what would happen if Shannon Sharpe and Bruce Smith were magically
transported back in time to the 1940s, combined into the same
body, and then unleashed on the college players of that era.
Those who saw Leon Hart play for Notre Dame
in the postwar years can tell you—it simply wasn’t
fair. He towered over his opponents and outweighed many by
40 or 50 pounds. Often playing 60 minutes a game, Leon was
a savage run-blocker on offense and a shut-down dominator
on the defensive line. And, oh yes, he also had a pass-catcher’s
hands, a keen football mind, and a lightning-quick first step.
In Leon’s four seasons at South Bend, the Irish won
four national championships and did not lose a single game.
arrived in the NFL, he was the last two-way player to be named
All-Pro on offense and defense. Very possibly, he was also
the first tight end in league history.
Leon Joseph Hart was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on November
2, 1928. (Click
here for today's sports birthdays.)
He grew up in Turtle Creek, a suburb of the Steel City. From
an early age, Leon had been mechanically inclined. This talent
appeared to be his ticket to a productive adult life, especially
during the Depression, when you fixed something until it broke
in Turtle Creek High School at the age of 13. Though young
for his class, he was already big for his age. He opted for
vocational training, but the Turtle Creek coaches took one
look at him and rerouted him into college prep classes. They
suspected his future lay on the gridiron. Leon quickly became
the best player on the school’s basketball and football
teams. The football squad, in fact, did not lose a single
game in his four varsity seasons.
football at Turtle Creek high was matched only by discovering
Lois Newyahr. Leon's high-school sweetheart, she would later
become his wife.
an intense, hard-hitting player who dug down and gave something
extra on every play. He was a menace to anyone who came near
him, including his own teammates. When he blocked an opponent,
they stayed blocked. And, occasionally, they didn’t
get up. By his senior year, Leon's Turtle Creek coaches were
concerned that he might kill someone by mistake. There was
no way to rein Leon in, however. Not only did he tip the scales
at 220 pounds, but at 6-4, he ran like someone a foot shorter.
quality appealed to a number of major college football and
basketball programs. (Leon was also a star center for four
seasons at Turtle Creek High.) Moose Krause, the line coach
at Notre Dame and the head coach of the school's basketball
team, saw Leon as a carbon copy of himself when he was a two-sport
star for the Irish—only better. It was Krause who drove
through a violent storm to the train station at South Bend
to pick up Leon after an alum had stranded him there early
in 1946. Head Coach Frank Leahy and his staff had assumed
Leon was headed elsewhere, but their interest was rekindled
after Leon’s uncle said the boy was still very intrigued
by the Fighting Irish. A recruiting visit was hastily arranged.
knew his prize recruit had already visited Penn, Columbia,
Tennessee, Pitt, and VMI. He was terrified that Leon would
slip away. Krause arrived in pajamas and an overcoat after
getting a call from Leon at the station, and later set him
up in a cot in the training room. As the teenager finally
dozed off, he was shaken awake by intimidating Bull Budnykiewicz,
who told him to sleep somewhere else. Despite the shoddy treatment,
Leon decided nonetheless that he liked Notre Dame. By the
time he reported for his first practice, he stood 6-5 and
weighed 245 pounds.
a team that starred Johnny Lujack, George Connor, Emil Sitko,
George Strohmeyer and Johnny Mastrangelo. The freshman began
his first season as a 17-year-old third-string lineman. He
watched from the bench as the Irish raced to a three-touchdown
lead in its opener, and was shocked to hear Leahy call his
name. On his way to the get the play from the coach, he dropped
his helmet, kicked it, and then finally managed to pull it
over his ears. After Leahy gave him the signal, Leon whirled
and sprinted toward the huddle—only to slam into Bob
Livingstone, knocking him out cold. When Livingstone came
to, he observed that Hart was going to be one heck of a player
once he learned how to aim his massive frame at enemy players.
halfback wasn’t seeing stars. Leon played regularly
and lettered as a freshman—although he didn’t
start—and soon became the team’s most indispensable
player. By graduation, he had packed on another 20 pounds
of raw muscle. At a time when 6-1 and 200 pounds was considered
“big,” Hart seemed simply gargantuan.
else in the country combined his size, speed, and pass-catching
ability. Indeed, for the Notre Dame offense, the threat of
Leon was a greater weapon than Leon himself. He was the team’s
most effective blocker, in essence giving the Irish an extra
offensive lineman on running plays. Leon was also fast enough
to dart into the backfield and take (or fake) handoffs on
end-arounds. This became a staple of the Notre Dame offense,
creating utter havoc with enemy defenses. Leon’s explosive
acceleration out of his three-point stance also made him a
valuable short-yardage fullback.
other side of the line, Leon's quickness made him one of the
top defensive ends in college football. Regardless of who
was blocking him, he was able to shut down his side of the
field on end runs. Opponents devised special schemes and ruses
in an attempt to control Leon’s whereabouts, but he
was no dummy. Leon called the signals in Notre Dame’s
defensive huddle and was extremely hard to fake out of a play.
