch me.

"Every now and then, Madden would turn those guys loose and they would knock me on my ---."

Playing for a legend
Horn had been told by representatives from several teams that he would be their No. 1 pick in the 1967 draft. Considering that he never had been contacted by Lombardi or anyone else representing the Packers, the thought of playing for Green Bay never even crossed his mind.

As an antsy Horn sat in the sports information director's office at San Diego State March 14, 1967, the first round wound down to an end. Horn was not amused as he contemplated how many teams had apparently lied to him.

"All of a sudden, the phone rings," Horn said, "and the guy picks it up and says, 'Hey. it's some girl named Carol calling from the Packers. She's coach Lombardi's secretary.' And I'm thinking, 'Someone's pulling my leg. Now I'm getting p-----.' I never even talked to Green Bay.

"All of a sudden, they put me on the phone and it's coach Lombardi and he said, ‘Donald, we're considering you for our first-round draft pick.' He wanted to know if I would consider playing for the Packers and whether I had signed any other contracts with any other leagues and I said, 'No sir.' and he said, 'I'll get back to you.'

"Twenty minutes later, he called me and said, 'You're ... now ... a ... Green ... Bay ... Packer.'"

Horn's first season in Green Bay was Lombardi's last (although Lombardi remained with the Packers as general manager during the 1968 season). And while he played only a select few occasions during the 1967 and '68 seasons, he was the recipient of a lifetime of Lombardi memories.

"Vince started running the film on Tuesdays, back and forth, watching the previous week's game film,'' Horn said. "If there was a play and he kept running it back, inevitably, he was going to tear into somebody or criticize somebody in the way that only he could.

"There was one game I played in - it was the first game I ever played - and I think it was against the Atlanta Falcons my rookie year. I completed a pass and he kept running this play back and forth, back and forth. And I was thinking, 'Oh my God, did I make the right read?' Because he would chew you out if you threw a touchdown pass and made the wrong read.

"I was thinking I must have done something wrong and, finally, he said, 'Donald ...' - he always called me Donald - 'correct me if I'm wrong, son, but I think this is your first completed pass.' And I said, 'Well, yes it is, sir.'

"He ordered someone to turn the lights on and he stood up in front of the whole team and said, 'Donald, that's your first completed pass in the NFL and I just wanted to be the first one to congratulate you and hopefully it's going to be the first of many thousands you're going to have in your career.'

"He walked back and shook my hand and the whole team got up and gave me a standing ovation. And then two plays later, he's tearing you up again!"

Still, there was just something about Horn's ability that appealed to Lombardi, even after Lombardi stepped down as coach. During the 1968 season, when Lombardi served only as the team's general manager, Horn returned from the Army Reserves and was activated the night before a game against the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field Dec. 15.

Starr was injured and, when Bratkowski was knocked out early with a rib injury, Horn was summoned by Bengtson. Miraculously, Horn completed 10 of 16 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns and set up another score with a 45-yard pass.

The Packers won 28-27, denying the Bears a playoff berth. And Horn went on to be named the NFL's Player of the Week.

"Here's the ironic part - it was the 100th meeting of the Green Bay Packer-Chicago Bear rivalry, the oldest rivalry in professional football," Horn said. "I still have the program and my name is not even mentioned in the program.

"Coach (Lombardi) hugged me about three different times and then, heck, it was about a month after that when he resigned and went down to Washington."

But Lombardi did not forget Horn after trying to start a new dynasty with the Redskins.

What might have been
The great Sonny Jurgensen was 35 years old during the 1969, Lombardi's first year in Washington D.C. As brilliant as he remained, Lombardi realized he had to find a quarterback of the future. A quarterback like Don Horn.

And as that 1969 season progressed, Lombardi apparently made clandestine feelers as to whether he could bring Horn to Washington.

"Somewhere along the line toward the end of the season in '69, I was playing well and Vince was down in D.C.," Horn said. "He contacted a third party, a mutual friend that we have, and I was asked, 'Would you ever consider going down to Washington?'

"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'We've been contacted and they would very much like you to consider going down to Washington and backing up Sonny for a few years and then maybe being the quarterback for Vince with the Redskins.

"And so I went in to talk to Phil Bengtson, who was the coach and general manager at the time, and a couple other people, Pat Peppler and Tom Miller. I talked to them about my future, about playing more, because Bart was a great quarterback, legendary, and he was hurt in '69.

"I told them that I might play out my option in '70 and I made some salary demands that weren't outrageous, but I wanted a little bit of a pay raise and I wanted to play more.

