Fenwick legend Johnny Lattner dies at 83

Won 1953 Heisman Trophy; pro career cut short by injury

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By Marty Farmer

Sports Editor

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.


Email: marty@oakpark.com Twitter: @OakParkSports

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Melvin Tate from Oak Park   

Posted: February 15th, 2016 6:14 PM

I never got to meet Mr. Lattner, but I understood he was not only a great athlete but a great person. He will be sorely missed in Oak Park. A true legend is gone, but he will never be forgotten. RIP Mr. Lattner, you fought the good fight and was victorious.

Maryellen Lesniak from Oak Park  

Posted: February 14th, 2016 3:01 PM

Johnny, I am glad to have known you. I remember the summers you brought your family up to my dad's, Fred O'Keefe"s Sports Camp in Eagle River. I remember watching you with the little kids taking the football in your hands, looking at the 7 and 8 year old boys who were staring in awe, and saying,"Boy, this is a football." Nothing like starting with the basics. I know you will be missed by many down here, but I also know there will be a great reunion party of football lovers in heaven. Say hi to my dad for me.

Paul Nowak  

Posted: February 14th, 2016 12:08 PM

I only knew him from the Oak Park Tennis and Fitness Club from the past few months. From the little I spoke to him, I knew he was more than a legend on the football field the way he spoke so highly of his family. I know he will be greatly missed by many.

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