He and teammate Jim Martin were the last of Notre Dame’s
great two-way players, as Coach Leahy had instituted offensive
and defensive platoons in 1949.
As a freshman,
though, Leon was often on the sidelines when he wanted to
be in the game. In an epic meeting between the #2 Notre Dame
and #1 Army, he did not run a single play, as the two teams
battled to a scoreless tie that helped the Irish finish the
year undefeated and win the national championship. He did
see action in the season finale, a victory over Southern Cal,
reeling in a lovely pass from George Ratterman for a 22-yard
Leahy, 1990 Notre Dame
became Notre Dame’s starting end on both sides of the
ball as a sophomore in 1947. His blocking helped clear the
way for Lujack, who masterminded the team’s T-formation
offense and won the Heisman Trophy for his troubles. Leon
also caught a huge TD pass from Lujack in the team’s
27–7 victory over Army. The Irish went undefeated in
nine games to repeat as national champions.
named on several All-America squads after the season. Lujack
and Connor also earned All-America recognition, along with
linemen Bill Fischer and Ziggy Czarobski.
himself as the best all-around end in the country in 1948.
As the season unfolded, some were saying he might be among
the best ever at the position. Few runners could escape his
clutches, and he caught 16 passes for four touchdowns to garner
consensus All-America honors. With Leon leading the way, the
Irish established a new school record for rushing yardage
and finished unbeaten once again. It was Michigan, however,
that topped the national rankings.
that cost Notre Dame the top spot was a 14–14 tie with
Southern Cal. In the contest, Leon scored a touchdown on a
play that looked scripted from a bad Hollywood movie. He caught
a short pass from Frank Tripucka, turned upfield and deflected
no fewer than eight tackles before dragging his body into
the end zone.
to repeat the second-place finish of ’48, Leon stepped
up as co-captain and team leader in 1949. Leahy, meanwhile,
used Leon—whom the coach was already calling one of
his favorite all-time players—as an example to the rest
of the team. After practice one day, he asked Leon how he
felt. When Leon responded that he was tired, Leahy made him
run laps, saying that he must be out of shape. The next day
after practice, Leahy asked Leon the same question and he
responded that he felt great. Leahy ordered him to run laps
again, saying he must not have worked out hard enough.
Leahy asked Leon how he felt again a day later. “How
do you want me to feel, coach?” he replied. Finally,
Leahy let him off the hook and sent him to the showers. Still,
the coach rode his star all season long—mostly because
he knew Leon could take it. Any small mistake he made was
instantly pointed out to his Irish teammates, often with a
derisive, “Look at Mister All-American!”
later comment that the work ethic Leahy instilled in him at
South Bend served him well during his days in the NFL, not
to mention as an owner of several successful businesses when
his football days were over. Leon appreciated that his coach
had never made an issue of the fact that he often missed large
chunks of practice because of his engineering classes. He
was willing to be Leahy’s occasional whipping boy in
would not have dared to treat his other co-captain, Jim Martin,
in this way. While Leon was the team’s big, brash, rah-rah
leader, Martin’s authority was earned during World War
II. He had been a reconnaissance swimmer, which is a fancy
way of saying that he swam through enemy minefields at night
to chart the best course for landing craft before island invasions.
the leadership of Leon and Martin, the Irish were not expected
to win the national title in ’49. Their quarterback,
Bob Williams, was unproven, and the team seemed thinner than
usual at many other spots. Attitudes began to change, however,
as weaknesses proved to be strengths. Williams, in particular,
played flawlessly. In a victory over Michigan State, he completed
13 of 16 passes, including several clutch fourth-down throws.
Lujack, 1955 Topps
final college game was the focus of the sports world. He had
yet to leave the field on the short end of a losing score,
and the Irish had a chance to nail down a third national championship.
