Melrose Park Resident Johnny Lattner, Chicago’s Only Homegrown Heisman Winner, Dies At 83

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Johnny Lattner, the 1953 Heisman Trophy winner, poses with grandchildren, all of whom played football at Fenwick in Oak Park. | Wednesday Journal Files || Below, a photo of Lattner diving  in his uniform inside Notre Dame’s stadium. | University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 || Originally Published: Wednesday Journal || 2/13/16 || By Marty Farmer

If there ever was a “Mr. Fenwick,” Johnny Lattner would be an ideal choice. In fact, in his days as a student at the Oak Park high school, he was often referred to as Johnny Fenwick.

Like Michael Jordan’s interchangeable association with the Bulls or Ernie Banks’ reputation as Mr. Cub, there’s no doubt Lattner — the only born-and-raised Chicagoan to win the Heisman Trophy — embodied the spirit and pride of Fenwick High School

Lattner died at the age of 83 in his Melrose Park home on Friday, Feb. 12 after battling mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer. He was born on Oct. 24, 1932 in Chicago.

The famous Fenwick alumnus had much to celebrate during his life, highlighted by winning the 1953 Heisman Trophy at the University of Notre Dame, playing briefly for the Pittsburgh Steelers, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine with the words “a bread-and-butter ball carrier,” serving in the U.S. Air Force, and working in the printing business as a vice president of sales at Pal Graphics in Broadview.

In his one NFL campaign with Pittsburgh, Lattner rushed for 237 yards, caught 25 passes for 305 yards and scored seven touchdowns as a dual-threat player in 1954. He made the NFL Pro Bowl that season as a kickoff and punt returner.

His football career was cut short after suffering a knee injury in a game while serving in the Air Force.

During his Heisman season playing for legendary coach Frank Leahy, Lattner led Notre Dame to a 9-0-1 record and No. 2 ranking behind Maryland in the AP Poll as he rushed for 651 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and also scored nine touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Lattner played halfback, defensive back, punter and kick returner for the Fighting Irish.

Lattner earned the 1953 Heisman Trophy as an impact player on both sides of the ball. He ran for 651 yards, caught 14 passes for 204 yards and had four interceptions. He was a stellar special teams player, scoring a pair of touchdowns off only 10 kickoff returns.

The two-time All-American also won the Maxwell Award as the best player in college football in both 1952 and 1953. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Made his mark at Fenwick

A versatile and talented athlete, Lattner excelled in both basketball and football at Fenwick.

In 1949, he averaged a team-best 15.8 points to lead the basketball team to a 22-7 record and Chicago Catholic League championship. He also led the football team to a 10-1 record, scoring multiple touchdowns on a weekly basis against Catholic League foes.

“We never lose sight of the fact Johnny is a legend,” Fenwick head football coach Gene Nudo said. “Since I arrived at Fenwick [in 2012], I have always told our players to be in touch with the reality they are walking through storied hallways. Fenwick has had students who have become astronauts, CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners and professional athletes. Johnny is certainly part of that heritage in which our students go on to be difference-makers in life.”

In 2011, Fenwick unveiled the retired jerseys of Lattner (No. 34) and former basketball star Corey Maggette (No. 50), who went on to have a long, successful NBA career

“It’s a real thrill to see my number up there [in the rafters] and share this moment with my family,” Lattner said after the ceremony. “I’m also proud to share this night with Corey, who is a great guy. I’ve followed his [NBA] career and he’s a tremendous athlete.

“Fenwick is a great school and I’ve always enjoyed being around the school and supporting the sports teams.”

While thankful for all the gifts he enjoyed during a wonderfully diverse life, the former Oak Parker’s most prized possession was unequivocally his beloved family.

He will be remembered by his wife, Peggy; eight children, Jack, Bill, Tim, Mike, Kate, Maggie, Tricia, Gretchen and 25 grandchildren.

Luke Lattner and Robert Spillane, two of his grandsons who are currently playing college basketball at DePauw and football at Western Michigan, respectively, were heavily influenced by Lattner. Like most of his grandchildren, they attended Fenwick.

“We are a close knit family,” Luke Lattner said. “It’s awesome that we all attended Fenwick and played sports. Our grandfather’s support always meant a lot, because he’s basically the one who got us into sports.”

Added Spillane: “When we were little kids, we would always come to the Fenwick football games and our grandfather would be around.”

Visitation will be on Friday, Feb. 19 from 3 to 9 p.m.) in the Lawless Gymnasium at Fenwick High School, 505 Washington Blvd. The funeral will be held at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in River Forest on Saturday, Feb. 20 at noon. VFP

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