John Huarte

The Unlikely Heisman

Oct. 20, 2005

As the cool autumn air settles in and the brilliant spectrum of fall colors surround the Stadium on game day, an alumnus will make her way through the gates alongside Notre Dame Avenue for the first time in decades.

Emerging from this tailgate, a young boy will walk with his father towards the Golden Dome exclaiming that one day he will attend college at Notre Dame.

It is on these Saturdays that the Notre Dame community recalls its celebrated stories.

But there is one Notre Dame story that has no equal, and forty-one years later as it awaits College Football Hall of Fame induction, still no sequel.

Authored by then head coach Ara Parseghian, it is the tale of perseverance and steadfast patience.

The backdrop is 1964. The football program was reeling from five consecutive seasons without a winning record and a 2-7 campaign in 1963, which was Joe Kuharich’s last as head coach.

The most unlikely of heroes was a grim-jawed side-arming California kid, who stood no taller that six feet tall with a playing weight that never exceeded 180 pounds, and brought with him a last name difficult to pronounce but impossible to forget.

This story belongs to John Huarte.

The preface takes the audience to rural southern California.

As one of six children on a citrus fruit and avocado ranch near Anaheim, Huarte developed his arm strength by throwing oranges–not footballs–on the family farm, typically at one of his brothers. He developed a love of outdoors and sports from his father, who was an outstanding professional shortstop with Roanoke, Virginia, of the Eastern League. He developed a fascination for the spirit of the University when he listened to Notre Dame and his idol Johnny Lattner play on the radio as a six-year old. And he developed an understanding of the intangibles of the campus from his brother Dave who attended Notre Dame in the late 1950s.

But he may very well have developed homesickness when he made the 2,100-mile trek from Mater Dei High School in sunny Santa Ana to what would soon be wintry South Bend where neither a starting job nor winning season awaited Huarte in the short term.

Prior to his senior season, Huarte had thrown only fifty career passes, completing less than half. He would ironically earn football’s most prestigious honor before winning that first varsity letter.

The perfect storm began to brew before disaster set in.

Following the 1963 campaign, Parseghian was selected to serve as the eighth head coach in team history. Huarte’s dodging feet and quick release ultimately caught the attention of Parseghian who named Huarte the starter at the end of spring drills in 1964.

Misfortune struck, however, when Huarte severely injured his right throwing shoulder near the end of spring practice. Refusing to have the surgery recommended by doctors, Huarte decided to allow the shoulder to heal naturally through rehabilitation in the off-season. His decision would be clairvoyant.

An ally emerged in the form of a fellow southern Californian senior named Snow.

Huarte and classmate Jack Snow, who would finish fifth in Heisman balloting in 1964 and become a consensus All-American and first round pick of the Los Angeles Rams in his own right, played catch throughout the summer on the beach in southern California, perfecting their timing, strengthening Huarte’s injured throwing shoulder, and allowing Snow to drop twenty-five pounds per Parseghian’s mandate.

The script played to perfection.

Parseghian’s mastery and Huarte’s dominance sparked the Irish to a 31-7 rout of Wisconsin in Madison in the season opener. The game vaulted Notre Dame to No. 9 in the AP poll and wins over Purdue (34-15), at Air Force (34-7), at home against UCLA (24-0) and Stanford (28-6), against Navy (40-0 in Philadelphia), and at Pittsburgh (17-15) pushed the Irish to a No. 1 ranking for the first time in a decade. A pair of victories followed over Michigan State (34-17) and Iowa (28-0), before a heartbreaking loss at USC (17-20) prevented the Irish from claiming what would have been their eighth national championship.

“Ara gathered a great management team,” says Huarte, who makes note of the influence of offensive backs coach Tom Pagna and other assistant coaches. “They clearly knew what they wanted to do, analyzed the players they had to work with, developed a plan, and communicated it with great enthusiasm and some humor. We wanted to play well, we were hungry for leadership, and Ara and his assistants provided that crucial leadership.”

The ending was certainly happy.

Huarte finished his 1964 season by becoming the only player in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy as a returning non-letter winner, an accomplishment which has not since been matched.

Huarte set four single game and ten season records in 1964, including the mark for passing yards (2,062), total offensive yards (2,067), completions (114), and touchdown passes (16, tied record set in 1949). His season records for highest passer rating (155.1), yards per completion (18.1), and total yards per play (8.55) still stand today. With his performance as a senior, he also established career records for consecutive games without an interception, lowest percentage of passes intercepted, and yards per play.


In his only season as a starter at Notre Dame, Huarte (seen above passing against Air Force) set four single-game and 10 Notre Dame season passing records on the way to the 1964 Heisman Trophy.



“[Huarte’s play that year] supported our belief that whenever we started with a group of players on the field, everyone gets a fair shot in trying to win a starting position,” says Parseghian. “He reinforced our philosophy on giving every kid a chance and not ignoring someone who may make contributions. You never know what is right around the corner.”

Following his senior year at Notre Dame not even Huarte could have known what would be waiting for him around the corner, or in his predicament, inside of an elevator.

Selected by the New York Jets in the second round of the 1965 AFL Draft, Huarte enjoyed a ten-year career in professional football in which he played for the Jets, Boston Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears, and finally with the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League.

But Huarte would admit that the most rewarding part of his professional football career were the events set in motion which led him to a fateful encounter with his wife, as well as establishing the knowledge and network needed to start a multi-million dollar company from the ground-up.

Huarte met his wife Eileen in a Shea Stadium elevator to begin a fairy tale romance. Nearly forty years of marriage later, their family has grown to five children–Matthew, Mariah, Bridget, Mark, and Monica–and eight grandchildren.

Together they started Arizona Tile in 1977. Twenty-eight years later, Huarte is in charge of more than one thousand 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 company has expanded on an international scale as well into South America, Europe and China.

One last obligation to football, however, will bring Huarte back to South Bend in August of 2006 for enshrinement (following formal induction in December) into the College Football Hall of Fame. In May, Huarte was selected from the national ballot of seventy-five candidates and a pool of hundreds of eligible nominees to the 2005 College Football Hall of Fame Division 1-A Class.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the selection,” says Huarte. “I thought mostly about my grandchildren knowing that their grandpa was pretty good.”

Today the Heisman Trophy sits proudly at Mater Dei High School, per Huarte’s wish, as a useful tool in inspiring young students to set goals for themselves and work towards.

Like the Heisman, Huarte’s story has come full circle.

“Most players don’t get to be stars, many just grind away largely unnoticed with all the drills, scrimmages, and bumps and bruises,” says Huarte. “I believe a person develops a life long habit of just pushing forward when you face problems. You may break a lot of things along the way, but never your spirit.”

From the ghosts of the past to the whispers of the future, the John Huarte story lives on today. And it is Notre Dame.