John Lujack was born and raised in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh. Lujack was a four sport athlete at Connellsville, and was an RKG, graduating as both the Valedictorian and Senior Class President of Connellsville ’42.
He was a “phenom” on and off the field, and the local gentry, a few months after Pearl Harbor, encouraged him to attend West Point. But young Johnny had spend Saturday Autumn afternoons glued to his radio listening to the exploits of a civilian team, the University of Notre Dame.
When Lujack arrived, he was soon the backup to Angelo Bertelli, and in the kind of thing that only happens in South Bend, under the Golden Dome, Lujack took over when Bertelli departed, mid-Heisman trophy season in 1943, to join the Marines. Lujack, never lacking in confidence, helped the irish finish out a national championship season in 1943. Lujack also found time to play basketball for Coach George Keoghan and the Irish hoopers.
Lujack, like Bertelli, his coach Leahy and many other Irish of the era, did not shrink from duty’s call, and spent the ’44 and ’45 seasons not on Cartier, but in the Navy. He had no “show” tour and performed as an ensign hunting Nazi submarines in the English Channel.
Then he returned to south Bend in 1946 with the greatest recruiting class in the grand and glorious history of college football. Players like Lujack who interrupted their Notre Dame career for service to country, augmented by other vets that Leahy was actively recruiting all joined a stellar group of freshman who had just finished high school, eager to labor for the returning Leahy.
At Notre Dame, comparisons are invidious. And the decades are filled with great leaders of Notre Dame teams. But it is arguable that Lujack, a natural leader whose skills and confidence only increased during his service, may have been the greatest on field leader ever for a Notre Dame team. “Field General.” That he was. And he was ready to lead the juggernaut 1946 Notre Dame team.
A post-war America could relax and focus on sports, and as soon as the 1946 season opened, two teams rose above the rest: Army and Notre Dame.
But before we get there let’s review one off field anecdote about Leahy and Lujack in 1946. Leahy, never one to let a crisis go unexploited, was fearful about his team’s focus as they headed to Iowa City for the season’s fourth game. At that point the Irish had outscored foes Illinois, Pitt and Purdue by a combined 108-12. Leahy took the entire team to the cemetery to pray to Rockne (the theological legitimacy of this is beyond the scope of this post!) for help on the way out to Iowa City. This was a quintessential Leahy moment filled with loyalty, pathos, drama, nostalgia and a whiff of spirituality.
Entombed in the same cemetery was George Keoghan, the former Notre Dame basketball coach who died in 1943. Lujack, the multi-sport star, had played basketball under Keoghan. As Lujack drifted over to say a few prayers at Keoghan’s gravestone, Leahy became incensed.
“John Lujack, what are you doing over at George Keoghan’s grave rather than being here with your team at Rock’s gravesite.” “Just saying a few prayers, Coach,” Lujack said. “PRAY TO KEOGHAN DURING BASKETBALL SEASON!!” Ah, Leahy, he never lost focus!!
By the way, the Irish hammered the Hawkeyes in Kinnick Stadium 41-6.
Again, in a tradition initiated by Knute Rockne, the Irish would travel to the Bronx to play the Cadets in Yankee Stadium on November 9, 1946. It was, to that point, the most anticipated college football game of all time, later rivaled by the two month long buildup for the Michigan State-Notre Dame game of 1966.
The New York Sporting press only added gasoline to the pre-game fire. Theyy had plenty of material to work with. Red Blaik and Frank Leahy. War heroes and Football heroes. Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside. All in New Yawk!
As the teams warmed up, four (eventual) Heisman trophy winners were on the field. 1945 winner Doc Blanchard, Blaik’s “Mr Inside,” 1946 winner Glenn Davis, Blaik’s “Mr. Outside,” 1947 winner Johnny Lujack and 1949 winner Leon Hart.
Football was different then, purer, more innocent. Players played both ways for the most part. So while Lujack was the quarterback he also played safety.
John Lujack’s Heisman Moment
In what would be a scoreless tie, the biggest play of the game was a defensive one. “Great players make big plays in big games.” So sayeth the conventional wisdom.
In the third quarter, on a day when the stout Irish defenders would hold the Heisman twins, Blanchard and Davis,
to 79 total yards, Army was marching from its own 44. The long gray line sprung Blanchard free and the tense crowd of 74,000 rose as one. Army fans cheered lustily to urge Blanchard into the end zone; Irish subway loyalists gasped and prayed for a heroic defensive play. Time, and college football, seemed to stop.
But Lujack who had tracked down Nazi subs, honed in on Blanchard and tackled him in the open field after a 20 yard gain, saving the touchdown and the tie. Reasonable minds may differ, but Lujack’s defensive play may have been, to that point in the 78 years of colege football, the greatest and most important play in the game’s history. And it punctuated Lujack’s versatility and excellence.
The Irish finished the season unbeaten and were voted the national champions.
Glenn Davis, Army’s “Mr. Outside” won the Heisman Trophy by a wide margin over Georgia’s Charley Trippi. John Lujack finished a strong third, positioning himself for the 1947 Heisman race.
The 1947 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
There are many students of Notre Dame football who believe that the 1947 Irish National Champions were the greatest Notre Dame team ever. And in their mind that makes the 1947 Notre Dame team the greatest college football team ever.
Lujack was one of six College Football Hall of Famers on the ’47 team, joined by Leon Hart, Bill Fischer, George Connor, Emil Sitko and the irrepressible Ziggy Czarobski. Only Northwestern came within seven points of the Irish.
Lujack was the team leader, field general of the offense and last line of defense. His leadership, achievements and results were spectacular, his statistics less so. Lujack would later set the NFL passing yards record as a Bear with 468 passing yards against the South Side’s Chicago Cardinals. But Lujack was surrounded by a great roster at Notre Dame, and was a modest, controlled 61 of 109 for 777 yards and nine touchdowns in 1947.
Leahy deferred most of the running to Emil “Six Yard” Sitko, Terry Brennan and Bob Livingstone. Lujack ran tactically for 139 yards in a 12 carries, a tidy 11 yards per carry.
Bob Chappuis had a great year at Michigan and finished as runner up to Lujack in the Heisman Race. For good measure, Lujack, the best player on the best team, was also named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year for 1947.
Notre Dame had its second Heisman Trophy Winner, and the collection was just beginning.