By Mark Vruno
Few people have loved Fenwick High School more than the late John “Johnny” Lattner, Class of 1950, the student-athlete who went on to national stardom on the football field for the University of Notre Dame. In 1953, Lattner won the coveted Heisman Trophy while playing running back for the Fighting Irish. To date, he is the only Illinois high school player to have gone on to win the Heisman.
When Mr. Lattner passed away in early 2016 at the age of 83, his wake was held in the Lawless Gym at Fenwick. At Johnny’s request, his family bequeathed his Heisman Trophy to the school. On Wednesday, May 24, Irish eyes were smiling as three generations of Lattners gathered to see the emotional unveiling of a beautiful case built especially for the only Heisman Trophy that resides in an Illinois high school. “I can hear him,” said Peggy, his widow, as she listened to a recording of her husband’s voice on a pre-ceremony video. (View the Washington Post’s four-minute, “Traveling Heisman” video.)
The event was filled with emotion and pride. “Our Dad grew up on the West Side in a tough neighborhood,” reflected Jack Lattner, one of Johnny’s sons and also a Fenwick alumnus from the Class of '80. “People discouraged him from going to Notre Dame because they said he wouldn’t play there. He wanted to prove them wrong…. If seeing this trophy in school inspires just one kid that he can do anything, it will have served its purpose here.”
View video of the ceremony.
This past August, the football Friars dedicated their season to the memory of “Papa John,” affixing Kelly-green shamrock stickers with his retired #34 on their helmets. His famous trophy also was present on the sideline before each home contest. “As a sign of respect to Johnny, every one of our players touched the Heisman on his way out to the field,” Head Coach Gene Nudo recalls with emotion in his voice. The luck of the Irish certainly didn’t hurt, as Fenwick went 12-1 with a semi-final appearance in the Illinois Class 7A state playoffs. The Friars will wear their lucky #34 shamrock stickers on their helmets going forward, “forever,” as far as Coach Nudo is concerned.
The Legend Was Not a Myth
After a standout career in basketball* and football at Fenwick, where he averaged an astonishing 18 yards per carry his senior year, “Big John” (what his high-school teammates called him) went on to set more records at the University of Notre Dame. The two-time All Stater from Illinois was a two-time All American on the collegiate gridiron and twice won the Maxwell Award for the best college football player. Lattner averaged 4.9 yards per carry his senior year in college, amassed more than 3,000 career all-purpose yards and scored 27 touchdowns as a halfback, kick returner and defensive back for the Fighting Irish. Frank Leahy, his college coach, called the 6’2” 195-pound Lattner “a bread-and-butter ball carrier,” a description that captioned a photo of Johnny on the cover of TIME magazine. (Copies of the actual cover story, discovered among the periodicals in Fenwick’s Library, were distributed on the 24th.)
At the 1953 Heisman award ceremony in New York City, Knute Rockne’s legendary Four Horsemen reunited for the first time in 18 years. True to Fenwick form, Lattner remained humble when he spoke at the podium, showing “a special grace,” according to a 1993 Chicago Sun-Times account written 40 years later: “Without a good team behind him, there is no such thing as a so-called star,” Lattner said in accepting the Heisman Trophy. “It’s not false modesty but common sense. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did this year without those teammates and the coaches who made it possible.”
How big a deal was John Joseph Lattner? John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were among Johnny Lattner’s fans. Suffice it to say that if social media existed in the 1950s, posts about his football feats would have blown up the Twittersphere. “If Lattner had won his Heisman a generation later, he would have become an instant multimillionaire,” the Sun-Times asserted. “He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, made the All-Pro team, and was acclaimed as the top rookie in the NFL.” His pro contract in 1954 was for $10,000 (annually) with a $3,500 signing bonus, but a knee injury cut short Lattner’s career.
Later in life, Mr. Lattner devoted much of his time to doing good. He worked tirelessly for Maryville Academy and other worthy causes. “For all of Lattner’s football achievements, there are members of eight Chicago families who remember Lattner even more fondly,” the newspaper account reported. In 1963, ten years after winning the Heisman, “Lattner and his wife, Margaret [Peggy], ran into a burning West Side apartment building in the wee hours of the morning and helped rescue 35 tenants, including eight people who had been overcome by smoke. Coach Leahy once said this about his superstar: “Lattner is more an All-American off the field than on.” Twenty-four years ago the Sun-Times reporter added, “He still is” and, to us at Fenwick, he always will be.
A father of eight, Lattner’s four sons – Jack, Tim ('81), Bill ('82) and Mike ('84) – attended Fenwick (girls weren’t admitted until 1995), and 16 of his 25 grandchildren call themselves Friars. When four of his grandsons played on the same Fenwick football squad in 2012, their grandpa was a frequent visitor to practice. (Danny and Will Lattner were present at the unveiling.) Less than a month before his death, Mr. Lattner was seen sitting in the bleachers taking in a Friars’ home basketball game.
Special thanks to the Fenwick Father’s Club for sponsoring the Heisman Trophy Case and also to Denis McCauley, the school’s Special Projects Manager, for his expert craftsmanship in creating the Heisman display. “Because of Denis’ excellent work, many generations of Friars will be inspired by Johnny Lattner’s achievements,” praised President Father Richard Peddicord, O.P.
More Johnny Lattner Stats from Fenwick
A two-way player in the pre-facemask era, Lattner ran the football, he returned kickoffs and punts, he intercepted footballs in the defensive secondary, he punted for a 47-yard average in the ’49 Chicago Catholic League (CCL) championship game and even threw (who knew!) two touchdown passes that same afternoon.
Ralph Maillard, an All-American player and a member of the 1929 Chicago Bears, coached in the CCL at St. Ignatius from 1929 to 1958. In 1948, Lattner's junior season at Fenwick, Maillard told a newspaper reporter, “He is one of the best football players that I have ever seen.” Known by his Fenwick teammates as “Big John,” Lattner scored 13 touchdowns that year, good for fourth in the city, and was the only junior selected to the All-Chicago first team. He also rushed for 721 yards and received All-State honors (as an end) as Fenwick won the Catholic League title. In front of 80,000 people at Soldier Field, the Friars fell 13-7 to Lindblom in the Prep Bowl.
Johnny made All-State again (this time as halfback) in 1949 – the first player in Illinois’ history to do it two consecutive years at different positions. His senior season of 1949, during which Fenwick went 10-1, was a continuous highlight reel:
- Against Weber’s Red Horde in Week 1, Lattner scored touchdowns from 20, 50 and 55 yards.
- Against DePaul in Week 2, he tallied runs of 76 and 82 yards.
- He added a 76-yard touchdown run the next week against Leo.
- Two weeks later he scored five touchdowns in a 50-20 victory over De La Salle.
- Two weeks after that, in a 45-0 victory over St. Rita, Lattner took the opening kickoff 88 yards for a TD.
- In the Catholic League championship against St. George, Lattner threw two touchdown passes, had 188 yards rushing — including a long of 70 — on 16 carries and another touchdown. (He had a fourth score nullified by a holding penalty.) Fenwick won 42-13 at Soldier Field.
*Many people forget that Lattner also led the Friars’ basketball team in scoring for four years (1947-50) and ran track, clocking 10.3 seconds in the 100-yard dash and 22.3 seconds in the 220. No wonder why the versatile athlete had more than 100 scholarship offers to play football in college!
See also www.fenwickfriars.com/johnnylattner.