Johnny Lattner, Heisman Trophy winner, dies at 83

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Johnny Lattner, the only Chicago native to win the Heisman Trophy, died Saturday morning at 83. He had been battling lung cancer.

Mr. Lattner grew up on the West Side and starred at Fenwick High School, where, under famed coach Tony Lawless, he became one of the Catholic League’s all-time greats, leading the Friars to two Prep Bowls.

Recruited heavily by Michigan, Mr. Lattner opted to play for coach Frank Leahy at Notre Dame, where he excelled on offense, defense and special teams.

A two-time All-American, he played halfback and defensive back, returned kickoffs and punts and even punted at times. He had 13 career interceptions, still third-best in school history. His 3,095 all-purpose yards were a school record until Vagas Ferguson broke it in 1979.

In 1952, he ran for 732 yards on 148 carries (4.9 yards per attempt) and had 17 catches for 252 yards. Mr. Lattner won the Maxwell Award as college football’s best player.

In 1953, he rushed for 96 yards to help lead the Irish to a 27-14 victory over Georgia Tech, ending the Yellow Jackets’ 31-game unbeaten streak. He also had an interception in a 27-21 victory over Oklahoma. The Irish finished the season ranked No.  2 after a 14-14 tie against Iowa.

Mr. Lattner, who won the Heisman and Maxwell that year, rushed for 651 yards on 134 carries and had 14 catches for 204 yards. He also returned eight kickoffs for 331 yards, including two touchdowns, a 41.4-yard return average that remains second-best in school history. Mr. Lattner and Tim Tebow are the only two-time recipients of the Maxwell Award.

Johnny Lattner [1932-2016]

At a time when college football was bigger than the NFL, the 6-1, 190-pounder appeared on the cover of Time, the magazine’s caption reading, “a bread and butter ball carrier.” He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Mr. Lattner was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the seventh pick of the 1954 NFL draft. In his only season, in which he made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, he had 69 carries for 237 yards and five touchdowns and made 25 receptions for 305 yards and two touchdowns before having to fulfill a military commitment to the Air Force. During a club football game in the Air Force, the 24-year-old suffered a career-ending knee injury.

In 1962, Mr. Lattner opened Johnny Lattner’s Steakhouse in Chicago, but a fire shut it down six years later. His Heisman Trophy was lost in the blaze.

Mr. Lattner was able to get a replacement trophy, which he shared at events throughout the years. He later worked for a printing business and a business-supply firm.

The Irish-bred Catholic was a fixture at Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, often dressed in a kilt and leading the traditional march.


Mr. Lattner and his wife, Peggy, had eight children and 25 grandchildren. Both frequently attended the grandchildren’s sporting events.

Affable and approachable, Mr. Lattner was a great storyteller. A few years ago, he shared possibly his favorite sporting achievement, which, oddly enough, took place on a basketball court.

In his sophomore season at Notre Dame, Mr. Lattner, a solid hoops player at Fenwick, decided to try out for basketball. When a few players were declared ineligible, coach John Jordan and assistant Johnny Dee put him on the squad — but far down the bench.

Mr. Lattner recalled a game in 1952 when the Irish were playing NYU at Madison Square Garden. The rising football star said he was staring into the stands, scouting girls, when the team’s star, Leroy Leslie, fouled out in the waning moments with the Irish trailing by a point. Dee yelled down the bench for Lattner to go in. The startled sub said he caught the ball with time running down, tossed up a shot, and it went in. Notre Dame won 75-74.

Leslie had 30 points. Mr. Lattner had two.

Still, Red Smith, the nation’s pre-eminent sportswriter and a Notre Dame graduate, wrote about Lattner, the “two-sport star,” in his column the next day.


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