In any biographical sketch of 1947 Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner John Lujack, he is listed as a “quarterback.”
John Lujack's tackle near the sideline of Doc Blanchard (No. 35, lower right) is the most famous stop in Notre Dame history.
When Sports Illustrated assembled its College Football All-Century team in 1999, Lujack was one of only five quarterbacks named, joining TCU’s Sammy Baugh, Navy’s Roger Staubach, Boston College’s Doug Flutie and Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier.
Yet Lujack may be the only quarterback in history whose most famous play was a tackle.
A four-sport athlete who also won monograms in basketball, baseball and track at Notre Dame, Lujack was the embodiment of a complete football player, even though the Connellsville, Pa., native wasn’t what would be classified as a “blue-chip” recruit in today’s football lexicon.
“In my senior year of high school (1941), they named four teams all-state in Pennsylvania — and I didn’t make any of the four teams,” Lujack recalled.
‘Tackling’ The Job
On Lujack’s first day of practice at Notre Dame in 1942, second-year head coach Frank Leahy asked for a freshmen defensive team to scrimmage against the vaunted varsity.
Notre Dame was coming off an 8-0-1 season, but Leahy was installing a new offense, the T-formation, to better utilize the passing skills of junior quarterback Angelo Bertelli, the Heisman Trophy runner-up as a sophomore in 1941. The unit needed all the scrimmage work it could get, even if it meant using the freshmen as the cannon fodder on defense.
Lujack just happened to be in the front row of freshman backs when an assistant coach randomly pointed to him and a few others up front and referred to them as “you, you, you and you” to scrimmage against the varsity. At 165 pounds, Lujack braced himself for the worst. He was lined up at safety and told himself the only way he would survive was to “move forward” and hit with a passion.
“The quick openers with the left halfback and right halfback were coming right at me on just about every play,” Lujack said. “I started making tackles, and Leahy stopped practice three different times to ask who made that tackle. The first time they had to ask my name.
“The next day when we were asked for a defensive team again, they said ‘Lujack, where are you?’ I raised my hand, and then they said, ‘You, you and you, go down there on defense with Lujack!’ That’s kind of how it all got started.”
Lujack made his initial mark on defense, and it would serve him well even in the NFL, where in 1948 with the Chicago Bears he set a league rookie record with eight interceptions. It didn’t take long to recognize Lujack’s skills on offense as well, and Leahy used the 17-year-old freshman in different capacities to prepare the Irish defense.
Eligible for varsity action as a sophomore in 1943, Lujack made headlines when he stepped in for that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Bertelli, who began basic training with the Marines on Nov. 1 in Parris Island, S.C., while the United States was involved in World War II.
Lujack directed victories against No. 3 Army, No. 8 Northwestern and No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight (a semi-pro World War II team) and also starred on defense in an era where starters had to play both ways.
After the 1943 season, Lujack joined thousands of other college players in World War II duty overseas before returning in 1946 and becoming the first — and still lone — quarterback to direct three major consensus national titles (1943, 1946 and 1947).
Still, Lujack’s signature play came on Nov. 9, 1946 in a showdown between No. 1 and two-time defending national champ Army and No. 2 Notre Dame.
The 1946 Army game actually was one of Lujack’s worst. He was slowed by an injury and threw three interceptions — all to Arnold Tucker, Army’s quarterback who also excelled on defense.
“How did you happen to throw so many passes to Tucker?” an irritated Notre Dame head coach Frank Leahy asked Lujack later.
“He was the only one I could find open,” quipped Lujack, who incurred an inadvertent kick in the head during the slugfest.
Tucker also made what has become an overshadowed tackle in the second quarter when Notre Dame running back Gerry Cowhig swept from the Army 32 to the 12 before Tucker made the stop from behind just as Cowhig made a final cut toward the goal line.
Notre Dame advanced to the four-yard line on the drive but eschewed the field-goal attempt on fourth down because Leahy deemed it an admission of defeat to not score a touchdown in such a situation. Halfback Bill Gompers was stopped well short of the goal line and first down on a toss sweep, preventing their best scoring chance of the game.
Although it was publicized as “The Game of The Century” between the nation’s top two programs, the 0-0 result led to a letdown, or as one New York writer put it, “much ado about nothing to nothing.”
All the more reason why Lujack’s third quarter, game-saving tackle against 1945 Heisman Trophy winner Felix “Doc” Blanchard stood out as an epic moment.
With the ball at the Army 44, Blanchard broke through a gap and had clear sailing down the left sideline — until Lujack came across the field and, as the final line of defense, made a diving, shoestring tackle of Blanchard at the Irish 36. The drive ended with Terry Brennan, Notre Dame’s head coach from 1954-58, intercepting a Cadet pass inside the 10-yard line.
The 86-year-old Lujack — the oldest living Heisman recipient — has maintained that there was nothing special about the tackle other than taking the correct angle of pursuit.
“I really can’t understand all the fuss,” Lujack said after the game. “I simply pinned him against the sideline and dropped him with a routine tackle.”
With the passage of time, it actually has become the most famous tackle in Irish annals because of its national title implications. Overshadowed were two other “Johnny On The Spot” plays made by Lujack in that game:
• In the second quarter, Gompers fumbled a punt at his 14 — but before Army could pounce on it, Lujack scooped it up and ran it to his own 36.
• Early in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame’s Emil Sitko intercepted a long Tucker pass at the 11, but then fumbled it while getting tackled. In the ensuing scramble, Lujack recovered the ball at his five-yard line.
Lujack said he never met Blanchard (who died in 2009) personally, but often played golf with Blanchard’s teammate Glenn Davis, the 1946 Heisman recipient of Army’s legendary “Mr. Inside” (Blanchard) and “Mr. Outside” backfield duo.
Because Notre Dame trounced Navy 28-0 earlier in the year and Army barely survived a 21-18 verdict against the 1-8 Midshipmen in the season finale — time ran out on Navy when it had the ball on the Army four — voters in the AP poll gave the 1946 national title nod to the Irish over two-time defending champ Army.
College football historians will tell you an injustice was done to the Cadets when they weren’t awarded their third consecutive consensus national title in 1946. The reasoning was that a boxing champion cannot lose his title if one of his fights ends in a draw. Likewise, two-time defending national champ Army should not have been moved down the ranks — and it had still remained No. 1 after the scoreless deadlock with the Irish.
Even statistically, the game was virtually a tie: Notre Dame had 10 first downs to Army’s nine. The Black Knights amassed 224 total yards while the Irish produced 219.
Back then, there might have been a desire to see a new champion, so the bias appeared to slant Notre Dame’s way. Decades later, the worm turned. In 1993, Florida State was awarded the national title over 11-1 Notre Dame even though the Irish had defeated the Seminoles head-to-head on Nov. 13.
Popular opinion held that FSU was given the nod primarily because, 1) there was an overwhelming desire to award well-liked head coach Bobby Bowden his first national title and 2) Notre Dame’s exclusive NBC contract to telecast Irish home games starting in 1991 drew the ire of the college football world.
At the end of 1946, Notre Dame was named national champion in five polls with Army claiming top honors in two others. The teams were listed as co-champions in three additional rankings. Ultimately, Notre Dame received the “consensus national champion” honor.
It was a changing of the guard and the beginning of a four-year unbeaten streak that couldn’t have occurred without Lujack’s famous tackle.