Sept. 24, 2002
University of Notre Dame football legend Leon Hart, who as a senior right end in 1949 became the third of seven Irish winners of the Heisman Trophy, died this morning at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in South Bend, Ind. He was 73.
Hart – who had been hospitalized since Sept. 15, a day after attending the Notre Dame-Michigan football game – died from complications after battling a lengthy illness.
Hart remains one of two linemen ever to win the Heisman Trophy and is the only one so honored in the last 65 years, dating back to the 1936 season when Yale lineman Larry Kelley earned the honor.
The largest member of Notre Dame’s dominating 1949 squad that claimed the program’s third national title in four years, the 6-4, 245-pound Hart made a name for himself on both sides of the line of scrimmage. He often played fullback during that senior season to confuse opposing offenses and was the defensive signalcaller for the 1949 squad that still is considered among the best in the history of college football, outscoring its opponents 320-93 en route to a perfect 10-0 season.
Leon Hart poses with the Heisman trophy that he won in 1949.
Hart joined Irish teammate Jim Martin as Notre Dame’s last two-way players, gaining his reputation as an outstanding blocker and superb rusher on defense, to complement his estimable pass-catching skills.
In addition to winning the 1949 Heisman Trophy, Hart was selected by the Associated Press as its 1949 Male Athlete of the Year — earning the honor above such notables as Jackie Robinson and Sam Snead.
Hart’s four-year career as a varsity monogram winner (freshmen were granted eligibility during the World War II era) coincided with the 1946-49 seasons that produced four unbeaten campaigns, three national titles and a 36-0-2 record. Sports Illustrated ranked that four-year stretch of Notre Dame football as the nation’s second-best dynasty of the 20th century (in any sport), trailing only the 1957-69 Boston Celtics that won 11 NBA titles.
He was the youngest member of the 8-0-1 national championship squad in 1946, playing as a 17-year-old throughout most of that season. Hart then earned first team All-America honors as a sophomore while playing alongside quarterback Johnny Lujack, who went on to become Notre Dame’s second Heisman Trophy winner following the 1947 national championship season (9-0-0).
Hart’s junior season (9-0-1) ended with a 14-14 tie at USC, as the Irish finished second in the final 1948 AP poll before claiming the title again in ’49 — when Hart blew away the field en route to claiming the Heisman (his 995 voting points were well ahead of runner-up Charlie Justice of North Carolina, who totaled 272). His Notre Dame career statistics included 49 receptions for 742 yards and 13 scores.
Hart is Notre Dame’s second Heisman Trophy winner to pass away, with the program’s first winner — quarterback Angelo Bertelli — dying on June 26, 1999, in Springfield, Mass.
Born and raised in the Pittsburgh suburb of Turtle Creek, Pa. (his Turtle Creek High School team also was unbeaten in four years there), Hart is one of 16 Notre Dame players ever to earn consensus first-team All-America honors in multiple seasons (’48 and ’49) and he was named to college football all-century teams that were selected by both Sports Illustrated and the Walter Camp Foundation. Sports Illustrated also listed Hart among the top 50 all-time athletes in the state of Pennsylvania’s rich athletic history.
Hart’s impressive endeavors at Notre Dame extended to the classroom, where he balanced his studies (he was a 1950 graduate and was president of his senior class) as a mechanical engineering major with his dominance on the playing field.
He went on to play eight seasons with the Detroit Lions of the National Football League, earning all-pro honors on both sides of the ball in 1951 and helping the Lions claim NFL titles in 1952, 1953 and 1957. He was the first overall selection in the 1950 NFL draft. Hart and Bertelli are the only two players in history to win the Heisman Trophy and national championships in the same year, then also become the NFL’s first draft pick. His eight years with the Lions included 174 receptions for 2,499 yards and 26 TDs.
Elected to the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame in 1973, Hart served as president of Notre Dame’s National Monogram Club in the late 1970s and was active in promoting the Monogram Club’s Brennan-Boland Fund, which provides scholarship assistance to children of Notre Dame monogram winners.
A resident of the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Mich., during his post-playing years, Hart headed up a variety of business enterprises. He founded and served as president of Leon Hart Industries, which produced a variety of products used by the commercial trucking industry.
Hart’s son Kevin was a tight end on Notre Dame’s 1977-79 football teams while grandson Brendan Hart currently is a junior tight end on the 2002 Notre Dame squad.
Born Nov. 21, 1928, Hart — whose wife, the former Lois Newyahr, died in 1998 — is survived by his six children (all of whom reside in the Detroit area): sons Leon, Jr. (a 1973 Notre Dame graduate), Bill (’74), Marty, Kevin (’80) and Judd, daughter Mara Filo (’81), and 14 grandchildren (including two current Notre Dame students).
Visitation will be on Friday (3:00 – 9:00 p.m.) at Lynch and Sons Funeral Home in Clawson, Mich., with the funeral on Saturday morning (10:00 a.m.) at Holy Name Church in Birmingham, Mich.