The Legend that is
Johnny ‘Fenwick’ Lattner
Johnny Lattner ’50 lived the life of a football legend. Though he didn’t have million dollar endorsements for sportswear or video games or breakfast cereals, he had unwavering admiration from everyone who knew him. And it seemed that everyone knew Johnny Lattner.
So his death on Feb. 13, 2016 at age 83 from complications associated with mesothelioma, was a disheartening blow to everyone. Because legends don’t die.
Johnny Lattner was a Heisman Trophy winner, a Maxwell Award winner, a high school and college football hall of famer, a restaurateur, a neighbor, a friend, a classmate, a father and a grandfather.
All of that began on Oct. 24, 1932 on the West Side of Chicago where he was born and raised. As the youngest of three, he learned early that hard work was going to get him ahead. He also learned that knowing how to throw and take a punch on the streets of post-Great Depression Chicago would get him ahead, too. He never really enjoyed the fighting, but he found the contact and the competition thrilling and that taste for the thrill made him a natural athlete. His build didn’t hurt either. By high school, Lattner stood at 6-foot-1 and weighed 190 pounds.
He attended Fenwick High School as a freshman in 1947 because he wanted to play football, and there was no better team than the Fenwick Friars and their coach, Catholic League legend Tony Lawless. On the gridiron, Lattner was a rarity. He performed with excellence whether on defense or offense—he had no trouble returning or delivering kicks and punts. Because of his versatile talent, his time on the field was near constant.
That time led to 13 touchdowns and 721 yards rushed during his junior year season in 1948. He was the only junior to be chosen for the All-Chicago first team and he received All-State honors. His senior year consisted of the kind of plays and stats most kids can only imagine. Week after week, Lattner dominated the competition. Like when he scored five touchdowns against De La Salle for a 50–20 win, and returned the opening kick for an 88-yard touchdown, which helped defeat St. Rita. The Friars’ record that year was 22–7 and they won the Catholic League championship—the first time in 16 years. And in another milestone, the team defeated Public League champion Tilden for the city title—the first time in school history. Lattner averaged 15.8 points per game that season.
Johnny Fenwick, as he had come to be known, graduated from Fenwick in 1950 and went on to attend University of Notre Dame where he played halfback for the Fighting Irish. Despite more than 100 offers from universities and colleges all over the country, Notre Dame was the obvious choice for the proud son of Ireland.
It was at Notre Dame that Lattner became a national household name. He won the Maxwell Award twice, once in 1952 as a junior and again the following year. (Only Lattner and Tim Tebow have won the award twice.) He won the Heisman in 1953 as a senior, which landed his face on the cover of Time magazine on November 9, 1953.
The season concluded with Lattner racking up 651 rushing yards, nine touchdowns, 204 receiving yards, two returned kicks for touchdowns and four interceptions. The team finished in second place. When he graduated Notre Dame, Lattner had the school record for all-purpose yardage of 3,095, which went unbroken for 26 years. He had accumulated 20 career touchdowns and picked off 13 passes as a defensive back. So it was no surprise to anyone that he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers seventh overall in 1954.
As a rookie, Lattner stayed true to his talent. He had 69 carries for 237 yards and five touchdowns, and 25 catches for 305 yards and two touchdowns, and he was named to the Pro Bowl. He earned every penny of his $10,000 annual salary (a little more than $87,000 today). But this would be his only year in the NFL.
He joined the Air Force out of an obligation from his time in the R.O.T.C. program at Notre Dame. During a game with the Air Force club team, while returning a punt, a player landed the perfect hit on Lattner—right in the knee, which became his football career ending injury.
He moved into coaching for a brief spell in the late 1950s when he coached St. Joseph’s High School (in Kenosha, Wis.) and then at the University of Denver until 1961 when the school cut its football program.
With his football days behind him, Lattner headed home and cashed in on some of the capital his name had earned when he opened Johnny Lattner’s Steakhouse in Downtown Chicago on Madison and Clark streets. The steakhouse kept Lattner busy and his friends and patrons happily fed until a fire in 1968 forced its doors closed. He quickly sprang back with Johnny Lattner’s Marina City, another restaurant and bar, which was located right on the bank of the Chicago River (now Dick’s Last Resort). But the long hours that kept him away from his family eventually led him to retire from the restaurant business in 1973. Proving that he was just as versatile a working man as he was an athlete, Lattner went into sales and served as vice president of sales at PAL Graphics before retiring in 2013.
What’s more than his successes on the field and in the workforce, is that Lattner was always most committed to his neighborhood and his neighbors. He was never shy about loaning his Heisman out for photo opportunities if it helped raise money for one of the many causes dear to him. One of those causes was a Fenwick education. All four of his sons (he also has four daughters) attended Fenwick, and he is grandfather to 16 Friars.
Johnny Fenwick always held his alma mater close to his heart, and the Fenwick community held him close to its. Around the neighborhood and at events, he carried a presence like that of Elvis. Simply having him in a room was an event. But he was approachable, personable. He wanted to know who you were and how you were. He was eager and giving with his friendship and kind at every turn.
Lattner is survived by his wife since 1958—his high school sweetheart—Peggy née McAllister (Trinity Class of 1950), their eight children and many grandchildren.
And he is survived by the Fenwick community. His jersey number, 34, hangs from a large banner inside of the Fenwick gym named after his football coach. His Heisman will become Fenwick’s to display with pride. And not just the pride that a legend came from Fenwick’s halls, but pride that the community knew the man who made the legend.