Johnny Lujack, star quarterback at Notre Dame, dies at 98

Johnny Lujack, star quarterback at Notre Dame, dies at 98

Johnny Lujack, the celebrated Notre Dame quarterback who won the 1947 Heisman Trophy, played on three national championship teams and later starred in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, died Tuesday in Florida. He was 98 years old.

his death was announced by Notre Dame.

When the 1947 college football season began, Lujack was on the cover of Life magazine, kneeling in his green jersey, gold helmet, and gold pants. He was the most publicized Notre Dame player since the 1920s, when Knute Rockne, Gipper and the Four Horsemen turned a small Roman Catholic university in obscure South Bend, Indiana, into a hallmark of popular culture.

Lujack was an excellent passer and a fine runner at halfback, as well as a brilliant defensive halfback, a position kicker, and the occasional punter. He was a two-time All-American and played only one losing football game at Notre Dame. He also played baseball and basketball and ran track.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960 and was the oldest living recipient of the Heisman, the award given annually to the best player in college football.

“He’s probably the greatest all-rounder I’ve ever seen in college football,” Frank Tripucka, Lujack’s backup at Notre Dame and a longtime pro halfback, told Steve Delsohn in the oral history “Talking Irish” (1998).

Lujack received hundreds of fan letters at Notre Dame. While playing for the Bears, he portrayed himself on the ABC radio series “The Adventures of Johnny Lujack”, a summer 1949 replacement for the feature “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy”.

Lujack took over at quarterback for Notre Dame in November 1943 when Angelo Bertelli left for military service. He led the Irish to a 9-1 record and their first No. 1 national ranking.

He left Notre Dame for the Navy during World War II and served aboard a ship chasing German submarines in the English Channel. He returned in 1946 when the Irish fielded an overwhelming team made up largely of war veterans.

When Notre Dame played Army in November 1946 in an undefeated team match, Lujack was hampered by a sprained ankle, but played nonetheless, on both offense and defense. He threw three interceptions, but in the third quarter, playing quarterback, he saved the day for Notre Dame.

Crossing the field, he fouled Army fullback Doc Blanchard, the 1945 Heisman winner, at the Irish 36-yard line, making a low tackle as Blanchard ran down the left sideline.

“I was the last guy between him and a touchdown,” Lujack told The New York Times in 1981. “I read later that I was the only guy to make a single tackle on him. Had I known this during the game, I probably would have missed the tackle.

The so-called Game of the Century ended in a 0-0 tie. But Notre Dame (8-0-1) defeated Army for its second national championship, and Lujack was named an All-American.

Lujack led Notre Dame to a 9-0 record and a third national championship in 1947, his Heisman Trophy year, when he passed for nine touchdowns and 777 yards and rushed for 139, averaging over 11 yards per carry. The Associated Press named him America’s Male Athlete of the Year.

In January 1948, the Bears signed Lujack to a four-year contract and bonus, for a total of around $80,000. (a little over $1 million in today’s money).

Lujack led the NFL in passing completions (162), yards passing (2,658) and touchdown passes (23) in 1949, when he threw for six touchdowns and passed for a league-record 468 yards in a game against the Chicago Cardinals. He was a two-time Pro Bowl player and was named an NFL first-team player in 1950. He retired after four professional seasons to become a defensive backs coach at Notre Dame.

John Christopher Lujack Jr. was born into a family of Polish descent on January 4, 1925, in the city of Connellsville, in western Pennsylvania. He was one of six children born to John and Alice (Skowronek) Lujack. His father worked as a railway boilermaker.

Johnny was a star at Connellsville High School in football, basketball, and track, and he was thrilled to hear Notre Dame games on the radio. It arrived at Notre Dame in 1942 when coach Frank Leahy was installing a T-formation to replace the single wing.

When Bertelli joined the Marines, leaving a Notre Dame team that had won its first six games, Lujack literally replaced him. “I tore one of my shoes due to a cleat in the previous game,” he told The Times in 1981. “When Bertelli left I asked for a new pair and they said, ‘Why don’t you try Bertelli’s?

Lujack led Notre Dame to three more wins and then suffered the only loss of his collegiate career when Notre Dame was defeated by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, which featured notable former players who were in the military. Bertelli was named the inaugural Irish Heisman winner at the end of the season.

When Lujack joined the Bears after his two postwar seasons at Notre Dame, he alternated at halfback with Sid Luckman and Lujack rookie Bobby Layne, both future Pro Football Hall of Famers. He also played defense, intercepting eight passes.

Lujack eventually became the Bears’ No. 1 quarterback and threw for 41 career touchdowns while rushing for another 21 in four seasons. But he was hampered in 1950 by injuries to both shoulders; he continued playing despite the pain and was rested at points towards the end of the 1951 season to preserve arm strength.

When his four-year contract ended, he wanted to be traded. In addition to the beating he received, he had long been angry with George Halas, the owner and trainer of the Bears. Lujack later recalled that when looking over his contract upon joining the Bears, he discovered that Halas had changed agreed salary amounts, reducing the total by $1,500. (Halas, he said, quickly restored that amount when he pointed out the discrepancy.)

“I don’t mind anyone being a tough negotiator,” Lujack told Jeff Davis in his Halas biography, “Papa Bear” (2005). “I just don’t want to be tricked because of my inexperience.”

When Leahy offered Lujack a job as an assistant coach at Notre Dame in 1952, he accepted, ending his professional career. But when Terry Brennan, formerly a notable quarterback for Notre Dame, was named head coach in 1954 following Leahy’s retirement, Lujack left to run a family-owned automobile dealership in Iowa. Later, he was a network broadcast analyst for college and professional football.

Information about Lujack’s survivors and where he was in Florida when he died was not immediately available.

Over the years, Lujack has remained a revered figure at Notre Dame.

When Notre Dame and Army met for the first football game at the new Yankee Stadium in 2010, he was on the field for the coin toss with the team captains. In the fall of 2012, he was a goodwill ambassador for Notre Dame when he played for Navy in Dublin.

The memory of his deeds lingered.

“The two biggest winners of the 1940s were FDR and John Lujack,” Beano Cook, a former college football analyst for ESPN, once said. “But even Roosevelt only won two elections in the 1940s, while Lujack won three national titles.”

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