Home Sports Johnny Lujack, a Star Quarterback at Notre Dame, Dies at 98

Johnny Lujack, a Star Quarterback at Notre Dame, Dies at 98

Johnny Lujack, a Star Quarterback at Notre Dame, Dies at 98

Johnny Lujack, the celebrated Notre Dame quarterback who won the 1947 Heisman Trophy, played on three national championship teams and then starred in the N.F.L. for the Chicago Bears, died on Tuesday in Florida. He was 98.

His death was announced by Notre Dame.

When the 1947 college football season began, Lujack was on the cover of Life magazine, kneeling in his green jersey, gold helmet and pants. He was the most publicized Notre Dame player since the 1920s, when Knute Rockne, the Gipper and the Four Horsemen transformed a small Roman Catholic university in the obscure city of South Bend, Ind., into a trademark of popular culture.

Lujack was an outstanding passer and a fine runner at quarterback, as well as a brilliant defensive halfback, a place-kicker and occasionally a punter. He was a two-time all-American and played in only one losing football game at Notre Dame. He also played baseball and basketball and ran track.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960 and had been the oldest living winner of the Heisman, the prize awarded annually to college football’s leading player.

“He’s probably the greatest all-around athlete I’ve ever seen in college football,” Frank Tripucka, the backup to Lujack at Notre Dame and a longtime pro quarterback, told Steve Delsohn for the oral history “Talking Irish” (1998.) “He was six foot and maybe 180, but he was just a very tough guy from western Pennsylvania.”

Lujack received hundreds of fan letters at Notre Dame. While playing for the Bears, he portrayed himself in the ABC radio serial “The Adventures of Johnny Lujack,” a 1949 summer replacement for the long-running “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.”

Lujack took over as Notre Dame’s quarterback in November 1943 when Angelo Bertelli left for military service. He took the Irish to a 9-1 record and their first No. 1 national ranking.

He left Notre Dame for the Navy during World War II and served aboard a vessel chasing German submarines in the English Channel. He returned in 1946, when the Irish fielded an overpowering team composed largely of war veterans.

When Notre Dame played Army in November 1946 in a matchup of unbeaten teams, Lujack was hobbled by a sprained ankle, but he played nevertheless, on both offense and defense. He threw three interceptions, but in the third quarter, playing at defensive halfback, he saved the day for Notre Dame.

Coming across the field, he pulled down Army fullback Doc Blanchard, the 1945 Heisman winner, on the Irish 36-yard line, making a low tackle as Blanchard raced down the left sideline.

“I was the last guy between him and a touchdown,” Lujack told The New York Times in 1981. “I read afterward where I was the only guy ever to have made a one-on-one tackle on him. If I’d known that during the game, I’d probably have missed the tackle.”

The so-called Game of the Century ended in a 0-0 tie. But Notre Dame (8-0-1) edged out Army for its second national championship, and Lujack was named an all-American.

Lujack took Notre Dame to a 9-0 record and a third national championship in 1947, his Heisman Trophy year, when he passed for nine touchdowns and 777 yards and ran for 139, averaging more than 11 yards per carry. The Associated Press named him America’s male athlete of the year.

In January 1948, the Bears signed Lujack to a four-year contract and a bonus, for a total of about $80,000. (a little more than $1 million in today’s money).

Lujack led the N.F.L. in pass completions (162), yards passing (2,658) and touchdown passes (23) in 1949, when he threw for six touchdowns and passed for a league-record 468 yards in a game against the Chicago Cardinals. He was a two-time Pro Bowl player and was named a first-team all-N.F.L. player in 1950. He retired after four pro seasons to become a backfield coach at Notre Dame.

John Christopher Lujack Jr. was born into a family of Polish descent on Jan. 4, 1925, in the western Pennsylvania town of Connellsville. He was one of six children of John and Alice (Skowronek) Lujack. His father worked as a railroad boilermaker.

Johnny was a star at Connellsville High School in football, basketball and track, and he thrilled at hearing Notre Dame games on the radio. He arrived at Notre Dame in 1942, when Coach Frank Leahy was installing a T-formation to replace the single wing.

When Bertelli joined the Marines, leaving a Notre Dame team that had won its firs six games, Lujack literally stepped into his shoes. “I had a rip in one of my shoes from a cleat in the previous game,” he told The Times in 1981. “When Bertelli left, I asked for a new pair, and they said, ‘Why don’t you try on Bertelli’s?’” They fit nicely, he said, “so I kept wearing them for the rest of the season.”

Lujack led Notre Dame to three more victories, then endured the only loss of his college career when Notre Dame was beaten by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, which fielded outstanding former players who were in military service. Bertelli was named the Irish’s first Heisman winner at season’s end.

When Lujack joined the Bears after his two postwar seasons at Notre Dame, he alternated at quarterback with Sid Luckman and Lujack’s fellow rookie Bobby Layne, both future Pro Football Hall of Famers. He played defense as well, intercepting eight passes.

Lujack eventually became the Bears’ No. 1 quarterback and threw for 41 career touchdowns while rushing for another 21 in four seasons. But he had been hampered in 1950 by injuries to both shoulders; he played on despite the pain, and he was rested in spots late in the 1951 season to preserve his arm strength.

When his four-year contract ended, he wanted to be traded. Apart from the battering he had received, he had long been angry with George Halas, the Bears’ owner and coach. Lujack later recalled that when he examined his contract on joining the Bears, he found that Halas had altered the salary figures agreed upon, reducing the total by $1,500. (Halas, he said, had quickly restored that amount when he pointed out the discrepancy.)

“I don’t mind anybody being a hard negotiator,” Lujack told Jeff Davis for his Halas biography, “Papa Bear” (2005). “I just don’t want to be cheated because of my inexperience.”

When Leahy offered Lujack a job as an assistant coach at Notre Dame for 1952, he took it, ending his pro career. But when Terry Brennan, formerly an outstanding Notre Dame halfback, was named head coach in 1954 upon Leahy’s retirement, Lujack left to run a family auto dealership in Iowa. He was later a network broadcast analyst for college and pro football.

Information about Lujack’s survivors and where in Florida he was when he died was not immediately available.

Through the years, Lujack remained a revered figure at Notre Dame.

When Notre Dame and Army met for first football game at the new Yankee Stadium in 2010, he was on the field for the coin toss with the team captains. In autumn 2012, he was a good-will ambassador for Notre Dame when it played Navy in Dublin.

The memory of his feats endured.

“The two greatest winners of the 1940s were F.D.R. and John Lujack,” Beano Cook, ESPN’s longtime college football analyst, once said. “But even Roosevelt won only two elections in the 1940s, while Lujack won three national titles.”

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