Feb. 13, 2016

John Lattner used to say his football career at the University of Notre Dame was spent mostly in Irish head coach Frank Leahy’s doghouse. When Lattner was asked to name his most memorable game and he often would laugh and mention the time he fumbled five times against Purdue.

“No other Heisman Trophy winner has ever done that,” he would say, chuckling.

He was just being modest, of course. The truth is, Lattner won the 1953 Heisman because he was the best all-around player in the college game. A six-foot-one, 195-pounder who played both ways, Lattner didn’t lead his senior team in rushing, passing, scoring, receiving or tackling. But he did everything so well, on both sides of the line, that he was the leader of a 9-0-1 Irish team.

Lattner died Saturday morning at his Melrose Park, Illinois, home at age 83 due to complications from mesothelioma. Three of Notre Dame’s record seven Heisman Trophy winners are now deceased, including Angelo Bertelli (he passed away in 1999) and Leon Hart (2002).

“We just didn’t have specialists in one-platoon football,” Lattner said some years ago. “It was a challenging type game because you had to be mentally and physically prepared to play 60 minutes. You had to spread your talent all over the field.”

Charlie Callahan, the former Notre Dame publicist, once called Lattner “the Eddy Stanky of football.” Stanky, of course, was the former Major League Baseball player and manager known for his competitive nature. Of Lattner, Callahan said, “He can’t run, he can’t pass, he can’t dodge, but he’ll beat you every time.”

Lattner grew up in an apartment building on Chicago’s west side where the residents also included George Wilson, then a star end for the Chicago Bears, and Bill DeCorrevont, one of the nation’s outstanding high school players. As Lattner once told longtime Chicago sportswriter Bill Gleason, “On Sunday nights us kids would wait for George Wilson to come home from the Bears games. You can imagine what a thrill that was for a young kid.”

As a senior for coach Tony Lawless at Chicago’s Fenwick High School in 1949, Lattner received more than 90 football scholarship offers. He finally picked Notre Dame because the Irish had such a large following in Chicago. He wanted to prove himself to detractors who said he wasn’t good enough to play for Leahy, the legendary Irish coach known for his stern ways.

When Lattner was a sophomore in 1951, college football experimented with the two-platoon rule. However, Leahy used Lattner both ways that year and the next, which helped Lattner’s Heisman chances when the NCAA reverted to single-platoon football before his senior year.

During the Iowa game of Lattner’s sophomore season, the Irish trailed late in the game when Leahy sent in instructions for Johnny to punt on fourth down. As Lattner recalled it, Bob Toneff snorted and said, “What’s the matter with him? We’re not going to give up the ball.” And then captain Jim Mutscheller told Lattner to go through the motions of punting, but to throw him a pass.

Terrified though he must have been at the idea of snubbing Leahy’s orders, Lattner nevertheless did as the upperclassmen ordered. He faked the kick and threw.

“I never saw anyone more alone than Mutscheller,” Lattner told South Bend Tribune sportswriter Joe Doyle. “But I was so excited that I threw a real wobbler. Jim had to come back up field to catch it, and then he ran just far enough to get the first down. And then we got the tie. There I was, a little sophomore disobeying the coach. But it worked and Coach Leahy didn’t say much. He couldn’t.”

As a junior in 1952, Lattner had some of his most memorable games. In a 26-14 victory over Purdue in West Lafayette, the Irish tied a school record with 10 fumbles, five belonging to Lattner (Purdue fumbled 11 times in the same game, losing eight). Not even Lattner’s 45-yard touchdown after catching a pass was enough to make Leahy forget the fumbles.

Afterward, as Lattner often recalled it, Leahy went around for days saying, “Ooooooh, Jonathan Lattner. Ooooooh, you heretic, Jonathan Lattner. What am I going to do with you? You committed those five mortal sins. Ooooooh, Jonathan Lattner, you should be denied the final rites.”

What Leahy did with Lattner, after delivering a long harangue against the evils of fumbling, was make him practice taking handoffs for an hour and a half the next Monday. After practice, Leahy had a rope strung between the goal posts, about three feet above the ground. He made Lattner take handoffs and dive under the rope.

“I must have done it a thousand times,” Lattner said. “The last time I hit the rope, it broke. I had rope burns all across my nose and cheeks.”

And that wasn’t the end of it. Leahy also had a handle put on a football and made Lattner carry it with him everywhere he went the rest of the week. He carried it to class, to bed, to meals, everywhere. “I was afraid to put it down,” Lattner said, “because I was afraid Leahy would catch me and take my scholarship away.”

Alas, however, even all that didn’t completely cure Lattner’s fumbilitis. Later that year, against a great Oklahoma team led by Billy Vessels and Buck McPhail, Lattner fumbled it away at the Sooner one-yard line. “Leahy might have killed me if I hadn’t taken evasive action near the sideline,” Lattner said.

As it turned out, despite another 10 fumbles, the Irish pulled out a 27-21 victory that marked the highlight of a second straight 7-2-1 season. What Lattner remembers most about his 60-minute effort against the fourth-rated Sooners was playing defense against Vessels, who went on to win that year’s Heisman.

