Lujack’s faded Notre Dame legacy deserves another look

In the pantheon of Notre Dame legends, Knute Rockne, the Gipper, the Four Horseman and Johnny Lujack head the list.

Of the four, Lujack, who recently died at age 98, has faded more into obscurity than the first three, but he should not be forgotten.

The late Beano Cook once said, “The two greatest winners of the 1940s were FDR and Johnny Lujack. But even Roosevelt won only two elections in the 1940s, while Lujack won three national titles.”

Cook also claimed that Notre Dame’s legendary PR man Charley Callahan once told his wife he always loved her and she replied, but not as much as Lujack.

He won the Heisman Trophy in 1947 and was voted the male athlete of the year by the AP and made the cover of Life Magazine.

He was an 18-year old sophomore on the 1943 team that was 6-0 when Angelo Bertelli was called up to the Marines. Lujack quarterbacked the team to victory in the last three games to complete a 9-0 season. The Irish lost to Great Lakes Naval Training Center in the finale but were voted the national champions after beating five of the eight top teams that year.

Lujack and several teammates then spent the 1944-45 seasons in the military during WWII . While they were gone, Army went undefeated in 1944-45 with Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis and routed Notre Dame both years.

Lujack and several other players returned in 1946 to set the stage for maybe the most hyped college game ever. It was played at Yankee Stadium.

The rivalry was so intense that it even surpassed the Catholics vs. Convicts rivalry the Irish had with Miami after the Hurricanes routed the Irish in Gerry Faust’s last game. Although there were no T-shirts for the Army game, Notre Dame fans resented the fact Army had all of its players in 1944-45. The Irish had to deal with the anti-Catholicism of the day. It is interesting the Irish stopped playing both Army and Miami for a time because the schools felt the rivalries were getting out of hand.

Both Lujack and Blanchard played injured and the game ended in a 0-0 tie. “It was like two Joe Louises standing face to face for sixty minutes,” wrote legendary Red Smith.

According to the Washington Post, Smith also wrote, “Lujack threw every Notre Dame pass, kicked every Notre Dame punt, ran the ball with speed and malevolence and tackled with hideous violence.”

A defensive back on defense, he also made a tie saving tackle when Blanchard broke loose and it was often referred to as the only time he was taken down with a one on one tackle.

Notre Dame went unbeaten in both 1946 and 1947 and won the national titles both years. Lujack finished with a 21-1-1 record as a starter. After he left, Notre Dame tied USC in 1948 and then won the national title again in 1949, going 36-0-2 in the four years after WWII.

Lujack then spent four years with the Bears, replacing Luckman in 1949 and made the Pro Bowl in each of the next two seasons. He then retired after suffering several injuries and had contract issues with George Halas and became an assistant coach to Frank Leahy for two years before going into business with his father-n-law in Iowa.

He left a legacy behind that will always be a part of college football. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960.

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