Johnny Lujack, the celebrated Notre Dame quarterback who won the 1947 Heisman Trophy, played on three national championship teams and then starred in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, died 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, helmet, and gold pants. He was the most publicized Notre Dame player since the 1920s, when Knute Rockne, Gipper and the Four Horsemen transformed a small Roman Catholic college in the obscure town of South Bend, Indiana, into a trademark of popular culture.
Lujack was an excellent passer and rusher at quarterback, as well as a brilliant defensive back, placekicker, and occasional punt. He was a two-time All-American and played in only one lost football game at Notre Dame. He also played baseball and basketball and ran track.
He was chosen for the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960 and had been the oldest living winner of the Heisman, the award given annually to the best player in college football.
“He’s probably the most complete athlete I’ve ever seen in college football,” Frank Tripucka, Lujack’s backup at Notre Dame and a longtime professional quarterback, told Steve Delsohn for the oral history “Talking Irish” (1998).
Lujack received hundreds of fan letters at Notre Dame. While playing for the Bears, he played himself in the ABC radio series “The Adventures of Johnny Lujack,” a summer 1949 replacement for the feature film “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.”
Lujack took over as quarterback for Notre Dame in November 1943 when Angelo Bertelli left for military service. He led the Irish to a 9-1 record and their first national No. 1 ranking.
He left Notre Dame for the Navy during World War II and served aboard a ship chasing German submarines in the English Channel. He returned in 1946, when the Irish put together an overwhelming team made up largely of war veterans.
When Notre Dame played the Army in November 1946 in a matchup of undefeated teams, Lujack was hampered by a sprained ankle, but he played nonetheless, both on offense and defense. He threw three interceptions, but in the third quarter, playing defensive back, he saved the day for Notre Dame.
Crossing the field, he brought down Army fullback Doc Blanchard, the 1945 Heisman winner, at the Irish 36-yard line, making a low tackle as Blanchard ran down the left sideline.
“I was the last man standing between him and a touchdown,” Lujack told The New York Times in 1981. “I read later that I was the only man to knock him down one on one. If I had known that during the game, I probably would have missed the tackle.”
The so-called Game of the Century ended tied 0-0. But Notre Dame (8-0-1) edged out Army for its second national championship, and Lujack was named an All-American.
Lujack led 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 rushed 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, totaling about $80,000. (A little over $1 million in today’s money.)
Lujack led the NFL in completions (162), passing yards (2,658), and touchdown passes (23) in 1949, when he threw for six touchdowns and threw for a league-record 468 yards in a game against the Chicago Cardinals. He was a two-time Pro Bowl player and was named an All-NFL First Team player in 1950. He retired after four professional seasons to become a backfield coach at Notre Dame.
John Christopher Lujack Jr. was born into a family of Polish descent on January 4, 1925 in the western Pennsylvania town of Connellsville. He was one of six children born to John and Alice (Skowronek) Lujack. His father worked as a railway boilermaker.
Johnny was a star in football, basketball, and track at Connellsville High School, and he got excited listening to Notre Dame games on the radio. He came to 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 first six games, Lujack literally stepped into his shoes. “I had a tear 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 Bertelli’s on?’” They fit very well, 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 defeated by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, which fielded notable former players who were in the military. Bertelli was named the Irish’s first Heisman winner at the end of the season.
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 also played defense, 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 continued to play through the pain and rested in places at the end of the 1951 season to preserve his arm strength.
When his four-year contract ended, he wanted to be traded. Aside from the beating he’d taken, he had long been angry with George Halas, the owner and coach of the Bears. Lujack later recalled that when he reviewed his contract upon joining the Bears, he discovered that Halas had tampered with the agreed salary figures, reducing the total by $1,500. (Halas, he said, had quickly restored that amount when he pointed out the discrepancy.)
“I don’t care that nobody is a tough bargainer,” Lujack told Jeff Davis for his Halas biography, “Papa Bear” (2005). “I just don’t want to be fooled by my inexperience.”
When Leahy offered Lujack a job as an assistant coach at Notre Dame for 1952, he took it, ending his professional career. But when Terry Brennan, formerly a top running back for Notre Dame, was named head coach in 1954 upon Leahy’s retirement, Lujack left to run a family-owned car dealership in Iowa. He was later a network broadcast analyst for college and professional 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 the first football game at the new Yankee Stadium in 2010, he was on the field for the draft with the team captains. In the fall of 2012, he was a goodwill ambassador for Notre Dame when he played Navy in Dublin.
The memory of his exploits lived on.
“The two biggest winners of the 1940s were FDR and John Lujack,” Beano Cook, an ESPN college football analyst, once said. “But even Roosevelt won only two elections in the 1940s, while Lujack won three national titles.”