Nov. 19, 2010
By Lou Somogyi
In any biographical sketch of 1947 Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner John Lujack, he is listed as a “quarterback.”
When Sports Illustrated assembled its College Football All-Century team in 1999, Lujack was one of only five quarterbacks named, joining TCU’s Sammy Baugh, Navy’s Roger Staubach, Boston College’s Doug Flutie and Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier.
In 2005, CBS Sports ran a special on the 10 greatest quarterbacks in college football history. Added to that 1999 SI list were Joe Namath, Steve Young, Charlie Ward, Peyton Manning and Matt Leinart.
Yet Lujack may be the only quarterback in history whose most famous play was a tackle.
A four-sport athlete who also won monograms in basketball, baseball and track at Notre Dame, Lujack was the embodiment of a complete football player, even though the Connellsville, Pa., native wasn’t quite what would be classified as a “blue-chip” recruit in today’s football lexicon.
“In my senior year of high school (1941), they named four teams all-state in Pennsylvania — and I didn’t make any of the four teams,” Lujack recalled. “I did make all-county, but then my good friend and teammate Creighton Miller liked to say, `I understand that your high school was the only one in the county.’ That wasn’t true, but it did make people laugh.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was good enough to get a scholarship to attend Notre Dame. I told people that if I could just make the traveling squad in my junior or senior year, I could probably come back to Connellsville, run for mayor and win it hands down.”
On Lujack’s first day of practice at Notre Dame in 1942, second-year head coach Frank Leahy asked for a freshmen defensive team to scrimmage against the vaunted varsity. Notre Dame was coming off an 8-0-1 season, but Leahy was installing a new offense, the T-formation, to better utilize the passing skills of junior quarterback Angelo Bertelli, the Heisman Trophy runner-up as a sophomore in 1941. The unit needed all the scrimmage work it could get, even if it meant using the freshmen as cannon fodder.
Lujack just happened to be in the front row of freshman backs when an assistant coach randomly pointed to him and a few others up front and referred to them as “you, you, you and you” to scrimmage against the varsity.
At 165 pounds, Lujack braced himself for the worst. He was lined up at safety and told himself the only way he would survive was to “move forward” and hit with a passion.
“The quick openers with the left halfback and right halfback were coming right at me on just about every play,” Lujack said. “I started making tackles, and Leahy stopped practice three different times to ask who made that tackle. The first time they had to ask my name.
“The next day when we were asked for a defensive team again, they said `Lujack, where are you?’ I raised my hand, and then they said, `You, you and you, go down there on defense with Lujack!’ That’s kind of how it all got started.”
Lujack made his initial mark on defense, and it would serve him well even in the NFL, where in 1948 with the Chicago Bears he set a league rookie record with eight interceptions.
It didn’t take long to recognize Lujack’s skills on offense as well, and Leahy used the 17-year-old freshman in different capacities to prepare the Irish defense. The 1942 opener was against Wisconsin, led by the legendary Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
“If we were going to play a T-formation team, then I was the quarterback that ran the plays against the varsity,” Lujack explained. “If we were playing a single-wing team, then I would be the single-wing tailback. Sometimes I would run a simple off tackle play and gain seven or eight yards. Leahy would go crazy at the defense and say, `Look at this 17-year-old lad gaining eight yards against you! What do you think Elroy Hirsch is going to do?!? Let’s run that play over again!’
“Well, now everybody knew what play was coming, the defense was steamed, everybody converges on me and I get nailed — but I loved every minute of practice that freshman year.”
Eligible for varsity action as a sophomore in 1943, Lujack made headlines when he stepped in for that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Bertelli, who began basic training with the Marines on Nov. 1 in Parris Island, S.C., while the United States was involved in World War II.
Lujack directed victories against No. 3 Army, No. 8 Northwestern and No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight (a semi-pro World War II team) and also starred on defense in an era where starters had to play both ways.
Not even a 19-14 loss to Great Lakes, another semi-pro team, in the closing seconds of the finale was enough to sway voters to knock Notre Dame from the No. 1 perch. That year, the Irish defeated the teams that finished No. 2,3,4,9,11 and 13 in the Associated Press poll.
After the season, Lujack joined thousands of other college players in World War II duty overseas before returning in 1946 and becoming the first — and still lone — quarterback to direct three major consensus national titles.
