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High School Legends series: Johnny Lattner, Johnny Fenwick

Fenwick's Johnny Lattner, a Heisman Trophy winner, the latest in the High School Legends series.

Editor's note: Johnny Lattner died early Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. This is the second in a series on high school sports legends with roots in Chicago and the surrounding area.

Johnny Lattner doesn't have a reason to leave.

The boys usually show up around 11 a.m., or whenever the doors of Doc Ryan's open on Tuesdays. The weekly gathering, which, after 15 years remains without an official name, is comprised of anywhere from 15 to 35 men.

On a rainy, mid-October afternoon at the Forest Park pub, 18 men between the ages of 75 and 88 talk about old times, current events, friendship and family.

Lattner, 82, pours another helping from a $5 plastic pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Here, Chicago's only born and bred Heisman Trophy winner is just one of the guys. It's all he wants to be.

"You know, it's no big deal," Lattner said of the group. "We're just a group of guys that likes to get together. Maybe have an afternoon off, get out of the house, tell stories and b.s. a little bit."

He smiles. And winks.

During the two years he spent as running backs coach at the University of Denver, his home never left his heart. From Fenwick High School in Oak Park, to Notre Dame, to the Downtown Athletic Club in Lower Manhattan and back, he never felt the pull of exotic locales.

The second-oldest living Heisman winner has his wife, Peggy, whom he married in 1958. He has his family, including eight children and 25 grandchildren, anywhere from a 10- or 20-minute drive away. He has memories of and love for his schools, past and present. And on Tuesdays, from 11 a.m. to whenever he feels like leaving, he has his boys.

"I love Chicago. I grew up here," he says. "I never even thought of moving anywhere else."

'Scared little rabbit'

Lattner was born in Chicago in 1932, the youngest of three children in an apartment complex on the West Side. Work ethic was instilled at an early age. In seventh grade, from January through March, Lattner would wake up at 4 a.m. to deliver 200 copies of that morning's Chicago Tribune. If he didn't miss a day of deliveries, he'd get a $100 bonus on top of the base pay. Lattner said he didn't miss a day.

That winter he made $200.

"Christ, you make more than I do, John," he remembered his father Bill saying. That day, as a token of appreciation and pride, Johnny paid for a father-son trip to the movies.

On the West Side, as on most sides of the city post-Great Depression, fighting was a way to gain respect of one's peers. Lattner didn't necessarily like it, but enjoyed contact. He loved sports, and played basketball and football at his now-closed middle school, St. Thomas Aquinas.

"When I was growing up, I'll be honest with you. I was a big, skinny, scared little rabbit. Big, though," he says.

Lattner almost attended the West Side's now-closed St. Philip High School. His sister was dating a teacher there, and the friendly Bill Shay was the Gaels' basketball coach. Lattner chose Fenwick because, despite the considerable draw of basketball and Shay, he wanted to play football. Fenwick "was always a winner" and had Catholic League legend Tony Lawless, who went 172-40-6 in his 25 years as Friars coach. For the boy who would become "Johnny Fenwick," that was enough.

Lawless coached Lattner in basketball until his junior season, when Shay came from St. Philip and "turned the basketball program all around." In Lattner's junior season, during which he played center, the Friars went 19-10 and he scored a team-high 11.4 points per game, good enough to make the Chicago Daily News' All-Catholic second team.

According to the school yearbook, in his senior season, Fenwick went 22-7 and captured its first Catholic League title in 16 years. The Friars, for the first time in school history, also beat Public League champion Tilden (54-41) for the city title in front of 8,000 people at old Chicago Stadium. That year, Lattner averaged a team-high 15.8 points per game.

'Maybe I'll get lucky'

Sitting comfortably alongside Peggy in their Melrose Park condo, Lattner discusses his health over a glass of red wine. The couple is at ease.

