Sept. 23, 1999
by Pete LaFleur
With Notre Dame football in the midst of its 111th season of varsity play, Johnny Lujack remains arguably the most accomplished all-around player in the program’s storied history.
The 74-year-old Lujack – who became Notre Dame’s second Heisman Trophy winner in 1947, as a star two-way player- – returns to his alma mater for several football games every season and will be in town for this weekend’s game with Michigan State, after his annual 36 holes of golf on Friday at South Bend Country Club with former teammate Creighton Miller.
“I didn’t take up golf until I was 30, and I didn’t know what a good sport it was because I’d been doing so many other things,” says Lujack, whose handicap fluctuates between 7-10. “I can play alone and get just as much out of it because those 18 holes represent a challenge. It’s the competitiveness I really like.”
Lujack has been tackling challenges since his days as a member of a hard-working Polish family in the town of Connelsville, Pa., in the western Alleghany mountains, home of several famous quarterbacks, including future Irish great Joe Montana.
“My dad never played sports, but he worked so hard that I was a great admirer of his,” says Lujack, whose three older brothers set numerous sports records, with Johnny claiming his place as the greatest athlete ever from the town of 17,000. “In our family, sports was our main recreation because we didn’t have any money to do other things.”
The youngest Lujack son made his name in numerous sports, prompting city officials to pursue an appointment to West Point for the local hero. But Lujack gracefully informed the graduation ceremony crowd that he was going to follow his dream of becoming a football player at Notre Dame.
“A lot of people called my parents and told them what a terrible mistake it was to let me go to Notre Dame, when they had this honor of sending me to the U.S. Military Academy,” recalls Lujack, whose father never saw him play a high school football or basketball game because he worked a night shift.
In addition to his exploits on the football field – he started the final four games of the 1943 national championship season, after Heisman winner Angelo Bertelli was called into duty with the Marines – Lujack also earned varsity monograms in basketball, track and field and baseball, becoming just the third Notre Dame athlete to letter in four different sports and the first to do so in his first year of eligibility.
“In my first baseball game, I had two singles and a triple in four at-bats, and between innings I ran over to the track to do the high jump and javelin,” recalls Lujack, who also was a starting guard on Moose Krause’s basketball squad. “All I did was take my sliding pads off. But it was kind of tough to do the high jump because we had those baggy baseball trousers.”
Lujack was able to compete in the additional sports because his military activities precluded him from participating in spring football. And he soon was called into nearly three years of active duty, including several months on a sub-chaser in the English Channel. “Those years helped me to mature and develop physically,” he says. “And I felt very fortunate that I was able to return in better shape and not injured.”
Lujack returned to Notre Dame in 1946 and became the field general for two of the top teams in college football history, yielding a career record of 21-1-1 as the Irish starting quarterback. The ’46 season produced the famous 0-0 tie at Yankee Stadium between the No. 2 Irish and top-ranked Army and Lujack etched his name in history with several big plays, including a game-saving tackle of Doc Blanchard.
Lujack’s Irish career overshadows a solid four-year stint in the National Football League with the Chicago Bears. He backed up quarterback Sid Luckman in 1948 but earned all-pro honors as a defensive back, setting a Bears record with eight interceptions. One year later, he threw for six touchdowns and an NFL record 468 yards in one game before earning all-pro in ’50 as the NFL’s second-leading scorer.
Ultimately, injuries halted Lujack’s career and he returned to his alma mater as Frank Leahy’s backfield coach during the 1952 and ’53 seasons, with his pupils including future Heisman winner Johnny Lattner.
“I knew I better start developing some other interests in regards to making a living,” says Lujack, who settled into ownership of a Davenport, Iowa, car dealership- – which he sold to his son-in-law upon retiring in 1987. “The most I ever made in a season was $20,000, which is nothing compared to today.”
Despite his many successes, Lujack maintains the proper perspective on his good fortune.
“Everything for me at Notre Dame was happenstance,” says Lujack, who recently established an endowed scholarship at the school. “If I played five years later, maybe people would not have even noticed that I was around. So I feel so fortunate about the timing and everything that came my way.”
Lujack joined the Notre Dame family in mourning the recent death of Bertelli. “I told Angelo many times that he is the finest pure passer Notre Dame ever has had,” says Lujack. “When he was sick, I called him several times. We were extremely close, even though we lived geographically far away.”
Lujack credits Notre Dame for much of his post-football success. “Playing under Frank Leahy taught you so many important things: sacrifice, dedication, attitude, preparation, team concept,” he says. “I also got to really love Moose Krause. He was one of the all-time nice people and his sense of humor was second-to-none. When I think of Notre Dame, I think of Leahy, Moose and my teammates.”
Much of Lujack’s time these days is spent with his family-wife Pat, daughters Mary and Carol and son Jeff, plus five grandchildren and one great-grandchild-with the couple spending summers in Davenport and winters in Indian Wells, Calif. – near Palm Springs.
Johnny and Pat Lujack recently have racked up the frequent flyer miles. “I’m married to a gal that would love to travel every other week – if it wasn’t for her, I’d never leave this country,” explains Lujack, whose travel highlights include a Mediterranean cruise for the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary.
Like most “old-timers,” Lujack has his opinions of today’s game. “I wish they would not give so much publicity to individual awards – they ought to put more emphasis on team awards,” says Lujack. “Players today are bigger and faster, but I think that the players I played with could play today, because we would be bigger and tougher and faster.”
Lujack’s days as a 70-something Hall of Famer revolve around the slow comforts of retirement.
“My typical day is waking up, having breakfast and waiting for 12:30 to play golf,” says Lujack, who plays five rounds per week, has shot his age five times and owns five career holes-in-one.
“I really don’t set any goals. I just lead each day the best way I know how … and that involves a round of golf and spending time with family – nothing remarkable.”
Johnny Lujack, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1947, now spends his days in Indians Wells, Calif., along with his wife Pat.