Huarte threw local talent into Irish mix

USC has drawn from a wide variety of pipelines for local high school talent, but few have been as fruitful as the one to Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif.

Heisman winner Matt Leinart and standout linebacker Matt Grootegoed are among the litany of standout Monarchs-turned-Trojans, and the current batch from the same high school includes quarterback Matt Barkley and his understudy Max Wittek and wide receivers Robbie Boyer and Victor Blackwell and center Khaled Holmes.

While it seems USC now gets whatever recruit it wants, particularly whatever Mater Dei quarterbacks it wants, go back far enough and you'll find a Monarchs signal-caller who went another direction.

"We were not a powerhouse as a school," John Huarte said of Mater Dei back in his graduation year of 1960. Not yet, at least.

Just a decade removed from the founding of the high school and its 120-student enrollment and a football team of only 20 players, Mater Dei -- and the direct line to USC -- had yet to fully develop, much like farm-filled Orange County itself.

For Huarte, who was born on May 20, 1943, his decision was all but predestined.

"I'm one of five boys and a girl, and my dad had played pro baseball back in the '20s. He was an all-star in the minors. So it was a sports family," Huarte said. "And I recall listening to Notre Dame radio when maybe I was about 12 years of age. And then I had an older brother, David, who went to Notre Dame. I decided I wanted to go there."

Huarte went through the motions, taking visits to Oregon and Colorado, along with checking out USC and UCLA. "But they all knew I'd probably go to Notre Dame," he said.

He arrived in South Bend during a down time for the Irish. Under coach Joe Kuharich (17-23 in four seasons), the program deteriorated.

In 1963, Huarte's junior season and the first and only year for Kuharich's replacement, Hugh Devore, it was even worse. The Irish lost their final five games en route to a 2-7 record. Making matters worse, Huarte sustained a serious separation of his throwing shoulder, putting his athletic future in as much doubt as the program for which he played.

One guy managed to save both.

In his first season, coach Ara Parseghian in 1964 quickly reorganized the team, effectively mining his available talent by finding each player's natural position. He created structure.

"Spring ball was very organized on both sides of the ball," said Huarte. "There was a rhythm to it. There was a clarity to it."

Improvement continued into the fall. But without intervention from Parseghian into his orthopedic life Huarte would have spent all of it on the sidelines.

"The first three doctors who observed my situation were talking about surgery and pins. If that had happened, I was just finished," Huarte said. "There's just no way you can throw a football with the action."

Parseghian pushed Huarte into one more doctor's visit.

"There was a Dr. Cronin, who was in Chicago," Huarte said. "He said to leave it alone. So I rested, and gradually gained a swim. Swimming, and a little bit of handball, and then my arm freed up and there was no pain. I started throwing a football, and everything returned to normal."

Sort of. The sidearming quarterback who had thrown 50 passes in his first two years piled up big numbers as Notre Dame rolled, winning its first six games by a combined 191-35. Unranked before the season, the Irish had ascended to the top spot in the polls with blazing speed.

"And this was his very first year, without having the benefit of knowing all these players," Huarte said of Parseghian. "In a short period of time, he analyzed who he wanted, and just did a classic job of taking a hungry bunch of guys who want to win but didn't know how and providing the leadership. [He also had] the beautiful intensity of his personality, which you had to just be there to really appreciate it."

Nine games into the 1964 season, Notre Dame was undefeated and Huarte had become a Heisman Trophy candidate, thanks in part to his chemistry with another L.A.-area product -- wide receiver Jack Snow (later a star with the Rams) out of St. Anthony High in Long Beach.

All that stood between the Irish and a national title was a trip to Los Angeles Coliseum.

With Huarte's friends and family in the stands and fueled by a Huarte-to-Snow touchdown hookup, Notre Dame rolled to a 17-0 lead. It was Huarte's 16th scoring pass of the year, the ninth to Snow. But in the second half the tide turned.

USC's Mike Garrett, a future Heisman winner himself, scored on the Trojans' opening drive to cut the deficit to 10. After a controversial holding call -- one of many flags Notre Dame fans to this day find curious -- took six points off the board for Huarte's crew, Trojans quarterback Craig Fertig led his team 88 yards for a touchdown.

With 1:33 remaining, Fertig hit wideout Rod Sherman in the middle of the end zone, putting USC ahead for good, 20-17.

The Irish had lost a crack at a national title, but their stunning improvement combined with Huarte's production (2,062 yards and his 16 touchdowns) was enough to land Huarte the Heisman over Tulsa's Jerry Rhome (who passed for some 800 more yards and doubled Huarte's touchdown output).

"At that point, when you're celebrating all the other guys who have won the Heisman, you get to meet Billy Vessels and John David Crow and all these players I looked up to, I wasn't thinking about the game we lost," said Huarte, who now owns a tile company and resides with his wife, Eileen, in Pacific Palisades. "I was just celebrating getting to meet these people I read about. Johnny Lattner, Leon Hart, the Notre Dame guys. Just a wide range. And we're still friends today."

Huarte's Heisman is housed at Mater Dei, where the father of five and grandfather of 11 hopes it serves as an inspiration to students and student-athletes.