Commentary

Touting trophy's only all-Chicago winner

Born, raised in Windy City, Lattner maintains workmanlike ways from Notre Dame days

Updated: October 28, 2011, 11:02 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- John Lattner, the former Notre Dame star, still goes to work.

Pretty much every morning, the 78-year-old Lattner heads from his condo in Melrose Park to his job as vice president of sales at PAL Graphics Inc. in Broadview. And he still picks up his phone with a salesman's gusto.

Lattner has been in the printing business for decades and he likes to stay busy. He's 195 pounds, about the same as his playing weight in the early 1950s.

"I've done very well," he said. "I still work because I have some nice customers."

[+] EnlargeJohnny Lattner
Courtesy of University of Notre Dame Johnny Lattner captured the Heisman Trophy for his great versatility at Notre Dame, where he played halfback, defensive back, punter and kick returner.
He is the only born and raised Chicagoan to win the Heisman, taking the 19th trophy after his senior year at Notre Dame in 1953.

Lattner, who played halfback, defensive back, punter and kick returner, won in a close Heisman race even though he didn't dominate in any one statistic. But he played both ways, and played well, and he starred for Notre Dame at a time when Notre Dame was the ideal for Catholic boys across the country.

In a lot of ways, Lattner is the type of player Notre Dame and its vast network of alumni -- and subway alumni -- have been chasing ever since. Lattner is a living, breathing testament to the greatness of Notre Dame and Catholic education.

Lattner isn't so sure.

"I don't know about that," he said.

But it's true. Of course it's true. He went to Fenwick High School in Oak Park and played in the Catholic League when it was the breeding ground for Notre Dame and Big Ten football programs.

After his Heisman win, Lattner was drafted sixth overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He later became a businessman in Chicago and raised eight kids in Oak Park. His wife, Peggy, is the last living of 11 siblings; he is the last of three. Lattner has 25 grandchildren, "seven or eight" of whom currently go to Fenwick. Four are in the football program.

As a boy growing up on the West Side of Chicago, where everyone knew his family name because his brother drove a Miller High Life truck, Lattner just knew he wanted to go to college.

"I thought I would go to one of the small Catholic colleges if I could afford it," he said. "But by my senior year, I had all kinds of offers. I thought I was going to go to Michigan, because they ran a single wing, and Fenwick ran a single wing. It was my ideal type of offense."

But that changed when people started telling Lattner that he shouldn't go to Notre Dame because he "would just be a number there."

"I said, 'I'm going to give it a shot and see how bad
I really am,'" he said.

Lattner's father took ill with cancer his freshman year, and passed away during spring practice. Before he died, Notre Dame quarterback John Mazur visited Lattner's father in Chicago and promised his son would score in his first varsity game as a sophomore. Mazur was good to his word, as recounted in a Time Magazine cover story in 1953.

That's a great story. What happened at the funeral was more representative of the Notre Dame experience under coach Frank Leahy.

I said, 'I'm going to give
it a shot and see how bad
I really am.'

-- John Lattner, when told he shouldn't consider playing at Notre Dame because he "would just be a number there."

"My dad was from Evansville so we were burying him there during the middle of spring practice in 1951. We practiced a long time," Lattner said. "Coach Leahy came to the funeral and as we're carrying Dad to the hearse, Leahy said, 'John do you have a ride back to Notre Dame? Do you need a ride? We're in the middle of spring practice. ...'"

Lattner politely told his coach he should probably remain with his mother for a while. He returned to practice after a few days' stay.

In 1952, Johnny Lattner, as he was known in his playing days, finished fifth in the Heisman voting but won the Maxwell Award as the year's top college player. He ran for 732 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He knew he would get major Heisman buzz going into his senior year.

In early November 1953, Lattner appeared on the cover of Time, which gave him national prestige. But there was another event that helped him win the Heisman Trophy that year.

"I was fortunate," he said.

After 12 years of unlimited substitutions in college football, in 1953 the NCAA voted on substitution rules and came up with a unanimous decree that players had to play both ways.

"I got good publicity," he said. "I was a Tribune All-American on defense and offense as a junior. I did get a lot of publicity before the season and then we had a good season."

John Lattner
Notre Dame athletics John Lattner, pictured here at a recent game in South Bend, is one of seven Notre Dame players to win a Heisman.
In 1953, the Irish went 9-0-1, finishing second to Maryland in the final Associated Press poll. Lattner rushed for 651 yards (averaging 4.9 yards per carry) and scored nine touchdowns, caught 14 passes for 204 yards, had four interceptions and tallied two TDs on only 10 kickoff returns.

Amazingly, he didn't lead the team in any categories, and his rushing and receiving statistics were down from 1952. (But he held the school record for all-purpose yards until Vagas Ferguson broke it in 1979.)

Fifty-eight years later, Lattner still finds it funny that he didn't carry the Midwest in Heisman voting. He beat Minnesota's Paul Giel by 56 votes. But Giel won the Midwest and Far West districts, while Lattner took the East, South and Southwest.

"I knew all the editors in Chicago and they didn't carry me," said Lattner, who also in 1953 captured the Maxwell Award a second time. "But I had a good game out east against Penn and a great game against Southern Cal in Los Angeles."

Following his Heisman season, Lattner played with Steelers. He gained 542 yards -- rushing and receiving -- and scored seven touchdowns during his rookie season. But the ROTC cadet joined the Air Force and was forced to play Air Force football, which was a big deal back then.

"That was our primary duty," Lattner said, "representing the Air Force by playing football."

A knee injury basically ended his career. He tried to come back with the Steelers, but his knee wouldn't comply. So Lattner went into coaching, but that nascent career ended in 1960 at the University of Denver when the school cut the program.

In 1962, he opened the Chicago steakhouse Johnny Lattner's on Madison Street. In 1968, a fire tore through the restaurant and severely damaged his Heisman Trophy, according to a story in the Marina City News.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lattner
University of Notre Dame In 1953, the Irish went 9-0-1, as Lattner rushed for 651 yards and scored nine touchdowns, caught 14 passes for 204 yards, had four interceptions and tallied two TDs on only 10 kickoff returns.
He received a replacement bronze from the Downtown Athletic Club, but he's never quite sure about its location at any given time.

"I don't know where the hell it is," Lattner said, laughing.

He and his daughter Maggie actually lend out the Heisman to raise money for various charities. He recently received $5,000 for lending it to two bidders at a Notre Dame coaches' auction, but he joked that he'd take $100 for similar arrangements.

"Hey, it's $100 a charity might not have," he said.

Lattner doesn't attend many Irish games anymore. It's easier watching on TV. Last year he went to two tilts, mostly to autograph a book that was written about his team.

He said he thinks Brian Kelly is a good coach but one who makes some odd mistakes, like not having his defensive backs positioned correctly at the end of the Michigan game. And while Lattner realizes the pressure the Irish players are under, he still gets angry at the television.

"I get mad, because you want more from them," he said. "When you see them performing not like they should be, you get mad at the coaches for not bringing up the attitude.

"Leahy was like that; he would tell us we're disgracing Notre Dame. He was a good salesman. You have to be a good salesman to sell you program. Leahy was good at it. Lou Holtz was good at it. Ara Parseghian was good at it. But they were also fundamentally sound coaches."

And ... well, Lattner could go on all day, telling stories about driving 1935 Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger around or hanging out with his old Catholic League buddies every week or having "a record that will never be broken" after fumbling five times against Purdue.

So I promise to give him a call again.

"I like to talk about my has-been career," he said.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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