Football, Medicine and a Heisman Trophy: One Chicago family's connection to Notre Dame

NOW: Football, Medicine and a Heisman Trophy: One Chicago family’s connection to Notre Dame

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- For some, a school is more than just a place to learn. For some, it’s about a legacy. 

Richard Marshall Cronin was a walk-on starter at the University of Notre Dame in 1945.

“He saw that quarterback coming at him and said, ‘I wasn’t going to let him get by me,’” Claire Cronin, the matriarch of the Cronin family, says.

It was a memory my grandfather told repeatedly about the day he went out for the football team.

But Dick Cronin’s greatest contribution to Notre Dame football wasn’t on the field. In fact, his playing career had long been over, when one spring day in 1964, he got a phone call.

“Ara [Parseghian] was telling him his star, John Huarte, had a shoulder injury and they were going to operate on it at Notre Dame,” Mrs. Cronin remembers.

“It was his junior year, in spring practice that he got injured,” John Cronin, Dick Cronin's youngest son of nine and a 1992 Notre Dame graduate, adds.

“He [Ara] said, “Send him up to Chicago to my friend Dick Cronin,’” Mrs. Cronin says.

Cronin, now an orthopedic surgeon, who specialized in sports-related injuries, agreed to see him.

ABC57 reached out and connected with John Huarte, the legendary Notre Dame quarterback and 1964 Heisman Trophy Winner.

Huarte says during a scrimmage in the spring, defensive end Jerry Long tackled him cleanly, but he landed on his right shoulder, driving it into the 50-yard line of Notre Dame Stadium.

“The collarbone that comes in through the outside of the shoulder was separated and then two doctors said, ‘Oh gee, we have to have an operation,’” Huarte recalls. “Ara Parseghian said, ‘The hell they are!’”

So, Huarte says he and backfield coach Tom Pagna drove to Chicago.

“There I met Dr. Cronin,” Huarte says. “He had me hold a couple sandbags, face the camera, had pictures straight ahead, and he could see the separation. And he said, ‘Just leave it alone.’”

“I worked on it very patiently; swimming, handball,” Huarte remembers. “And after about six weeks it got back to normal and did not bother me during that season of ‘64.”

John Huarte says looking back, surgery would’ve ended his career.

But it didn’t… far from it…

John Huarte went on to have a season for the record books, throwing for more than 2,000 yards with 114 completions on his way to a Heisman Trophy. At that point, no Irish quarterback had completed more than 100 passes in a season. His passing efficiency rating at Notre Dame still ranks among the best in the record books.  

“[I’m] extremely fortunate Dr. Cronin made the call and simply, saved my career is what he did,” Huarte says.  


But while this is the story that gets all the attention, it was just another day for Dr. Cronin.

“He would treat everybody, everywhere and never charge anybody until they came to the office,” Mrs. Cronin remembers, calling it unusual, especially as high-priced medical debt was on the rise.

On Saturdays, my grandmother describes an open house with high school football players, friends, and seemingly strangers getting checked out in the living room… a line out the door.

“He never got rich [sic] practicing medicine,” Mrs. Cronin says.

Dick Cronin died in 2016 at the age of 89 from complications of dementia. But what he left behind was the hope of a life filled with purpose.

And some of us picked up right where he left off.


“It was always a dream of mine to attend the university,” Michael Cahill, Dick Cronin’s grandson, says.  

“As with a lot of brilliant men with Alzheimer’s [disease], or dementia anyway, he hadn’t talked for months and months,” Mrs. Cronin recalls. “Michael Cahill came over and he said, ‘Grandpa, I’m going to Notre Dame,’ and he said, ‘Go Irish.’”

For patients with dementia, near the end, it’s said that what remains is what they truly loved the most. But what the disease took away, motivated Michael Cahill.

“Grandpa, the way he dealt with patients and the way he told his family about his love for medicine, definitely inspired me as well,” Cahill says.

Cahill graduated from Notre Dame and now attends medical school at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. But he dreams of returning to South Bend. 

“Being the team orthopedic surgeon would be a dream of mine,” Cahill says, his eyes bright with a wide smile stretched across his face.

Maybe it’s a calling, or the bridging of two generations, but whatever it is, it’s walking in his grandfather’s footsteps… and he’s not the only one either.

A double-digit number of Dick and Claire Cronin’s children and grandchildren have attended Notre Dame or have gone on to be doctors.

So, for some, a school is more than just a place to learn. For the extended Cronin family, it’s about tradition.

“It was in our blood,” Mrs. Cronin says.

“It was something that we shared, and I think he was proud of me as well,” John Cronin adds.

“It really was God, Country and Notre Dame,” the 95-year-old Mrs. Cronin, who watches every game and has been a loyal fan since the 1940’s, says proudly.

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