Johnny Lattner was royalty when prep football was king in Chicago

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Fenwick’s Johnny Lattner runs against Weber during a 1949 game at Hanson Stadium.

For reasons that escape me now, I used to arrive at Fenwick High School well before classes started each day. Searching for something to do that didn’t involve studying, I would look at the photos that had been hung in the hallways.

Some of them showed Prep Bowl football games from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The games between the Chicago Catholic League and Chicago Public League champions were played at Soldier Field, and the crowds were massive. The 1962 game between Fenwick and Schurz (a 40-0 victory for the Friars) drew a crowd of 91,328. That photo was hard to absorb as a high-school freshman, and it’s still hard to imagine all these years later.

I’ve been thinking about those games since the passing Saturday of Johnny Lattner, who starred at Fenwick from 1947-50 and won the 1953 Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame. He was the best football player to ever come out of the Oak Park school, and as those photos proved, he did it in an era when prep football was king.

During Lattner’s time at Fenwick, the Friars played in the Prep Bowl in 1948 and 1949. I couldn’t find the attendance figures for either game, but when Fenwick played in the 1945 game, 80,000 people showed up. It’s not a stretch to believe that with Lattner in the Friars’ backfield, the 1948 and 1949 games were huge attractions, as well.

(The record attendance for an Illinois high school football game was 110,000. That was for the 1937 Prep Bowl between Austin and Leo. Insane.)

One year, my basketball coach asked Tony Lawless, then Fenwick’s athletic director and previously a legendary football coach at the school, to speak to our team before the season. I remember only two things from his speech: that Lattner scored a touchdown the first time he touched the ball at Fenwick and that Lattner scored a touchdown the first time he touched the ball at Notre Dame. Everything he did was big.

I felt very small and very motivated all at once.

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