Football great Johnny Lujack is still going strong at 90


Lujack. Even the name hints of mythology — a Slavic superlative as percussive as a straight-arm to the face. Lujack. Rhymes with quarterback. Root word for lumberjack.

Add “Johnny” to the front of it and you have one of football’s greatest brands. Johnny Lujack played quarterback for Notre Dame in the era when that was the most aspirational position in America. Also-rans became presidents or won Nobel Prizes. No, if you had your druthers back then, or even now, you’d rather succeed at quarterback than anything else.

Johnny Lujack is still flinging it, right here in Southern California, out and about in the sandy playground of Indian Wells, where he lives happily and heartily, as he always has, with his wife of 68 years, the lovely Pat. He is nearly 91 and his best years might still be in front of him.


He is the nation’s oldest living Heisman Trophy winner, and full of sass, humor and Pennsylvania blarney. Loves to tell a story, or pal around with friends. Can’t pick up a club anymore, for fear of twisting his swizzle-stick spine into places it doesn’t belong. But, despite all the mileage, golf might be the only thing that eludes him.

“I gotta watch what I do,” he says of his health. “I sure don’t want to step in any holes.”

But seven decades ago, he danced where he pleased, around and through the likes of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis and into the books as one of the great college players of all time.

“He was a deceiving guy,” said former teammate Terry Brennan, 87, who played left halfback with Lujack on the undefeated Fighting Irish teams of 1946-47. “He was 190 pounds or more and strong as an ox. He could run with the halfbacks. He could’ve played fullback, halfback or receiver.”

Lujack also played defense, back when nine of the 11 Irish starters played offense and defense.

“I loved it when you played both ways,” Lujack said. “If you made a mistake, you didn’t have to go to the sideline to face the coach.”


Not just any coach either, but the unrelenting Frank Leahy. Leahy wasn’t just old school, he was no-school, treating players firmly, often harshly.

Leahy wouldn’t even give Lujack, a four-sport star and class valedictorian in western Pennsylvania, a scholarship until a scout managed to set up a tryout.

From there, it was off to the races. In 1943, Lujack replaced Heisman winner Angelo Bertelli, whose teams were averaging 43 points per game, when Bertelli left for the Marines. In stepped the sophomore with the movie star looks to lead the Irish to a national title.

Then he too was off to war, aboard a 110-foot boat that prowled the English Channel for Nazis.

“I was a sub chaser,” Lujack said of his Navy career. “We dropped a few depth charges. I don’t think we got anything. I enjoyed it.”

After two years, Lujack returned to Notre Dame to toss more bombs and lead the Irish to two more national titles, including a touchdown-saving tackle to preserve a tie against top-ranked Army in 1946.


At Notre Dame, he was a two-time All-American and was a letterman in four sports (only the third Irish player to do that). In 1947, he took home the Heisman and was selected athlete of the year by the Associated Press.

After four years with the Chicago Bears, including two Pro Bowls, Lujack returned to Notre Dame to work as an assistant. For a time, he was thought to be a replacement for Leahy; Lujack’s old teammate Brennan would eventually take the job.

“I wasn’t terribly interested in coaching,” Lujack said.

After a stint as a TV commentator, Lujack wound up in the car business with his father-in-law in Davenport, Iowa, slinging Chevys in the 1950s, then expanding into a mega-dealership selling Honda, Audi and Porsche.

After retiring in 1986, he still spends half the year in California, keeping his fond memories warm in the desert sun.

“He is still so sharp,” said his daughter Mary. “He loved Notre Dame and credits Notre Dame with everything good that’s happened to him.”

“I’ve got two knees that I had replaced 30 years ago, and they’re starting to act up,” Lujack said.


More frightening: a bout with spinal stenosis last year that nearly paralyzed him.

“Couldn’t walk or feed himself,” his daughter said.

At the Mayo Clinic, he underwent a five-hour surgery performed by a doctor who had done similar work on former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.

Coming out of surgery, the living legend’s competitive fires still burned. Lujack’s first words to his surgeon:

“Did I do better than Lou?”

Sure, kid.