Still, Lujack’s signature play came on Nov. 9, 1946 in a showdown between No. 1 and two-time defending national champ Army and No. 2 Notre Dame.
The 1946 Army game actually was one of Lujack’s worst as he was slowed by an injury and threw three interceptions. Although it was publicized as “The Game of The Century” between the nation’s top two programs, the 0-0 result led to a letdown, or as one New York writer put it, “much ado about nothing to nothing.” All the more reason why Lujack’s third-quarter, game-saving tackle against 1945 Heisman Trophy winner Felix “Doc” Blanchard stood out as an epic moment.
With the ball at the Army 44, Blanchard broke through a gap and had clear sailing down the left sideline — until Lujack came across the field and, as the final line of defense, made a diving, shoestring tackle of Blanchard at the Irish 36. The drive ended with Terry Brennan, Notre Dame’s head coach from 1954-58, intercepting a Cadet pass in the red zone.
The 85-year-old Lujack — the oldest living Heisman recipient — has maintained that there was nothing special about the tackle other than taking the correct angle of pursuit.
“I really can’t understand all the fuss,” Lujack said after the game. “I simply pinned him against the sideline and dropped him with a routine tackle.”
Lujack said he never met Blanchard (who died in 2009) personally, but often played golf with Blanchard’s teammate Glenn Davis, the 1946 Heisman recipient of Army’s legendary “Mr. Inside” (Blanchard) and “Mr. Outside” backfield duo.
“Over the course of his lifetime, we played many rounds of golf together,” said Lujack of Davis, who passed away in 2005. “And we recalled that Army game where both offenses weren’t good that day and maybe the coaches were too conservative. I think that was one of the poorest games I played.
“One time we were kidding over a couple of beers and Glenn said, `That was a very lucky tackle because you caught Doc by the last shoestring.’ He said it was the worst tackle he had ever seen.”
With the passage of time, it actually has become the most famous stop in Irish annals because it had national title implications.
Because Notre Dame trounced Navy 28-0 earlier in the year and Army barely survived a 21-18 verdict against the Midshipmen in the season finale, voters in the AP poll gave the 1946 national title nod to the Irish over two-time defending champ Army.
It was a changing of the guard that couldn’t have occurred without Lujack’s tackle.
Arnold Tucker: Out Of The Shadows
John Lujack was not the only quarterback whose heroics on defense highlighted the 0-0 tie with Army in 1946.
While Lujack made a game-saving stop of Felix “Doc” Blanchard, Army quarterback Arnold Tucker also made one in the second quarter when Notre Dame running back Jerry Cowhig swept from midfield down to the Army 12 before Tucker made the tackle. Notre Dame made it inside the five-yard line on the drive but eschewed the field-goal attempt on fourth down because Irish head coach Frank Leahy deemed it an admission of defeat to not score a touchdown in such a situation. The Irish were stopped, preventing their best scoring chance of the game.
However, Tucker’s performance went far beyond his tackle. He also intercepted three of Lujack’s passes.
“How did you happen to throw so many passes to Tucker?” Leahy asked Lujack later.
“He was the only one I could find open,” quipped Lujack, who also incurred an inadvertent kick in the head during the slugfest.
The 1946 Notre Dame-Army game was one of the few times Tucker emerged from the shadows of backfield mates Felix “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, the 1945 and 1946 Heisman Trophy winners, respectively.
Along with Toledo’s Chuck Ealey (1969-71), Tucker is one of two quarterbacks in major college football history to never lose a game while starting at least 25 games. Ealey was 35-0 with the Rockets, while Tucker was 27-0-1 from 1944-46 at Army.
A native of Miami, Fla., Tucker accepted a scholarship offer from Leahy. However, when he took his visit to Notre Dame in January, the Indiana winter weather quickly changed his mind and led him to enroll at the University of Florida. With World War II going on, Tucker also had to decide on a form or military training and opted to do it at the University of Miami. In later military training, Tucker was contacted by West Point, where he eventually enrolled.
In 2008, 62 years after his final collegiate game, Tucker was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame through the National Football Foundation’s Honors Review Committee. He was enshrined in July 2009.
“He should have been in a long time ago,” said Joe Steffy, the Outland Trophy winner at Army in 1947. “… It was a situation where he fell through the cracks … Blanchard and Davis got all the publicity.”
Against Notre Dame in 1946, though, it was Tucker who stole the show, and passes.