Flashback: RB gets special treatment for big game

Each Sunday until the start of the regular season, PackerReport.com will look back at a memorable Green Bay Packers game. Today we feature Green Bay's Nov. 23, 1961 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Detroit Lions at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

Thanks to the all-powerful and well-connected Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers wound up having a Happy Thanksgiving in 1961.

As a result, the Packers went on to have a happy year and a happy decade.

The Packers defeated the Detroit Lions 17-9 at Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving Day 1961, but it took some extra work by Lombardi to help secure the win.

Eleven days before the game, running back-kicker Paul Hornung was one of thousands of military reservists activated by President Kennedy.

Despite Lombardi's efforts to get a deferment, Hornung was assigned to duty in Fort Riley, Kansas.

Hornung, the NFL's leading scorer, missed the Packers' 35-17 win over the Los Angeles Rams Nov. 19 at Lambeau Field but as Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss wrote in his 1999 book on Lombardi When Pride Still Mattered: "Lombardi wanted Hornung for the Lions."

What Lombardi wanted, Lombardi got.

"Perhaps no private in Fort Riley history was better situated for exceptional treatment than the Golden Boy in that fall of 1961," Maraniss wrote. "The connections between the Green Bay Packers and the U.S. Army ran long and deep. From his days at West Point, Lombardi knew colonels and generals in the Pentagon all around the country."

The Army granted Hornung and fellow reservists Boyd Dowler and Ray Nitschke and the Lions' John Gordy passes so they could play in the nationally televised game.

According to Maraniss, Hornung "was flown from Fort Riley to Detroit back in a Cessna 310 piloted by Pat Martin, a Notre Dame alumnus and Packer backer who lived in Green Bay and had married into one of the big paper mill families."

The 11-day layoff took its toll on Hornung. Maraniss wrote "it was not one of Hornung's better games" and the Associated Press account of the game said Hornung "appeared rusty and the thick mud handicapped his running."

Still, Hornung was good enough to have an impact on the game, which pushed the Packers closer to the Western Conference title and a spot in the Dec. 31 NFL Championship game. Hornung kicked an extra-point and a field goal and caught a key pass during the clinching touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter as the Packers subdued their closest pursuer.

"I was more tired than after any other game I ever played," Hornung remarked afterward. With the Packers offense off to a slow start, Detroit took a 6-0 lead on field goals of 13- and 34-yards by Jim Martin, whom the Lions were honoring that day.

Bart Starr, who was intercepted in the end zone in the first quarter, finally got the Packers moving late in the second quarter. Starr got the Packers to within scoring distance with long passes to Max McGee and Dowler. Jim Taylor capped the 80-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge to give the Packers a 7-6 lead at halftime.

The Lions regained the lead in the third quarter on a 16-yard field goal by Martin. The Packers, though, spoiled the holiday for the 55,662 at the corner of Michigan and Trumbell in Detroit with 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

Taylor scored the go-ahead TD from 1-yard out thanks to a 26-yard reception by Hornung put the Packers at the 4. Hornung capped the scoring with a 9-yard field goal late in the game.

The next week, Hornung was again flown to the game from Kansas and helped the team notch a 20-17 victory over the New York Giants in Milwaukee that sealed the conference title. Four weeks later, the Packers beat the Giants again for the first of Lombardi's five NFL Championships.

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