About two months ago, Lattner was diagnosed with mesothelioma, or asbestos cancer. It's a typically aggressive lung-affecting form, yet hasn't come close to slowing his optimism or travels. He works out daily, says he can do so up to 30 minutes without feeling tired. His breathing is strong and smooth.

The couple's weekends consist of visiting colleges — Augustana, Loyola, Miami of Ohio, North Central, Western Michigan among them — to watch their grandchildren compete. It's what drives Johnny. Despite his illness, as Peggy says, "You might die of anything. The bad news is that he has the disease; the good news is, at his age, it doesn't travel very fast."

He'll see his family doctor next week, with the hope of a clear-lung diagnosis. "Maybe I'll be around for 10 more years," he says.

If not, it will be seen through a prism of a life fully lived.

"Maybe I'll get lucky, who knows?" he says. "Either way I'm gonna say, 'You know what, hey, I'm still here.'"

With no reason to leave.

'Wonderful that way'

Reverend Richard LaPata, a member of the Dominican Order who served as Fenwick's 14th president from 1998 to 2007, was a freshman Friar in 1946. As is customary for new students, he was assigned a locker to share with a student whose last name was in close proximity. On the first day of school, LaPata opened his locker for the first time, and all of Lattner's football equipment fell on top of him.

"That locker partner business didn't last too long, because the dean moved me," LaPata said with a laugh. "John, of course, would come to school earlier to work out on the practice fields. And what was supposed to be a two-person locker resulted in only one person very quickly."

Days later, LaPata was reassigned.

Lawless didn't run a complicated offense, as was the custom in the 1940s. He ran a single wing, the old "X" formation, and when a pass was called, according to Lattner, it would either be a "flood right or a flood left."

To excel on both sides of the ball — and return kicks and punts, plus punt — was rare. Rarer were times when the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Lattner wasn't on the field.

Ralph Maillard, an All-American player and a member of the 1929 Bears also coached in the Catholic League, at St. Ignatius, from 1929 to 1958. In 1948, Lattner's junior season, Maillard called him "one of the best football players that I have ever seen," in a newspaper article.

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 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.

His senior season, during which Fenwick went 10-1, was a continuous highlight reel. Against Weber 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 touchdown.

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 and also punted for an average of 47 yards. Fenwick won 42-13 at Soldier Field.

'In front of your home crowd'

Notre Dame was an easy choice for Lattner, a proud Irishman. Despite more than 100 offers, the tradition, proximity and familiarity of Notre Dame won out. He enrolled in 1950.

"One of the reasons I went to Notre Dame was because a lot of people from Chicago would go there," Lattner said. "In those days, in the stadium's 70,000 capacity, 40,000 of them would be from Chicago. It's like playing in front of your home crowd every week."

As a junior, Lattner won the Maxwell Award, another honor given to the best player in college football. He accounted for 984 yards from scrimmage – 732 rushing and five touchdowns, 252 receiving yards, plus four interceptions — good enough for fifth in that season's Heisman voting. The No. 3-ranked Irish finished 7-2-1.

Lattner won the Heisman in 1953 in a tight, two-horse race despite lacking dominant statistics. He also won the Maxwell for the second time. The senior had 651 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, 204 receiving yards, returned two kicks for touchdowns and added four interceptions for good measure.

By the time Lattner left Notre Dame, he had established a school record for all-purpose yardage (3,095), which stood for 26 years. He scored 20 career touchdowns and picked off 13 passes as a defensive back. To this day, there are only two two-time Maxwell winners – Lattner and Florida's Tim Tebow (2007-08).

'I knew right away'

The Steelers drafted Lattner seventh overall in the 1954 draft. His annual salary was $10,000, with a signing bonus of $3,500. As a rookie, he had 69 carries for 237 yards and five touchdowns and 25 catches for 305 yards and two touchdowns.

Lattner played in the All-Pro game that year — "the only reason I played was because they needed a former Heisman, this and that, for the name," he jokes. But as part of his ROTC commitment, Lattner had to enter the Air Force for two years. He enlisted after his rookie season.

