Notre Dame has had an elite class of defensive ends throughout its history. From the New York Giants stud, Justin Tuck, to our currently dominant sophomore Stephon Tuitt, there have been many menacing giants rushing opposing quarterbacks.
No defensive end has been more dominant in an Irish uniform than Leon Hart. Hart, the winner of the 1949 Heisman Trophy, is one of only two defensive ends to ever win the award. Hart is also one of only two players to win the Heisman, a national championship, and become the first overall pick in the NFL Draft in the same year. The other was former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in 2011. Hart played on both sides of the ball as a fullback, tight end, and defensive end. Although sack totals were not recorded during the 1940’s, Hart was considered one of the best pass rushers of his era.
Standing at 6’4” and weighing in at 260 pounds, Hart was an ideal recruit for coach Frank Leahy’s premier football squad. Hart grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh and attended Turtle Creek High School. Hart signed with Notre Dame and majored in Mechanical Engineering while at the university. He played almost every down for the undefeated Irish during his four years in South Bend, overseeing a 36-0-2 record throughout his years as a player and earning three national championships.
”Jim Martin and I were co-captains in ’49, and we just stayed on the field until the score allowed us to leave. I remembered Leahy saying, ‘Leon, don’t get hurt because you gotta play anyhow,’” Hart said in an interview with the LA Times in 1987. Hart was able to record solid receiving numbers as an ideal target over the middle of the field. He only caught five passes as a freshman and recorded one touchdown in 1946, but each year after that he improved on his receiving totals.
As a sophomore, Hart caught passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback during Hart’s first two years at Notre Dame was 1947 Heisman winner Johnny Lujack. Then, in 1948 and 1949, Hart had breakout seasons earning 231 and 257 receiving yards, respectively. During those two years, he also had nine combined touchdowns receiving.
”Eight Southern California lads had their arms around Leon at various times after he caught that short pass from Frank Tripucka, but Leon just ran over them and left them for dead,” Leahy said in 1949 regarding an impressive play by Hart during a tight game against USC. Hart was a menacing blocker at the fullback position. He would confuse defenses by lining up in the backfield and punish defenders, creating lanes for runs of large gains by the Irish. Hart was most known for his play on defense in base downs and pass rushing situations, but his flexibility in the system is one of the defining characteristics that made him a special player.
Hart’s accolades and awards are extremely impressive. He was an All-American player three of his four years on campus, and won the Athlete of the Year award in 1949 over baseball superstar Jackie Robinson. Hart also won the Maxwell Award in addition to the Heisman as the nation’s top player in 1949. He won the Heisman in a landslide with 995 votes over Charlie Justice of North Carolina and Doak Walker of SMU.
Upon graduation, Hart was drafted first overall by the Detroit Lions. Hart won the World Championship with the Lions three times in 1951, 1953, and 1957 over the Cleveland Browns each time, playing defensive end and some offense as well. Hart amassed 2,500 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns catching the ball. He also ran for 612 yards and five touchdowns as a fullback with the Lions over the course of his career. The Irish great resided in Michigan after his retirement and owned a tire manufacturing company. Hart’s son and grandson played for the Irish as well. The Heisman winner was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973 and died in 2002 at the age of 73. He will be remembered as one of college football’s most successful defenders, and a key part of Notre Dame’s long gold line of football greatness.
Rich Hidy is a First Year of Studies student who plans to study Business. He is no rookie when it comes to writing sports articles. Contact him at email@example.com.