Sept. 17, 2017
By John Heisler
Their birthdays are about 40 years apart.
One came from Pennsylvania, the other from Texas.
One is white, the other black.
One played quarterback and defensive back, the other a combination of wide receiver, flanker and kick returner.
Both played at the University of Notre Dame for Hall of Fame coaches — one for Frank Leahy, the other in his final two seasons for Lou Holtz.
They share membership in one of the most noteworthy clubs anywhere in college athletics as past winners of the Heisman Memorial Trophy.
John Lujack won it 70 years ago, in 1947, and now is the oldest living Heisman winner.
Tim Brown won it 30 years ago, in 1987.
Lujack found out when he was informed in the Irish locker room just as his college career finished.
Brown’s selection was nationally televised by CBS Sports from the Downtown Athletic Club in lower Manhattan.
Both were excellent all-around athletes.
In 1943 Lujack won monograms in football, basketball, baseball and track — something that hadn’t happened at Notre Dame in 30 years and has not happened since.
Brown as a junior in 1987 won a monogram in track, running a best of :20.98 in the outdoor 200 meters. He was the 1986 Midwestern Collegiate Conference indoor champion in the 60.
Lujack recalls being taken aback by comments made at the Heisman presentation: “They kept saying all those nice things and you kind of felt that they weren’t really talking about you.”
At Brown’s Heisman presentation dinner, Paul Hornung (a Notre Dame graduate and 1956 Heisman winner) served as master of ceremonies, Don Criqui (another Notre Dame graduate) introduced the dignitaries in attendance and Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., served as the guest speaker. All three of those commitments had been made long before Brown won the award.
Lujack found out he had won the award in the locker room of the Los Angeles Coliseum not long after his unbeaten and top-rated Irish had defeated the third-ranked, unbeaten and Rose Bowl-bound Trojans 38-7 in his final collegiate game in front of 104,953 fans.
Said Lujack, “They said, ‘You have to go to New York.’ I said, ‘How do you get to New York?’ They said, ‘Well, you fly.’ I said, ‘I don’t have any money for a ticket. How do you get a ticket?’ They said they would take care of all that. But it scared the life out of me.”
When Lujack arrived at the DAC, he was surprised to meet his father (who had seen only one of his college games) and brother who also had been brought to New York as guests. Added Lujack, “It was great we got to celebrate together. We saw all of New York in that trip.”
Brown was one of five invitees to the Heisman ceremony, joining Syracuse’s Don McPherson, Holy Cross’ Gordon Lockbaum, Michigan State’s Lorenzo White and Pittsburgh’s Craig Heyward (the only junior). Though Brown came to New York nervous about his chances to win because East Coast media began promoting McPherson (and Brown’s Irish squad lost its final two regular-season games in 1987), the totals were not close — with Brown earning nearly twice as many first-place votes as McPherson.
Said McPherson, “I was sure that I was going to hear Tim Brown’s name called. It made it easier on me. I felt mostly relief for Tim. He went through the whole season as ‘Heisman Trophy candidate’ and by mid-season, he was the ‘Heisman Trophy winner.’ That’s a great deal of pressure.”
Both players started their collegiate careers unceremoniously.
In the first game of his freshman season, Brown in 1984 stood to return the opening kickoff at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. He fumbled the ball, Purdue recovered, the Boilermakers kicked a quick field goal and went on to win 23-21.
Lujack came to South Bend and began by playing defense against the varsity. “I made a lot of tackles,” he says. “After the first one they had to ask who I was. After three or four, they knew. The next time we got ready to scrimmage, Coach (Frank) Leahy goes, ‘Lujack, where are you?’ I held up my hand and it was, ‘Okay, you, you and you, get down there on defense with Lujack.'”
Both players became best known for signature plays that involved doing something other than playing the positions at which they normally were listed.
Lujack was slotted as a quarterback and certainly was an all-around talent. Yet the single most noteworthy play for which he earned headlines was an open-field tackle of Army running back (and 1945 Heisman Trophy winner) Doc Blanchard in 1946 in the famous 0-0 tie at Yankee Stadium between the two top-rated teams (both unbeaten) in the country. Said Lujack, “I did what I was supposed to do. I went over and tackled him. That’s why you’re back there.”
Brown was listed as a wide receiver, yet the night for which he earned the largest headlines came about because of his punt return exploits against Michigan State in 1987.
Both players grew into their starring roles.
Lujack served as Notre Dame’s prep-team T-formation quarterback (and as a freshman he worked at tailback if the Irish were facing a single-wing opponent), but he never played that role in a game until after Angelo Bertelli was drafted into the Marines midway through the 1943 season. Lujack threw a pair of scoring passes and ran for a third score in his first collegiate game at that position. Leahy called him “my most coachable player.”
Brown has talked openly about coming to Notre Dame and thinking that earning his degree was far and away his biggest priority. In fact, Holtz — after watching Brown excel in practices — helped convince Brown that he had the potential to become a standout on the gridiron. Holtz quickly switched Brown from split end to flanker so he could find more ways to get the football in Brown’s hands.
Both became cover boys.
Brown appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated college football preview issue (including a lengthy feature piece on Brown by Rick Reilly) prior to the 1987 season.
Lujack appeared on the cover of LIFE in the Sept. 29, 1947, edition.
Both players eventually did some media work. Lujack starred in “The Adventures of Johnny Lujack,” a 30-minute summer replacement ABC radio program broadcast three days a week in 1949. He worked with Chris Schenkel on CBS telecasts of New York Giant games from 1958-61 and also did college football games on ABC with Jim McKay in the late 1960s. Brown joined SiriusXM in 2012 as a college football and NFL analyst, serving as host for three college shows and a Sunday night NFL show.
Both had their own heroes or mentors, depending on the perspective, on the Irish roster.
Says Lujack, “Let me say that Angelo (Bertelli) was perhaps as fine a quarterback and thrower as anyone who played for Notre Dame. He and I became very close and he’s one of the classiest men I’ve ever known.”
When Brown arrived on campus, the Notre Dame player he most wanted to emulate was then-sophomore flanker Alvin Miller, the highly touted former Parade prep All-American from Kirkwood, Missouri. Miller (as a senior he won the Missouri state high school outdoor track meet all by himself by winning four individual events) made 22 career receptions with the Irish, after missing most of his sophomore campaign in 1984 (and seven more games in his senior year) due to injury.
Both players produced numbers worth remembering.
Brown averaged 42.3 yards on his 22 career touchdown plays for Notre Dame (12 on receptions, four on rushes and three each on punt returns and kickoff returns).
Lujack, the youngest Notre Dame quarterback in 1943 at age 18, lost only one football game once he entered the lineup (a 19-14 road defeat to Great Lakes to end the ’43 season) and started on three teams that claimed consensus national titles.
John Lujack and Tim Brown — they both earned college’s football’s most distinguished award 70 and 30 years ago, respectively.