Recovering Notre Dame legend Johnny Lujack has his tee time set

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

April 1, 2015. It’s a day already blocked out, no doubt about it, on Dr. Fred Ferlic’s calendar.

It’s on that day that Ferlic, a practicing surgeon at South Bend Orthopedics and member of the South Bend Common Council, will board a plane in South Bend, golf clubs in tow, and fly to the Quad Cities. The plan calls for Ferlic, a consulting physician for the Notre Dame athletic program, to then go to a local country club, where Ferlic and two others will shoot a round with an old friend.

It isn’t just any old friend. This one, former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack, has been through some hard times recently. There was a two-week stay in a Davenport, Iowa, hospital. There was a helicopter flight to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. There was a tricky surgery that helped Lujack avoid paralysis, and about a month spent in Minnesota because of the operation. There’s been rehab that got off to a slow start.

“I’m recovering slowly. It’s a long, hard fight,” the 89-year-old Lujack said. “But they tell me that maybe by next April 1 I might be able to play golf, not just hit balls, but play golf. So in between, you’ve got to do an awful lot of exercising and walking. It’s a slow proposition.”

To help facilitate that long proposition, Ferlic threw out this proposal to the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner in order to give Lujack something to work toward: Work hard. Get better. Be on the golf course on the first day of April next year.

“April 1st I’m flying out there,” Ferlic said. “I’ve got it blocked out.”

Surviving a scare

In mid-July, Lujack was admitted to a Davenport, Iowa, hospital because of a worsening condition. He couldn’t get out of bed by himself. Couldn’t get to a chair. Wasn’t moving well at all.

About two weeks later, Ferlic got a call from a former Notre Dame classmate who told him that Lujack was in trouble; that he was moving toward paralysis. It came as a shock to Ferlic, who, two weeks prior to hearing the news, had heard that Lujack was golfing, shooting his age in fact.

Growing up in Carroll, Iowa, Ferlic’s mother talked about Lujack, a lot. In fact, when Ferlic chose a college to attend, it was a relatively easy decision. His mother made it for him. And when he got to Notre Dame, he heard more about Lujack.

Years later, when he was working with athletes at ND, Ferlic got to know Lujack when the former star would make return trips to South Bend. Lujack once asked Ferlic about knee problems he was having, and every so often the former football star would tap into Ferlic for medical advice.

The most serious situation came a few months ago.

“He was basically becoming paralyzed,” said Ferlic, who explained that a bone had become overgrown, most likely from hits endured playing football, and that it was pinching the spinal cord. Doctors in Iowa thought it was too dangerous to do anything. “And he didn’t have any direction.”

That Monday at 9 a.m., Ferlic jumped in, calling the Mayo Clinic and tracking down Dr. William Krauss, who nearly two decades ago performed neck surgery on then-Irish coach Lou Holtz.

Because of Lujack’s condition, flying in an airplane was going to be a challenge, so Ferlic tapped into Mike Leep, the founder of the Gurley Leep Automotive Family, for help. Leep, a few years back, bought Lujack’s auto dealership in Iowa, and was more than willing to jump in and arrange for a helicopter to transport Lujack to Minnesota.

Within 48 hours, Lujack was being wheeled into surgery, and on his way in, he said, “this feels like the start of a football game.”

Like he did so often at Notre Dame, Lujack came out on the winning end as the condition was stabilized. Lujack spent less than a week in the hospital, and another two-and-a-half to three weeks in a rehab facility in Minnesota before heading back to the Quad Cities.

Lujack had cleared a major hurdle, but he was still a long way from the finish line.

Stepping it up

After Lujack got back home, Ferlic called to check up on him, and Lujack told him that, while he was going to therapy, it was only three times a week. Ferlic talked to Leep and, the morning after last month’s win over Michigan, Leep arranged for Ferlic to fly to the Quad Cities. What the doctor saw bothered him.

“He was just sitting there melting away except for those three days a week,” Ferlic said.

Ferlic again jumped in. He told Lujack that he needed to get on a stationary bike to work on his endurance. He told him that he needed to get over to the country club to spend time with his golf buddies. He told him he needed to build strength, and could do so by doing something as simple as lifting milk cartons filled with water.

Ferlic also arranged for physical and occupational therapists to visit Lujack’s house, and, when reached on his cell phone recently, Lujack was waiting for their arrival.

“This is one real, real slow proposition, and I get very antsy, and I always need a little bolstering,” Lujack said. “They all tell me that I’m progressing and that I’m ahead of schedule, but I never know whose schedule that is.”

So Ferlic jumped in and created a schedule, tabbing April 1 as an end date. Until then, he wants Lujack hitting the putting green when he can, even though he’ll need a walker when he’s out there.

“The guy can putt better than you and I ever hope to, even with a walker,” Ferlic said.

Ferlic is hopeful that Lujack will be able to shuck his walker by the start of the new year, Feb. 1 at the latest. Two months later, it’s tee time, and Ferlic has hit the links with Lujack enough to know what fate likely awaits him.

“He’ll still beat me. That’s the problem. So it’ll be embarrassing,” Ferlic said. “I may make him use the walker so I at least have a chance.”

Former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack is recovering well after surgery this summer. (SBT File Photo)