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Paul Hornung and Alex Karras

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Two of the american football’s biggest names were suspended from playing for the entire 1963 season after it was found that they had been betting on NFL games.
Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions were the two players in question, with the pair each banned from playing during the 1963 season by then NFL Commissioner, Pete Rozelle. The head decision-maker in the NFL decided that Hornung and Karras each deserved to miss time after they had placed bets on games in the league, while also associated with known gamblers.

Hornung misses ‘63 season despite previous MVP award

Following the 1951 point-shaving scandal which dogged college basketball for years, Rozelle knew that he needed to come down hard on any gambling in the NFL, and it didn’t matter if that meant handing out a punishment to a star player.

The former Notre Dame recruit, Hornung certainly fit that bill, with the halfback having previously been crowned as the league’s Most Valuable Player back in 1961. As a Packer, Hornung had also set a then-NFL record high for points in a season with 176 in 1960, which has only since been bettered once in 2006 by San Diego Chargers running back LaDanian Tomlinson who ended his season with 186 points according to Pro Football Reference.

Hornung claimed that his biggest crime was making bets of $100 and $200 with his friends, but Rozelle believed the star had wagered as much as $500 on NFL games over the period from 1959-61, which led to the subsequent suspension. Karras meanwhile, made six bets of $50 or $100 according to Rozelle, meaning the All-Pro defensive lineman had violated his contract with the NFL, which meant he too would be suspended.

In addition to placing bets, both Hornung and Karras had kept fast company, including being seen with friends who were also reputed to have connections to gambling and organized crime, who Rozelle had classed as “known hoodlums.”

Rozelle made sure to let it be known that neither player had ever placed a wager against their own team to win or lose. However, Hornung had admitted to his friend Bernard Shapiro that sometimes he did not feel as confident as usual going into a game with the Packers. Shapiro, a slot-machine and pinball tycoon who had links to Las Vegas, spoke to Hornung up to two times a week during the football season and would ask the Packers star questions including “What do you feel about the game?” to get inside information as revealed by an article written by Tex Maule in Sports Illustrated.

Five of Karras’ teammates in Detroit were fined $2,000 by the league after it had been found that they had each wagered $50 on the 1962 championship game. Joe Schmidt, Wayne Walker, John Gordy, Gary Lowe and Sam Williams had each placed a bet on the Packers winning the title in 1962 in a game against the New York Giants. Green Bay eventually won 16-7 at Yankee Stadium which meant that they had covered the six-point spread, and that the five players had won their bet, yet were each $1,950 worse off for taking part in betting activities .

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Karras and Hornung show contrition and admit mistakes

For Karras, his issues began early in 1963, when the NFL suggested that he should sell the interest he had in the Lindell AC Bar in Detroit, due to the mob influences and reputed gambling activities that had been taking place there. At a time when he was carrying out his NFL suspension, Karras became disillusioned with football and threatened to retire from the sport, before making the sensible decision to sell his shares in the bar. After selling-up, Rozelle reinstated Karras as well as Hornung after ending their suspensions as reported by the Chicago Tribune.
The pair both eventually admitted their wrongdoings, and apologised for their roles in the scandal. Karras was defiant initially, and said that he wasn’t guilty, before accepting the ban and acknowledging what he had done. His return to the field was not without incident, and during a game in 1964, Karras refused to call heads or tails at the pre-game toss, telling the referee that he “wasn’t permitted to gamble.”

Following their NFL careers, the two players’ reputations remained intact. Karras turned to acting and appeared in a number of films including Blazing Saddles, before becoming a member of the broadcast team behind Monday Night Football for three seasons.

Hornung used his suspension to help him blossom in the media, appearing on both television and radio during the 1963 season before continuing to have a stellar career which ended with him being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, while also becoming a success in the business world.