“He was the best back I ever saw,” Lattner said. “He could run, pass, play defense, and he had speed. We held our breath before every play, thinking what might happen when he got the ball. That was a great win for us because Oklahoma was a better team. If we played 10 times, I’ll bet they would have won nine. But everything went our way that day.”

The Irish began Lattner’s senior year by beating sixth-ranked Oklahoma again, this time by a 28-21 count in Norman. In the first quarter, with Notre Dame facing a third-and-fourth situation, Irish quarterback Ralph Guglielmi handed the ball to fullback Neil Worden, who failed to get the yardage. A few moments later, after the first team came to the sidelines for a rare breather, Leahy summoned Guglielmi and Lattner.

“Mr. Guglielmi,” said Leahy, “I’d like you to meet Mr. Lattner. And Mr. Lattner, I’d like you to meet Mr. Guglielmi.” He then turned to Guglielmi.

“How many people are there in the stadium?” Leahy asked. “How many people are there in the United States? And how many people are there in the world?”

Puzzled, Guglielmi answered that there were 58,000 people in the stadium, about 150 million in the United States and “a couple billion” in the world.

“Of all the 58,000 in this stadium, of all the 150 million people in the United States, and of all the two billion people in the world, what one person would you call on to get you four yards when you need it?”

“John Lattner,” said Guglielmi, meekly.

The rest of the season, Lattner was Notre Dame’s big-play man. In a 27-14 victory over fourth-ranked Georgia Tech on his birthday, the student body sang “Happy Birthday” to him as the Irish were driving for their final touchdown. When the Irish reached the Tech seven, everybody in Notre Dame Stadium knew Lattner was going to carry it in.

As the Irish lined up, tackle Bob Hunter looked across the line and told his opponent, “Guess where we’re going this time? Right through you!” And then Hunter drove the poor fellow into the end zone while Lattner followed for a standup touchdown.

That was the game when Leahy became so ill at halftime that he had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. He stayed in the hospital all the next week, but arranged a closed-circuit television hookup so he could watch practice from his bed. “He didn’t miss a trick,” Lattner said. After the season, Leahy announced his retirement.

As a senior, Lattner played 421 of a possible 600 minutes. He scored nine touchdowns, accounted for 855 yards in rushing and catching, intercepted four passes, accounted for 424 yards in kick returns, and punted for a 35-yard average. He appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in November 1953. Asked about Lattner, Leahy called him a “wonderful competitor” and “a fine clutch player.”

After winning the Heisman and the Maxwell Trophy (for the second straight year), Lattner was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had an outstanding rookie year in 1954 before entering the service, where he injured his knee so severely in a pickup game that he never played again.

A vice president and sales representative for many years for commercial printer PAL Graphics in Chicago, Lattner initially kept his Heisman atop a piano bar in his home. Then for years he displayed it in a Chicago restaurant that he owned. When the restaurant burned, the trophy was destroyed, but the Heisman committee had a duplicate made. In recent years Lattner’s daughter Maggie has “booked” the trophy so various charitable organizations could use it for fundraising purposes.

“We wanted some good to come out of this, so we make sure it’s for a good cause,” said Lattner. “When I had it in the restaurant, I used to let the kids pick it up and handle it. Everybody was always surprised at how heavy it was. I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

“I don’t think I was that good, but I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

In the 1953 Heisman Trophy voting, Lattner finished with 1,850 points to surpass Minnesota’s Paul Giel (1,794), UCLA’s Paul Cameron (444) and Maryland’s Bernie Faloney (258). At that time those marked the closest Heisman vote totals in history. Lattner finished fifth in the Heisman voting in 1952 as a junior (behind Vessels).

Lattner finished with 1,724 rushing yards at Notre Dame–carrying 68 times for 341 yards and six TDs in 1951, 148 times for 732 yards and five TDs in 1952 and 134 times for 651 yards and nine TDs in 1953. He caught 39 career passes for 613 yards, returned 11 kickoffs for 366 yards, 27 punts for 307 yards and 13 interceptions for 128 yards. Lattner’s all-purpose yardage record held up until Vagas Ferguson broke it in 1979.

He also played one season with the Irish basketball squad in 1951-52.

Lattner was elected to the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He had been a regular over the years at the annual announcement and presentation of the Heisman Trophy in New York City.

Living much of his life in Oak Park, Illinois, Lattner is survived by his wife Peggy, eight children and 25 grandchildren (six of them competed in athletics at the college level).

Visitation will be 3-9 p.m. CST Friday (Feb. 19) at Lawless Gymnasium at Fenwick High School (505 Washington Blvd.) in Oak Park, Illinois. The funeral will be at noon CST Saturday (Feb. 20) at St. Vincent Ferrer Church (1530 Jackson Avenue) in River Forest, Illinois.

Many of the details in this story are taken from a feature on John Lattner by Billy Reed that appeared in the 1988 Notre Dame-Miami official football game program (Lattner appeared on the cover of the edition).

— ND —