Lujack, John Christopher, Jr. ("Johnny")
LUJACK, John Christopher, Jr. ("Johnny")
(b. 4 January 1925 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania), Heisman Trophy winner and National Football League All-Pro on offense and defense who never lost to a college foe while quarterbacking the University of Notre Dame to national championships in 1943, 1946, and 1947.
Lujack was the fourth of six children born to John Lujack, a hardworking Polish boilermaker on the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, and his wife, Alice. The youngest of four boys, Lujack was exposed early in life to baseball, football, basketball, and track and field through his highly competitive and skilled brothers—Val, Allie, and Stan. As a ten year old, Lujack hid in the trunk of the family car when his brothers drove off to play semiprofessional football games on Sunday afternoons in small towns across western Pennsylvania. His mother "didn't want them taking me so far from home," but his brothers, particularly Allie, who later played end at Georgetown University, made sure Lujack played and "knew what I was doing out there."
At age thirteen Lujack weighed only 120 pounds, but he showed a strong and surprisingly accurate arm as a quarterback for Cameron Junior High. On defense, he was even more impressive, assaulting the opposition with an aggression learned in the Lujack backyard. He became an outstanding two-way player on Connellsville High's varsity team beginning as a sophomore in 1939. He lettered in basketball and track and so impressed Pittsburgh Pirates scouts with his play at shortstop in a local amateur league that he was offered a contract, which he decided to turn down.
Lujack had listened to Notre Dame games on the radio and longed to play for the Fighting Irish, whose fame had been cemented by former coach Knute Rockne. Lujack's reputation as one of the outstanding high school players in the country grew when he intercepted two passes against Mount Pleasant High and returned each seventy yards for touchdowns. Thirty-five colleges were interested, and many offered scholarships. At the Connellsville graduation in 1942, Congressman J. Buell Snyder told class president Lujack that he was the first Connellsville boy ever appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lujack turned down the appointment and went to Notre Dame instead.
Lujack's ambition as a 165-pound freshman had been "to make Notre Dame's traveling squad my junior or senior year." On the first day of fall practice, however, his tenacity as a hard-hitting safety caught the attention of Coach Frank Leahy in a freshman scrimmage against the varsity. He joined the varsity a year later, becoming the starting half-back behind All-America quarterback Angelo Bertelli. Six games into the 1943 schedule, Notre Dame was battling for a national championship when Bertelli was called into the U.S. Marines. Five days later, 78,000 fans in Yankee Stadium saw Lujack throw for 237 yards and two touchdowns and run for another, leading the Irish to a 26–0 upset over Army. On defense he three times tackled Army backs to keep them out of the end zone. With Lujack calling the plays, Notre Dame went on to win the national championship. Lujack lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and track, becoming Notre Dame's first four-letter winner in thirty-one years.
When Lujack completed Midshipmen's School in December 1944, he received his commission as navy ensign. For eleven months he served as executive officer on a submarine chaser, which patrolled the English Channel for four months. He returned to Notre Dame in 1946, when he quarterbacked Notre Dame to an undefeated national championship, was a unanimous All American, and finished third in the Heisman voting. At six feet, 180 pounds, Lujack played a sixty-minute game, dominating Illinois speedster Claude "Buddy" Young in the season opener and later in the year stopping Army's Doc Blanchard in the open field to preserve a scoreless tie. Red Smith of the New York Herald-Tribune reported that Lujack "ran the ball with speed and malevolence, and tackled with hideous violence."
Notre Dame's 27–7 thumping of Army highlighted their 1947 national championship season. Again, the team was undefeated with Lujack at quarterback. The "perfect" T-formation quarterback threw for 791 yards and nine touchdowns, becoming Leahy's "coach on the field" while winning the Heisman Trophy. Leahy predicted, "He can make a million dollars if he wants to. He has everything it takes for success—brains, character, and personality." The easygoing, pleasant-sounding star appeared in The Adventures of Johnny Lujack, a 1948 summer replacement show on the Jack Armstrong radio network. That same year, on 26 June, Lujack married his college sweetheart, Patricia Ann Schierbrock; they had three children. Lujack was a first-round draft choice of the National Football League's (NFL) Chicago Bears, and he signed a lucrative $18,000 contract to play for the usually tightfisted George Halas.
Lujack backed up All-Pro Sid Luckman at quarterback his rookie season, throwing six touchdowns to earn a quarterback rating of 97.5. He ran for over seven yards a carry, kicked extra points, and starred on defense, intercepting three Green Bay passes in the first half of his first start on 26 September 1948 and finishing the season with eight interceptions. He was named defensive All-Pro. When Luckman was sidelined with a thyroid condition in 1949, Lujack took over as starting quarterback. He led the Bears on a six-game winning streak that included a record-setting season finale against their crosstown rival the Chicago Cardinals, in which Lujack threw for 458 yards and six touchdowns. His season totals of 162 completions, 2,658 yards passing, and 23 touchdowns led the NFL.
Lujack was an All-Pro on offense in 1950, passing for 1,731 yards and running for 397 more, but his years as a two-way star were taking their toll. A torn back muscle in his rookie season was followed by cartilage damage in one knee and a chipped anklebone in the other leg the next. Two shoulder separations had taken the zip out of his passing. Luckman retired and Halas had sold backup Bobby Layne, leaving Lujack to gut out 1951 by relying on a short passing game and seven rushing touchdowns. At this point Lujack's four-year contract was up, his throwing shoulder was ruined, and he was forced to retire.
Lujack was Notre Dame's backfield coach for two years before becoming a radio and television sports broadcaster with the New York Giants. In 1956 he became the first former professional football player to do color commentary on nationwide football broadcasts for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Lujack and his wife moved to Davenport, Iowa, her home, in 1954, and Lujack opened a successful car dealership. Lujack eventually retired from broadcasting to devote more time to his golf game. He served as toastmaster of the Heisman Trophy award dinners, and most Saturdays he made the eight-hour drive to South Bend to see his Fighting Irish play. When arthritis made travel difficult, he listened to the games on the radio, much as he had sixty years before, when as a boy he dreamed of one day "playing with pride" at a school that would forever "have a hold of my imagination."
Lujack's own view of the college and professional games appears in "Pro Football Is Better to Watch," an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine (2 Dec. 1956). He was on the cover of Life magazine in 1947 (29 Sept.) and was the subject of an article in Current Biography 1947 (1948). Lujack wrote the introduction to The Glory of Notre Dame (1971) and is the subject of a biographical chapter in that volume, "Glamour? Spell It L-UJ-A-C-K," written by Ed Fitzgerald. Lujack's career at Notre Dame is also chronicled in John T. Brady, The Heisman: A Symbol of Excellence (1984). Bernie McCarty's biographical article on Lujack appears in David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports (1987).
Bruce J. Evensen