By Bill Stewart
If you listened to pro football in the 40s and early 50s, you know of Johnny Lujack. He only played four years for the Chicago Bears, but was an all-star during his playing days. He was one of the few who played both ways: quarterback, defensive back and kicker.
Lujack was born January 4, 1925, in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, the youngest of four sons and the fifth of six children in a Polish-American family. He had a brother, Aloysius, who became a professional basketball player. His father, John Luczak, was a boilermaker for the Pennsylvania and Lake Erie Railroad for 30 years.
He was a graduate of Connellsville High School and lettered in four sports: football, baseball, basketball, and track. In his senior year, he was elected class president and also class valedictorian. CHS was known as the Cokers – the area was in the coal mine industry. He competed as a senior with eight wins and a tie and lost the league championship via the tie.
As a youngster, he was a fan of Notre Dame, and was given a scholarship from Frank Leahy and played there in 1942 and 1943, then to the Navy during World War II, and back to Notre Dame for the years of 1946 and 1947. He became an officer for the U.S. Navy in 1944 and 1945 and served – hunting for German submarines in the English Channel – as an ensign.
He was the quarterback for the 1947 season, when the Fighting Irish had an undefeated season with nine wins. He tossed 109 passes, completing 61 and gaining 777 yards, and he ran for another 139 yards on 12 carries. In addition to his football play, he mimicked his high school time, representing the Fighting Irish in baseball, basketball and track. He was a unanimous All-American in 1946 and 1947, and during his career Notre Dame won three national championships. In 1947 he won the Heisman Trophy as the best footballer that year and was named by the Associated Press as their Athlete of the Year.
He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1946 as the fourth pick. Back from the Navy, he was paid $17,000 for his rookie year and was raised to $20,000 in his final fourth year. As a rookie he also played defensive back, where he had eight interceptions for 131 yards, and he kicked 44 of 46 points after. In his 1949 season, in the final game, the Bears beat the crosstown rivals, Chicago Cardinals, 52-21, winning nine games and losing three for the season. Lujack set a league record with six TD passes for 468 yards against the Cards. The record was later beaten by Norm Van Brocklin. Sid Luckman and George Blanda were backups at quarterback for 1949 and 1950.
As a collegian, he was on the Notre Dame squad that won three national championships, 1943, 1946 and 1947, and twice All-American in 1946 and 1947. He was inducted into the College Hall of Fame. Among his professional achievements, he was First Team All-Pro (1950), twice made the Pro Bowl (in 1950 and 1951), was NFL passing touchdown leader in 1949, NFL passing yards leader in 1949, NFL rushing touchdown leader in 1950 and listed as one of greatest Bears of all time. His career stats for the Bears were 45 games played, 28 wins, 10 losses, 808 passing attempts, 404 completions, 8,295 yards and 41 touchdowns.
In the summer of 1946, Lujack starred on the radio program, “The Adventures of Johnny Lujack.” It was a 30-minute program broadcast on Monday, Wednesday and Friday on WGN in Chicago and had a run of 13 weeks.
After his professional career, Lujack became a football assistant coach for the Fighting Irish for two years to repay coach Leahy for grooming him. He went into an auto dealership with his father-in-law in Davenport, Iowa, and purchased the company in 1988, and he held ownership until 2006. He went into TV as a color commentator for several years with Chris Schenkel calling the New York Giants games.
Johnny Lujack was inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame on June 8, 1978. He donated $50,000 to Connellsville High School for a new field house for the football stadium, which was later named Johnny Lujack Field House. The Johnny Lujack Training Facility was formally dedicated in 2009, and he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Fayette County Sports Hall of Fame.
His wife was the former Patricia Ann Schierbrock; the couple were married in Davenport, Iowa, at the Sacred Heart Cathedral on June 26, 1948, and the couple had three children: Mary, Jeff and Carol. Lujack died at a hospice in Naples, Florida, on July 25, 2023, at 98 years old.
(Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people)