The knee injury happened during a game in Fort Jackson, S.C. Lattner's unit was up big. On a punt return late in the game, he was hit in the perfect spot.

"Guy caught me the right way, my knee, I knew right away," he said. "It swelled up. I played a little bit against a team in Oklahoma later on, and my knee completely went out while I was playing defense. That was it."

Both of Lattner's cruciate ligaments were torn, but his knee wasn't operated on until about three months after the initial hit. The doctor cleaned the cartilage but couldn't quite fix the ligaments. Lattner couldn't cut or stop. Despite a desire to play a few more years — "I wasn't the fastest, but I think I could've helped the team" — Lattner accepted his fate. An accomplished career ended with an Air Force club team.

Since then, the now-retired Lattner has held multiple occupations. He opened Johnny Lattner's Steakhouse in 1962 before a fire closed its doors in 1968. Johnny Lattner's Marina City — now Dick's Last Resort — opened soon after. The long hours and late nights away from family didn't click with the budding restauranteur, who left the business in 1973. He's been involved with various charities and committees, and until two years ago, acted as the vice president of sales at PAL Graphics, a printing company in Broadview.

'It's deep-rooted'

Fenwick's football team is playing at Marmion, in Aurora, in early October. Third-year coach Gene Nudo describes the weather as "what felt like snow but was hard rain, the first really cold night of the year." Lattner is there supporting his lone descendant on this year's edition, grandson Will Lattner.

"It's deep-rooted," Lattner says of his Fenwick love. "I'll go to the basketball games. I won't have a grandkid on the basketball team, but I'll go to the game. It's warm. I enjoy watching them play."

The 20th Lattner grandchild will enroll at Fenwick next year. Robert Spillane and Ryan Smith, freshman football players at Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio, helped the Friars win the Catholic League White in 2012 and 2013.

"Ryan sometimes feels that pressure to be great, but I've never felt any of that," Robert Spillane said. "Papa John never put any pressure on me, never demanded that I be this unreal athlete. He just supported me."

Lattner's Heisman — the original of which burned in the steakhouse fire — is a copy these days. It can be found at any number of goodwill events, its whereabouts determined by daughter Maggie Skiver, the family's "Heisman keeper." Lattner has infrequent knowledge of its whereabouts. A common joke told around Johnny is his usage of the trophy as a doorstop. While the story is almost believable, his generosity is fact.

"For our homecoming against Providence last year (Oct. 12, 2013), the game was at Concordia," Nudo remembers. "There was a tent for people to take pictures with Johnny. Now, realize, it's not just taking a picture with Johnny. He wants to put his arm around you, know where you're from, who your parents are and who your grandparents are. He has great way of remembering people."

"He just moves amongst the people like he's one of them, he's very comfortable. I don't really know if he realizes how big his celebrity is," Nudo adds.

According to Lattner's oldest son Jack, his father receives 15-20 fan letters per day. He opens and reads each one.

"A lot of organizations call and ask if he'll give a speech, and he will not take any money. It's unbelievable," Jack says. "Nowadays, ex-players ask for, say, $2,500 to speak at an engagement. Not my dad, especially if it's for a good cause. His generosity is overwhelming."

Fenwick means everything to the Lattners. Still, Johnny doesn't seem to realize or acknowledge his impact despite his retired No. 34 hanging from the rafters in the school's new gym.

"When he comes around, my staff treats him like Elvis," Nudo says.

When he dies, the family agreed, Fenwick will be the Heisman Trophy's new home.

"Fenwick High School sums up who my father is," says Gretchen Spillane, Johnny's youngest child and Robert's mother. "He feels that's where he did a lot of his growing and learning, and I think he feels that Fenwick allowed him to become the athlete and person he is today."

With no reason to leave.

rmayor@tribune.com

@CityHall03

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