Leftovers & Links: RIP to a pair of Notre Dame icons, Paul Hornung and Robert Sam Anson

Paul Hornung
Getty Images
30 Comments

Notre Dame won decisively Saturday at Boston College, the 100th win in Brian Kelly’s time leading the Irish. But the program’s history suffered a loss Friday with the death of Hall of Famer and Heisman winner Paul Hornung at the age of 84.

Hornung won the 1956 Heisman, still the only player to do so on a losing team, and that was much worse than just a “losing” team, finishing the season at 2-8. Upon learning he had won — an era devoid of an hours-long television special around the award — Hornung quipped he did not know he was even in consideration, understandable confusion.

It could also be argued describing the 1956 roster at Notre Dame as a “team” sugar-coated the reality. It was Hornung, Hornung and Hornung. He led the Irish in rushing with 420 yards and six scores, in passing with 917 yards and three touchdowns, and kick returns with 496 yards, not to mention punting, extra points and passes broken up, finishing second on the team in interceptions and tackles.

If he won the Heisman because of his all-around abilities, it would be more than fair. Even if he won it based on his fifth-place showing in 1955, there would be some justice to it. Consider Notre Dame’s 17-14 win against Iowa in 1955.

The Irish trailed by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Hornung returned a kickoff 23 yards, led the subsequent drive, threw a 17-yard touchdown pass and kicked the tying extra point. He was just getting started. He then kicked off and tackled the returner at the Iowa 2-yard line. A quick defensive stop gave Hornung the chance to helm a drive ending in a game-winning, 28-yard field goal. Yes, Hornung kicked the field goal.

The two-time All-American enjoyed a nine-year NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, which would have been a season longer if not for getting suspended in 1963 for gambling on the game. He won four titles and totaled 62 career touchdowns, reaching the Hall of Fame as a running back, a distinction of particular pride to Hornung after entering the College Football Hall of Fame as a quarterback.

On a broader level, Notre Dame lost an equally-impressive man of lore this month when journalist Robert Sam Anson, Class of 1967, died on Nov. 2 at the age of 75 from complications of dementia. The co-founder of the independent student newspaper, The Observer, Anson may seem like a footnote at best, even when considering he covered Cesar Chavez and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, despite his byline appearing in TIME, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Life and The Atlantic, no matter the absolute importance of founding an independent daily still publishing 54 years later on a campus as small as Notre Dame.

But Anson’s accolades fail to encapsulate an event defying belief, one which Anson could not retell without tears, one from which former Notre Dame President Father Ted Hesburgh drew much pride.

Hesburgh never turned down a chance to discuss his relationship with the student who gave him the greatest headaches in his 35 years as University President. After all, Anson founded the independent newspaper only when the administration blocked him from becoming the editor of the campus magazine, Scholastic. He attached to The Observer a humble mission statement: “To uncover the truth and to report it accurately. This is our goal. This is our purpose.” Clearly, Anson was not someone willing to do anything quietly. 

“Bob had a martyr’s complex,” Hesburgh once said. “People were always asking me, ‘Why don’t you expel Anson?’

“I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.”

So when some arm of the United States government called Hesburgh in 1970 and then told him a Notre Dame alum was being held captive by North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia and told him no American journalist had returned home in piece from such an ordeal in the last century, Hesburgh already knew who was in danger before he was asked if he knew the name Anson.

Hesburgh felt some responsibility for the young man. They butted heads, but only because Anson stood by his principles as stubbornly as Hesburgh did his. There was respect and kinship. Hesburgh emphasized all this every time he spoke about Anson, something that came up each and every time this journalist had the pleasure of eating with Hesburgh.

The government had not called Hesburgh to ask him for help so much as to simply inform him. He had yet to be fired from the Civil Rights Commission by President Richard Nixon. In fact, Nixon had strongly praised Hesburgh’s “15-minute rule” cutting short student protests against the Vietnam War, a rule which led Anson to tell Hesburgh directly it was time to resign.

And truthfully, Anson’s retelling of this moment always suggested TIME called the University, not the government or the military. If Hesburgh exaggerated that aspect, it would fit his feelings for Anson, describing this dreadful scenario as “being asked to get the devil out of hell.”

All the same, 24 hours after Hesburgh got that call, Anson was on a plane out of Cambodia. Hesburgh always held a long pause here, his smirk conveying both drama and pride within it.

“I called the Pope.”

Few people could play that card. Just as few warrant playing it. Hesburgh could, and Anson did.

REMEMBERING ROBERT SAM ANSON:
Reporter recalls rocky friendship with Fr. Theodore Hesburgh
Robert Sam Anson, ‘bare-knuckled’ magazine writer, dies at 75
Farewell, Robert Sam Anson
Co-founder of The Observer dies at 75

INSIDE THE IRISH:
Sluggish start hardly bothers Notre Dame, Ian Book in 45-31 win at Boston College
Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s fatigue understandable part of Playoff argument

OUTSIDE READING:
Here’s the ‘bubble’ that will help college football finish the season
A Notre Dame celebration was reckless, but can it teach us about COVID-19 spread?
This Notre Dame team is CFP worthy. The only question is, are they here to stay?
Notre Dame played like a champion today
Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams scores touchdowns but won’t let you touch his QB
Michigan’s ugly decline takes a toll on SI’s top 10