Today is Johnny Lattner’s 80th birthday. The famous Fenwick High School alum has much to celebrate highlighted by winning the 1953 Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame, playing briefly for the Pittsburgh Steelers, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine, serving in the U.S. Air Force and still working in the printing business as a vice president of sales at Pal Graphics.
While thankful for all the gifts in his wonderfully diverse life, the former Oak Parker’s most prized possession is clearly his family, which includes his wife, Peggy, eight children and 25 grandchildren. Six of the grandkids currently attend Fenwick, and four of them play key roles on the Friars’ resurgent football team which rolls into the Class 7A playoffs against Huntley on Saturday (7 p.m.) at Morton West.
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 – embodies the spirit of Fenwick football lore.
During his Heisman season, 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 while playing multiple positions.
“We never lose sight of the fact Johnny is a legend,” Fenwick coach Gene Nudo said. “Since I arrived at Fenwick [in January], I 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. Heck, the Governor [Pat Quinn] was shooting baskets in our gym the other day. Johnny is certainly part of that heritage in which our students go on to be difference-makers in life.”
Difference-makers for Fenwick football this season have been Lattner’s grandsons. Defensive back John Lattner, wide receiver Dan Lattner, running back Robert Spillane and tight end Ryan Smith are big reasons why the Friars (7-2) won the Chicago Catholic League White Division title and put a major scare into Loyola as well. For good measure, Luke Lattner is the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team and freshman Will Lattner is potentially the best athlete among the six grandsons.
“They are all very sincere and couldn’t be nicer kids,” Johnny said. “They are conscientious about their schoolwork and committed to Fenwick sports.”
So, any additional pressure or heightened expectations for the kids, considering the shadow cast by their grandfather?
“Actually, I think they are pretty cool about it,” Johnny said. “I don’t tell them how to play. I just say things like, ‘nice game’ and support them.”
Lattner’s grandsons embrace his ubiquitous presence at their athletic events.
“We are a close knit family,” Luke Lattner said. “It’s awesome that we are at the same school playing sports. Our grandfather’s support means a lot because he’s basically the one who got us into sports.”
Adds Spillane: “When we were little kids, we would always come to the Fenwick football games and our grandfather would be around. We dreamed about winning a state title for Fenwick, and [now] that we’re playing together on the varsity that’s still our goal.”
Regardless of the Friars’ postseason fortunes, Johnny sees plenty of talent among his progeny.
“John is a good defensive back who recognizes plays and tackles well and Dan is a pretty good split end that seems to learn more every day,” Johnny said. “Robert has more speed [at running back] then I ever had. He can catch passes, block, play defense and basically do it all on the field. Ryan is a big kid [6-foot-4, 250-pounds] with good hands.”
Win or lose against Huntley in the first round, a weekly tradition will occur on Sunday between Lattner and his gridiron-focused grandsons.
“Every Sunday, our grandpa brings over doughnuts and breakfast,” Smith said. “We love seeing him. It’s a nice way to bring everybody together and just hang out.”