Notre Dame played Southern Methodist, whose star back, Doak
Walker, was the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. He was also
injured and unable to play. But his replacement, Kyle Rote,
was spectacular, scoring three touchdowns against the Irish
score knotted 20–20 in the final period, Leon was moved
to fullback, where he often lined up on important running
downs. Leon barreled through the Mustang defense several times
to key a drive engineered brilliantly by Williams. Bill Barrett
capped the effort with a touchdown that put the Irish up 27–20.
SMU tried to respond, but Notre Dame stopped the Mustangs.
a great tackle on Rote to help save the day, but his biggest
fourth-quarter contribution had come earlier, when Williams
had thrown an incompletion from his own end zone with the
Irish pinned against their own goal line on third down. An
elderly referee, flashing back to the 1930s, signaled a safety
and moved the ball to the 20 yard line, where he instructed
Notre Dame to kick to SMU. Leon politely reminded the official
that the rule had changed, and that it was simply fourth down.
He then huddled the team quickly, and the Irish punted. No
one had noticed that they were punting from the 20 when they
should have been kicking out of their own end zone. Years
later, Leon smiled when reminded of this story. “That’s
why I was a good captain,” he said.
whistle blew on the SMU game, Leon had finished his four-year
stay in South Bend without a single loss. Few would argue
that there was a greater college football “dynasty”
(and outside of John Wooden’s UCLA basketball team,
there is no real competition for the greatest NCAA sports
senior season, the Irish outscored their opponents 320 to
93. Overall, the dominance of Leon’s teams at Notre
Dame led many schools to drop the Irish from their football
schedules. The Athletic Department responded by reducing the
number of scholarships it offered, so other colleges would
have a fairer shot at high school talent. Ironically, this
led to a downturn in the team’s fortunes after Leon
out his college career with 49 catches for 742 yards and 12
touchdowns. He also scored twice on runs. These stats do not
reveal much about his domination of the field—but in
the context of his time they were nothing short of spectacular.
end, Leon was named AP Athlete of the Year—finishing
ahead of Jackie Robinson and Sam Snead—and also won
the Maxwell Award and Heisman Trophy as the nation’s
top player. He was the top Heisman vote-getter in all five
regions, with Charlie Justice of UNC a distant second, more
than 700 points behind. It marked just the second time a lineman
had captured the Heisman (Yale’s Larry Kelley took the
award in 1936), and it would be the last. In fact, not until
Charles Woodson won the Heisman 48 years later did another
defender claim the trophy. The ceremony, meanwhile, wasn't
the only highlight of Leon's trip to New York. While in the
Big Apple to pick up the hardware, he also ate breakfast with
of the Class of 1950, Leon graduated from Notre Dame with
a degree in mechanical engineering. In the rough and tumble,
low-paying early days of pro football, it would not have been
surprising to see him quit the game and move on with his life.
Leon, however, used this leverage as a bargaining position
with the Detroit Lions, who selected him with the top overall
pick in the first round of the 1950 draft. Once he worked
out a contract and secured a respectable off-season job, Leon
joined the Lions, who were coming off a 4–8 season.
coach, Bo McMillin, was in his third and final season with
the team. The Lions had struggled in the postwar years, but
McMillin was starting to assemble some of the pieces of the
defensive puzzle, including mountainous middle guard Les Bingaman,
and defensive backs Jim Smith and Don Doll. Leon played a
fair amount of defensive end as a rookie and performed well
enough to become a starter at the position the following season.
part of an incoming group that would transform the Lions.
The '50 draft had also yielded Doak Walker and lineman Thurman
McGraw. The dissolution of the AAFC had enabled the Lions
to pick up guard Lou Creekmur and running back Bob Horschenmeyer.
Cloyce Box, a converted halfback, had been with Detroit in
1949, but was moved to receiver in his second year. The biggest
addition was the acquisition of quarterback Bobby Layne, purchased
during a housecleaning by the financially strapped New York
Yankees football club.
opened the season with a 45–7 pasting of the Green Bay
Packers. They would top the 40-point plateau twice more that
year. On Friday night, September 29th, Leon experienced defeat
on a football field for the first time. The Yanks beat them
in New York, 44-21.
finished with a 6–6 record, but put on a great show
for the fans all season long. Layne, a wild man off the field,
was a great leader and performer on Sundays. He led the league
with 336 passing attempts and 2,323 yards. Thirty-one of those
passes went Leon’s way. He combined with Walker and
Box for 116 catches.
