John Huarte helped turn Notre Dame from a 2-7 team in 1963 to a 9-1 squad in 1964 that came within minutes of an undefeated season.

Golden Anniversary

Sept. 5, 2014 By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated

The past two college football seasons have seen the preseason “Heisman Watch” have a party crasher.

Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Florida State’s Jameis Winston in 2013 came out of nowhere after redshirting as freshmen the previous year to win the coveted award at around the same time they earned their first collegiate varsity letter.

Nevertheless, Notre Dame’s John Huarte remains the original “where did he come from?” Heisman miracle.

During an injury-riddled sophomore campaign in 1962, Huarte logged approximately five minutes playing time for an Irish team that finished 5-5 in head coach Joe Kuharich’s final season. The following year, under interim head coach Hugh Devore, Notre Dame ended the season with a 2-7 record and Huarte found himself as the No. 3 quarterback behind Frank Budka and Sandy Bonvechio, and barely ahead of Dennis Szot, who had started the season opener that year.

The 1963 season marked the fifth straight year Notre Dame failed to finish above .500, and 1964 didn’t look much better, even with the arrival of first-year head coach Ara Parseghian from Northwestern.

“Lack of a consistently good quarterback could again prevent Notre Dame from having a successful season,” wrote the 1963 Notre Dame Football Review, previewing the ’64 season.

The California Connection of seniors Huarte and little used-halfback Jack Snow, however, envisioned the future differently. Anaheim, California native Huarte and Long Beach, California resident Snow saw an opportunity to carpe diem — and it actually occurred two years earlier when they watched Parseghian’s No. 3 ranked Northwestern team stomp the Irish, 35-6.

“We were watching his quarterback, Tommy Myers, throw to a guy named Paul Flatley,” Huarte recalled. “Jack and I were not being used, and as we watched the other team advance the ball with the passing attack, we would kind of nod to each other with the full knowledge that we could do the same thing.”

While establishing himself as the starting quarterback in the spring of 1964, Huarte also suffered an injury late in the process that jeopardized his football future.

“The first three doctors said there had to be surgery,” Huarte said. “Ara Parseghian then asked (assistant coach) Tom Pagna to drive me to Chicago, where we could see a specialist friend of his from his days at Northwestern.

“The specialist’s decision was the opposite of everyone else’s,” Huarte said. `Just leave it alone and it will be fine.’ If they had done surgery, you never would have heard of me. To aid the healing I did a lot of swimming, rested, and in six to eight weeks it gradually returned to normal. By the time fall came, I was fine.”

The physical setback was overcome, but there was still a psychological hurdle.

“A few days before our first game at Wisconsin, Ara said, `You have the skills. If you make a mistake, don’t worry about it. You’re my quarterback.’ ” Huarte said. “… I needed to hear that because I had not played much for three years.”

In the 1964 opener at rainy Wisconsin that afternoon, Huarte passed for 270 yards, highlighted by 61- and 42-yard scoring tosses to Snow, who would finish fifth in the Heisman balloting, in the 31-7 Irish romp. The two continued to thrive and a new Irish legend was born en route to a 9-0 start and No. 1 ranking before a gut-wrenching 20-17 11th-hour loss at USC in the finale.

Notre Dame finished third in the 1964 Associated Press poll, but the team was awarded the MacArthur Bowl (emblematic of a national title) and laid the groundwork for future prosperity.

News of Huarte winning the Heisman Trophy back then was not the pomp and circumstance it is today.

“It was a shout down the hall from a guy named George Keenan, who was a roommate of mine on the second floor in Walsh Hall,” Huarte recalled. “He answered the phone in our room and he shouted down the hall, `John, you got it!’

“I got on the phone and (sports information director) Mr. Charlie Callahan with his raspy voice confirmed that I had been awarded the Heisman Trophy and I would be going to New York with my parents.”

Luck and timing are vital components in life, but for 50 years now, Huarte, who turned 71 on May 20, has preached a corollary to his message.

“Sometimes when I talk to young people groups, I tell them my story and they’re quite amazed,” Huarte said. “But a lot of it is you have to be prepared when an opportunity comes along, too.

“There can be a tendency in sports to think all good things come from yourself. When you really look at it, it takes a lot of forces on the outside – coaches, opportunity, teammates … to make it happen. I did a lot of basic work to develop the fundamental skills, and then was very fortunate to have Ara come along. Fortune in sports is strange. A lot of it is being at the right place at the right time.”

As a second-round draft choice of the American Football League’s New York Jets in 1965, Huarte signed a $200,000 deal on Jan. 9. One week earlier, the Jets signed a rookie named Joe Namath, injured most of his senior year at Alabama, for $427,000.

“That was really a business deal,” explained Huarte of his contract. “Notre Dame was the best draw in New York at that time. I was drafted high by the Jets, and helped them sell about 40,000 season tickets that year. It was a commercial transaction.”

Huarte never played a minute in his one season with the Jets, but his own greatest transaction was made there when he met Eileen Marie Devine during an elevator ride in Shea Stadium. Miss Devine actually had been asked out by Namath on a couple of occasions, but she politely declined.

Huarte then was traded to the Boston Patriots, where he backed up Babe Parelli. He remained a journeyman behind people such as Len Dawson for the 1970 Super Bowl champs before retiring from the soon-to-be defunct World Football League in 1975.

Although he played sparingly, Huarte considers even his pro career a blessing.

“Most pros play maybe two or three years,” Huarte reflected. “I was fortunate to get 10 years out of it and make more money as a young married man than doing anything else. Then I closed the door and put all my energies into business.”

John and Eileen started their own business, Arizona Tile, in 1977, which first opened in San Diego. He has been the CEO of more than 1,000 employees as the company has expanded to become the largest importer of granite in North America with the primary product line including tile, marble, and granite countertops. The family business now led by his sons has expanded on an international scale into South America, Europe and China.

The father of five and grandfather of beyond twice that number, Huarte is involved with several philanthropic organizations and is a member of the Board of Trustees for St. John’s Health Foundation in Santa Monica, California.

The Heisman Trophy win in 1964 represented only one year of football. Since then, Huarte has lived a Heisman-like life.