Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Johnny Lattner, 1932-2016

We lost a Heisman Trophy winner last week.

John Joseph Lattner was born on October 24, 1932 in Chicago, and grew up on the West Side, before the family moved to the suburb of Oak Park, where he lived most of his life. He played both football and basketball at Fenwick High School, a Catholic school in Oak Park, which had already produced several college football players, including some for the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, both of which Lattner considered. He chose Notre Dame and its legendary head coach Frank Leahy.

"One of the reasons I went to Notre Dame was because a lot of people from Chicago would go there," Lattner told the Chicago Tribune in 2014. "In those days, in the stadium's 70,000 capacity, 40,000 of them would be from Chicago. It's like playing in front of your home crowd every week."

Indeed, Notre Dame wouldn't have become nearly what it became without its Chicago connections. Then again, while Lattner himself was Irish, the joke was, "What do you call 5 black guys, 3 Italians and 3 Poles? 'The Fighting Irish.'"

Notre Dame still played its men on both sides of the ball, and Johnny Lattner was both a halfback and a cornerback, one of the best in the country at each. In 1952 and 1953, he won the Maxwell Award, one of the college football player of the year awards. In 1953, he won the award, the Heisman Trophy, as he led the Fighting Irish to a 9-0-1 record, finishing 2nd in the final Associated Press poll to the University of Maryland. He remains the only Chicago native to win the Trophy.

Leahy called him "a bread and butter ball carrier," and Time magazine put that quote, along with Lattner's picture, on the cover of their November 9, 1953 issue.

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He was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1954 NFL Draft, and, in a 12-game season, had over 1,000 all-purpose yards. He was named to the Pro Bowl. But it would be his only NFL season: He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, played football there, and wrecked his knee. He never played another down.

He coached at St. Joseph's High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, not far from his hometown, and at the University of Denver, until 1961, when they ended their football program.

In 1962, he opened Johnny Lattner's Steakhouse on Madison Street in Chicago's Loop. In one of the stories of 1968 Chicago you don't hear very often, it was gutted by fire, killing 3 people and destroying his Heisman. He never tried to reopen the restaurant, but, in keeping with the Downtown Athletic Club's policy, he was able to send them a check for $300, and he got a replacement Trophy.

He later worked as a salesman and an executive for a graphics company in the Chicago suburbs, and continually marched in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, always appearing in Irish formal dress including a kilt.
He couldn't save his restaurant, but on November 17, 1963, he was driving through Chicago's West Side when he saw a fire in an apartment building, called the fire department, and got the residents out, carrying a 5-year-old girl himself.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He married a woman named Peggy in 1958, and they were together for the rest of his life. They had 8 children and 25 grandchildren. Two of them, also Fenwick High School graduates, are currently in college football: Robert Spillane at Western Michigan, and Ryan Smith at Miami University of Ohio.

Johnny Lattner died on February 12, 2016, at his home in the Chicago suburb of Melrose Park, Illinois, from mesothelioma. He was 83 years old.

He was the 2nd-earliest living Heisman winner. The earliest is a Notre Dame predecessor, 1947 winner Johnny Lujack, who played 4 years for the Chicago Bears, but was from the Pittsburgh area, and has been called the 1st of the many great quarterbacks to have come from Western Pennsylvania.

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