82-year-old Forest Grove man gets autograph from childhood idol
Hidden underneath the floorboards of a closet in a house in Forest Grove once lived a shoebox filled with the treasures of a boy named Jake Walsh.
Today, that boy is now 82 years old, and his shoebox, along with its treasures, is gone.
As a kid, Walsh was passionate about football. He loved playing the sport as much as he loved listening to games.
"My friends and I would always play football games in vacant lots, or school athletic fields," recalled Walsh, who grew up in Forest Grove in the 1940s. "There was a nice big area behind my house on B Street, too."
Walsh and his father bonded over listening to football games on the radio, especially when Notre Dame's Fighting Irish, their favorite team, was playing.
"My dad would take me fishing and hunting with him when I was a little guy in the 1940s. If it was a game day, we always had the car radio turned to the Irish game," Walsh said.
At the time, Johnny Lujack, the team's quarterback, was Notre Dame's star player. In 1947, Lujack won the Heisman Trophy. He went on to play for the Chicago Bears in the NFL.
"He was my hero from the '40s until today," Walsh exclaimed. "But, of course, I never saw him play — TV wasn't invented yet, or at least not available on the market. I listened to his games on the radio. Fanatically, you might say."
When Walsh was 9, he wrote the Heisman winner a letter. To his surprise, he received a letter back.
Walsh kept his treasured letter from Lujack, along with arrowheads given to him by his father and other priceless items, inside of that shoebox, which he kept tucked away beneath a floorboard in his closet.
"At some point, that shoebox went missing," said Jake Walsh's grandson, Joe Walsh, who heard his grandfather tell the story for the first time in October of last year when the two met for lunch. "To this day, he doesn't know what happened to it. It kind of crushed him."
Growing up in Forest Grove, Joe Walsh inherited both his grandfather's love for football and for the Fighting Irish.
"Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of going over to my grandpa's house to watch Notre Dame football games in the fall," he recalled.
The family became such dedicated fans that, as an adult, Joe Walsh went with his grandfather and a few other family members to Notre Dame to watch the Fighting Irish play in person in the late 1990s.
"That was another treasured memory," said Joe Walsh. "We got to look at all the old championship trophies and Heisman trophies, including Johnny Lujack's."
At the time of their trip, however, he had no idea about the story of his grandfather and the lost letter from Lujack.
Joe Walsh, who now lives in Camas, Washington, but makes regular trips back to Forest Grove to visit his grandfather, was surprised when Jake Walsh told him the story of the letter. Driving home to Camas that day in October, he kept the story in the back of his mind.
"I went home that night and was curious about all these people he was talking about," said Joe Walsh. "I found out that Johnny Lujack was still alive, which is when I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I should try and track him down and get him to send my grandpa another autograph.'"
Lujack is now 95 years old. Joe Walsh was able to find what he thought was his home address, and he sent him a letter of his own, explaining the story his grandfather told him about the letter that had gone missing nearly 70 years ago. In his letter, he included a photo of Lujack and asked for his autograph to send to his grandfather as a surprise.
"How funny would it be to get a 95-year-old man to give an autograph to an 80 something year old man," Joe Walsh remembers thinking upon sending the letter to Lujack, unsure as to whether it would actually find him.
About a month later, however, Jake Walsh received a letter in the mail with a signed photo of Johnny Lujack, his idol.
At first, it didn't register with Jake Walsh that it had come from Lujack himself. In the original inquiry, Joe Walsh had included a return envelope, and so when the letter arrived, the envelope had his grandson's handwriting on it. When Joe told him the letter was, in fact, genuinely from Lujack, Jake was thrilled.
"He was really pleased at that point," Joe Walsh said.
Of his grandfather, he explained, "He's (a) very generous, giving guy, and so my first feeling was that it felt really good to give something to Grandpa — he's always the one giving."
Jake Walsh, reunited decades later with the autograph of his childhood idol, couldn't be more grateful for his grandson's thoughtful gift.
"Joe has set a standard for being the best grandson imaginable, and nothing he does surprises me," he said with pride. "Spectacular is his norm."
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