SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Every time Ben Skowronek walks into the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame’s newest starting wide receiver encounters a reminder of his impressive sporting lineage.
There, in the slate-lined atrium, is a replica of Johnny Lujack’s 1947 Heisman Trophy. Alice Skowronek, sister of Ben Skowronek’s great-grandfather Stanley, was Lujack’s mother.
“I’m not a genealogy expert, but that’s the connection,” Dave Skowronek, Ben’s father, said this week in a phone interview. “There’s definitely a bloodline there.”
Now 95 and living in southern California, Lujack is the oldest living Heisman winner. The former Notre Dame and Bears quarterback figures to be among those watching on television Saturday afternoon as the younger Skowronek, a graduate transfer from Northwestern, makes his Fighting Irish debut at home against Duke.
“I met [Lujack] at a Polish-Catholic funeral in western Pennsylvania years ago,” said Dave Skowronek, a product of the same Connellsville, Pennsylvania, sports community that produced Lujack. “God knows how many people were there, but his mom was a Skowronek.”
When Dave’s father fell ill many years ago, he wrote to Lujack with an update. Much to his surprise, he received a reply.
“It was a nice little letter: ‘How are the Skowroneks doing back in Connellsville?’ ’’ recalled Dave Skowronek, who works in communications for Marathon Petroleum in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
When Ben Skowronek committed to Notre Dame around New Year’s Day, his father sent another letter out west with that news. He hasn’t heard back from Lujack, but he completely understands.
“He has no idea who Ben is,” Dave Skowronek said. “He’s never met Ben. I don’t know what his situation is at all. Let’s hope he’ll be watching.”
Sports run in the family. Matt Skowronek, Ben’s older brother, was a walk-on safety at Indiana and Dave Skowronek played small-college basketball for two years at Penn State Fayette.
Former U.S. Olympian Courtney Kupets Carter, now the gymnastics coach at the University of Georgia, is a Skowronek cousin, as is her father, former Indiana State linebacker Mark Kupets.
Another cousin, Dan Kupets, is a former college baseball coach at Fairmont (West Virginia) State, and former Pro Bowl quarterback Trent Green is an uncle by marriage. His son TJ Green threw passes to Skowronek during their time in Evanston.
In 43 games with the Wildcats, Skowronek piled up 110 catches for 1,417 yards and eight touchdowns. Most notably, he made a circus catch for a 32-yard touchdown at Iowa in 2018 that sent the Wildcats to the Big Ten title game.
Less than a year removed from TightRope surgery on his ankle, Skowronek has wasted little time winning over his new coaches and teammates.
“His leadership has been great,” quarterback Ian Book said. “That’s really what I’ve noticed. He’s in the Gug first and he’s leaving last.”
After losing his top three targets to the NFL — Cole Kmet (Bears), Chase Claypool (Steelers) and Chris Finke (49ers) — Book has gravitated to his most experienced weapon. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, Skowronek shares some physical characteristics with Claypool, who also made a successful return from TightRope surgery before his senior year.
After suffering a high-ankle sprain against Michigan State three games into a lost season, Skowronek did his own research and pushed his father to schedule a quick procedure with Dr. Norman Waldrop III in Birmingham, Alabama.
Former Alabama quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa made rapid returns after undergoing the same procedure, and Skowronek was determined to get back on the field. Instead, as a 3-9 season spiraled out of control, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and the medical staff urged Skowronek to shut down his comeback and preserve his final season of eligibility.
“The coaches were like, ‘You have a bright future. We know what your goals and dreams are. You don’t want to rush back. You’ve got to be careful,’ ’’ Dave Skowronek said. “I respect Northwestern for that big time.”
As distraught as the injury left Skowronek, his parents kept reminding him there might be a “silver lining” in the setback. Saturday afternoon, Skowronek finally gets to play on the famed field where his distant relative once starred.