Detroit fans welcomed Buddy Parker back to town, this time
to coach the team. In the 1935 Championship Game, he had scored
a touchdown and intercepted a pass. Known as a resourceful
player in the NFL during the 1930s, Parker was also a clever
coach. He molded the Detroit gameplan to the talent he inherited,
and almost instantly, the Lions became a championship contender.
also became the league’s loosest club—where McMillin
had been something of a taskmaster, Parker was willing to
let the good times roll. One of his first moves was to make
Leon his fulltime defensive end on the right side. Most NFL
teams had moved to a platoon system at this point, but if
there was ever anyone born to be a two-way player, it was
Leon. He was a monster on defense, earning All-Pro honors.
He also led the Lions with 35 receptions, filling the shoes
of Box, who missed the year due to military service. Leon’s
12 touchdown catches in ’51 placed him second to Elroy
Hirsch of the Los Angeles Rams, who score 17 times.
Lions kept pace with the glamorous Rams all season long, and
Detroit suddenly rediscovered its football team. Attendance
doubled despite a 2–3–1 home mark. The Lions were
road warriors, upending the Chicago Bears and Rams in their
home parks. They missed the playoffs, however, when they lost
the season’s final game in San Francisco.
Walker, 1952 Wheaties
Lions had a big-play defense in 1952. Week after week, they
made crucial stops in close games or picked off fourth-quarter
passes to seal their victims’ fates. The secondary now
included young playmakers Jack Christiansen and Yale Lary.
Both were also superb special teams performers. Another addition
to the team was Leon’s co-captain at South Bend, Jim
Martin. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns, he would play the
rest of his career with the Lions.
Leon, his defensive days were essentially over at this point.
Parker returned him to fulltime pass-catching duty, and he
teamed with Box to give the Lions a formidable one-two receiving
punch. Functioning as a prototype possession receiver, Leon
snagged 32 passes, while Box was the deep threat, catching
42 balls and leading the NFL with 15 touchdowns.
role in the Detroit offense was quite similar to that of a
modern tight end. In the 1940s and early 1950s, “ends”
were typically blockers or pass receivers, but rarely both,
at least not on an All-Pro level. Leon’s then-freakish
combination of size, speed and skill intrigued Parker, who
laid the very early foundation of tight end play in the NFL
with his use of Leon . A few years after Leon retired, Vince
Lombardi began using hulking Ron Kramer as a traditional tight
end in the Packer offense, and Mike Ditka became a star for
George Halas in Chicago.
faced the Browns in the NFL Championship, and with the exception
of a second-half drive by Otto Graham & Co., they stymied
the Cleveland offense all day. Detroit took a 7–0 lead
on a quarterback sneak by Layne, and extended that lead to
14–0 after Leon helped open up a huge hole for Walker,
who scampered 67 yards for a touchdown. The Browns played
sloppy football and paid the price, losing 17–7. The
Lions were champions for the first time since 1935.
Detroit outlasted the Rams and 49ers to repeat as conference
champs, thanks to their returning veterans and an infusion
of young talent that included linebacker Joe Schmidt. The
Lions needed to win their final six games and did, keeping
each opponent to two touchdowns or less. The offense combined
the grinding ball carrying of Horschenmeyer, Walker and rookie
Gene Gedman with Layne’s breathtaking passing. Opponents
never knew when the wily veteran would crank out a long bomb,
or who would catch it. Five different receivers averaged more
than 15 yards per reception. Leon was second on the team with
25 catches (at 19 yards per) and led all Lions with seven
In a championship
repeat, the Detroit defense forced the Browns into early turnovers,
but Cleveland regrouped to take a 16–10 lead with five
minutes left in the game. Layne marched the team down the
field, connecting on three passes with little-used Jim Doran—best
known as a defensive end—who scored the tying touchdown.
Walker booted the extra point for the 17–16 lead. Rookie
defensive back Carl Karilivacz then intercepted Graham on
Cleveland’s ensuing possession to finish off the Browns.
made it three straight conference titles in 1954, holding
off a late charge by the Bears to win the West with a 9–2–1
record. This was Leon’s last season as a starting end.
He caught 24 passes but never reached the end zone. His blocking
proved critical, however, as the Lions gave a lot of carries
to rookies Bill Bowman and Lew Carpenter, who frequently spelled
Walker and Horschenmeyer. As a foursome, this group amassed
nearly 1,500 yards. Layne, meanwhile, ended the year as the
NFL’s top-ranked passer. Dorne Dibble was his favorite
target. The defense again keyed Detroit’s success, with
the secondary—now dubbed “Chris’s Crew”
after Christiansen—picking off 23 passes.
magical run ended in a late December meeting with the Browns.