"Coach Bengtson said, 'Don, don't get me wrong, son. We want you here and you're good, but as long as Bart's here, he's going to be the quarterback.' I said, ‘I fully understand that and I respect that.'

"So I went to Bart one day and I said, ‘Bart, between us guys, how many more years are you going to play?' And Bart said he was going to try to play at least three, maybe four or five more years and I thought, 'Oh, man' and I just kind of bit my tongue.

"So I made a decision to play my option out in 1970. I didn't really want to leave Green Bay in a lot of ways, but I wanted to play more and I wasn't going to have the opportunity for as long as Bart was there."

And that brings this story back to Dec. 21, 1969, when Horn played that career game against the Cardinals.

He was clearly on the ascent. He was only 24 at the time. And the great coach wanted him.

This might have been just the beginning of a glorious career.

Instead, it was the beginning of the end.

It was a very bad year
On Sept. 3, 1970, Lombardi died after being diagnosed with cancer less than three months earlier.

There would never be a reunion for Horn with his beloved mentor.

And things just were never the same again.

"I kind of painted myself into a corner with the front office in some ways," Horn said of the Packers. "And then when he passed away, all hopes were gone there."

The situation regressed further. During a Thanksgiving Day game against the Dallas Cowboys Nov. 26, 1970, Horn's fragile right knee popped while he was warming up on the sidelines, ending his season.

Playing mostly behind Starr that fall, Horn passed for just 428 yards, with two touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The certain something he had was undeniably missing.

With the abruptness of a train, his future came and went.

"And then Phil Bengtson gets fired and then they bring in Dan Devine," Horn said. "I played out my option that year and I also played for 10 percent less money. Back in those days, when you played your option out, they could cut your salary 10 percent, so I was playing for nominal money in 1970.

"So I go to the front office and say, 'I want to get ready for '71 and stay with Green Bay and dah-dad-dah.' Dan calls me I think in January and he said, ‘I understand you're not happy here and you've got some contractual problems.'

"I said, ‘I'm not unhappy here and there's nothing that can't be worked out. I'm looking forward to coming back and being a part of the team.' He said, 'That's good. I'm glad to hear that. We're going to get this resolved as soon as we can, but I've got the draft to worry about. Let me get through the draft and then I'll call you back here and get this resolved and you get ready for the season.'

"I said, 'That's great. I like that straight-forward talk and I'm looking forward to getting back there.' Then, the morning of the draft, I get a call from coach Devine saying, ‘Hey, Don, we just traded you to the Denver Broncos. Good luck.' And he hung up on me.

"And that was it. The next thing I know, I'm with the Broncos. I didn't want to leave Green Bay, but all of a sudden, I was gone."

And so was his career. Horn drifted from the Broncos in 1971 and '72 to the Cleveland Browns in '73 and, finally, the San Diego Chargers in '74. In those four post-Packer years, he attempted just 93 passes, 89 of which came in 1971.

"My plans of possibly getting to Washington backing up Sonny kind of blew up and all of a sudden, I'm in Denver and I'm coming off a knee injury,'' Horn said. "I start here and I play about half the season. We didn't have the greatest team out here either and I re-injured my knee and shoulder and got banged up physically.

"After that, because of the injuries, I'm nothing more than a backup quarterback."

Sweet memories
Regrets still haunt Horn, but he really can't complain. Life has been pretty good to him.

He and his wife, Barbara, whom he met on a blind date in Milwaukee in 1968, have been married for 35 years. They are the parents of daughters Angie, 32, and Erica, 26, and son Ryan, 20.

"The kids are six years apart and I get asked all the time, 'Did you plan it that way?'" Horn said. "I say, 'No, we just had long road trips." There has been some hardship for Horn, which he considers a personal matter.

"Everybody has been up and down for various reasons," Horn said. "I had tough times for awhile, but you get through it and persevere. You reflect on the Lombardisms and that helps you get through. You take pride in what you can do and you just get up and do it."

More than anything, though, he will always have those four years in Green Bay.

"A lot of people think that maybe the worst thing that happened to my career was getting drafted by Green Bay, which was three yards and a cloud of dust," Horn said. "It was more of sophisticated, percentage-type of offense rather than the wide-open offense, what they call today West Coast Offense.

"But being a part of that era and meeting those great guys and catching the tail end of that great era back in the '60s, I feel very blessed and fortunate to know some of those guys. They're a great bunch of individuals."

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