Layne threw six interceptions and the Lions fumbled three
times as they went down in flames, 56–10. Detroit was
in the game as late as the second quarter, when the score
was 14–10, but Cleveland scored 42 unanswered points
to rule the day. Leon played the entire game, contributing
one catch for 19 yards.
1955 season found Doran, Jug Girard and rookie Dave Middleton
taking most of the snaps at the receiver position. Leon functioned
primarily as a blocker when he lined up next to the tackles.
Most of his work came as the team’s second-string fullback
behind Carpenter. Leon ran the ball 35 times and made the
tacklers pay, averaging a team-best 4.5 yards per carry. This
good work was done entirely in vain, however, as Detroit started
the year with six straight losses and tumbled into the cellar
with a 3¬9 record. The defense was devastated by the retirement
of Bingaman, while Layne played all year with a shoulder injured
in an off-season horse-riding incident.
Detroit’s primary fullback in 1956, leading the way
for Gedman and rookie Hopalong Cassady. Walker and Horschenmeyer
had both hung up their jerseys after the miserable '55 campaign,
but Leon kept chugging along. Detroit fans cheered as he buried
would-be tacklers with his blocking and once again led the
team with a 4.6 yards per carry average. He finished the year
with 348 rushing yards, 116 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
rebounded with a 9–3 record, but the Bears edged them
at 9–2–1. The conference was Detroit’s for
the taking after a 42–10 hammering of Chicago with three
games to go. The Bears returned the favor on the final Sunday,
however, knocking Layne out of the game and winning 38–21.
played his final NFL season in 1957. The Lions acquired John
Henry Johnson, who became the team’s starting fullback
and leading rusher. Leon saw mostly blocking duty and gained
just 99 yards on 24 carries. He also caught four passes to
give him 174 for his career.
is best remembered for coach Parker’s stunning resignation
during training camp. Assistant George Wilson took over and
instituted a two-quarterback system with Layne and ex-Packer
Tobin Rote. The Lions made a late surge to tie the 49ers for
the Western crown, then beat them in the ensuing playoff.
San Francisco played a flawless first half, taking a 24–7
lead into the locker room at intermission. The 49ers then
made a critical mistake, celebrating so loudly that the infuriated
Lions could clearly hear them. Detroit scratched its way back
into the game and shut down the San Francisco offense in the
fourth quarter to win 31–27.
faced the Browns for the NFL Championship once again. With
the 56–10 humiliation of 1954 still fresh in their minds,
they demolished their eastern rivals 59–14. With Layne
sidelined with a broken leg, Rote passed for 280 yards and
four touchdowns. Leon played sparingly in the victory, but
it was still a great way to go out. He ended his career one
receiving yard short of 2,500, rushed for 612 yards (and a
4.3 per carry average), and scored a total of 32 touchdowns
for the Lions. He also intercepted four passes.
football, Leon put his engineering and business skills to
work, running several successful businesses related to the
automobile and trucking industry, including one that manufactured
tire-balancing equipment. In 1973, he was voted in the National
Football Foundation Hall of Fame. Also during the 1970s, he
spearheaded a fund providing scholarship assistance for the
children of Notre Dame letter-winners. His own son, Kevin,
played for the Irish at the time, and was a member of the
1977 national championship squad.
all, Leon and his wife, Lois, had six children: Leon Jr.,
Bill, Marty, Kevin, Judd, and Maria. Three are Notre Dame
grads. The family lived in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham.
Lois passed away in 1998.
Leon decided to put his Heisman Trophy up for auction, with
the proceeds earmarked for the education of his 14 grandchildren.
Thanks to family genetics, at least one of those kids needed
no help with tuition. Jenna Hart was one of the most sought
after women’s volleyball recruits in 2007. She signed
with Fordham University. She stands six feet tall and is a
member of the National Honor Society—a definite chip
off the old block. Another grandchild, Brendan Hart, played
tight end for Notre Dame from 2000 to 2003, making the team
as a walk-on.
watching Brendan play in Notre Dame’s thrilling 25–23
victory over Michigan in September of 2002, Leon was admitted
to St. Joseph Regional Medical Center. He had suffered from
heart and prostate problems for some time. Eight days later
he passed away at the age of 73.
remained thoughtful and outspoken to the end. He lamented
what he perceived as a lack of toughness in today’s
players, and often wondered aloud why pro and college teams
needed 12 to 15 coaches when he won three national championships
playing for a staff of six.
1991 Heisman Collection
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