by Craig Chval
Notre Dame fans can be grateful that young Johnny Lattner’s budding baseball career got off to a “rocky” start.
Lattner’s father was a baseball player of considerable repute in his native Evansville, Ind., playing in the old Three-I League that also included teams from Illinois and Iowa. So when Johnny was old enough to get a baseball glove on his hand, his father took him to an empty lot across from their home to begin the process of teaching him the sport.
“My dad began peppering balls at me,” Lattner recalls.
“A ball went off a rock and hit me in the head. Another one went off a rock and hit me in the shoulder. Another ball went off a rock and hit me in the knee. I never caught a ball.
“My dad said, ‘I think there might be another sport for you to play,'”
The Lattners were living on Chicago’s west side, as Johnny’s dad had moved from Evansville after serving in the military during World War I.
“So my dad took me over to the gym at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, and I started playing basketball,” Lattner remembers.
“I was in the third or fourth grade, and I turned into a gym rat. I had a ball, and the older kids would take it away from me. But I stuck around, and worked on my dribbling and shooting, and after a while, they let me play with them.”
Lattner’s father also got him involved in boxing.
“I was a tall, lanky, clumsy kid, and I was scared of my own shadow,” Lattner says.
“Other kids used to pick on me, and one day I ran to my dad crying, so he got me some boxing gloves, and began to teach me how to box. I got to the point where I could swing at my dad OK, but I still was afraid to swing at other kids.
“Finally, one day some kid was picking on me, and I just said, ‘Let’s go,'” recalls Lattner.
“I handled myself pretty well, and I really think that was one of the turning points of my life.
“My dad was a very nice man,” says Lattner. “And he really encouraged me.”
Thanks in large part to his father’s backing, Lattner went on to enjoy a spectacular prep career in both football and basketball in the late 1940’s at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill., just outside of Chicago. Dozens of colleges were hoping that Lattner would decide to play football for them.
Lattner visited the Notre Dame campus during December of his senior year of high school.
“Living in Chicago, I knew for a fact that a lot of people got to the Notre Dame games,” says Lattner.
“That was before the days of televised college football games, and I liked the idea of a lot of people that knew me being able to see me play at Notre Dame.”
But by the time Lattner had graduated from Fenwick the following May, he had yet to hear from Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy.
“I was ready to go to Michigan,” Lattner explains.
“They were still running the old Rockne box, which suited me well as a halfback. And a lot of people were telling me not to go to Notre Dame, that I’d just be a number there.”
Finally, Leahy summoned Lattner to have lunch at the old Bismarck Hotel in Chicago with a few other prospective players.
“My high school coach told me not to commit anything while I was there, and I didn’t” Lattner says.
“But I definitely wanted to play for Notre Dame. And I’m very happy that I did.”
It would be an understatement to say that Notre Dame fans have been happy with Lattner’s decision. All the self-described, “tall, lanky, clumsy kid” did was win the Hesiman Trophy as the nation’s best player as a senior in 1953.
He also won the Maxwell Award, another prestigious player-of-the-year award both as a junior and as a senior. Lattner didn’t become a number, as some of his acquaintances had feared; instead, he made numbers – the kind still found today in Notre Dame’s record book.
Today Lattner is being honored with the Tradition of Excellence Award by the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. The award, co-sponsored by the Heisman Trophy program, honors Heisman Trophy winners who have made great humanitarian contributions. Indeed, Lattner’s record in helping others is no less impressive than the records he left behind at Notre Dame.
Jack Connor played under Leahy at Notre Dame in the late ’40s and is one of the moving forces behind the Leahy’s Lads, who have raised over $1 million dollars in charitable contributions. While the vast majority of the Lads’ efforts are directed toward scholarships for needy students, they also support a number of worthy causes, including former players and their families suffering financial hardship.
“He got involved with the Lads right away,” says Connor, who chuckles when told how Lattner makes a point of noting, “Those old guys were Leahy’s Lads; we were Leahy’s Kids.”
“Johnny just asks, ‘Where do you want me to be and when do you want me to be there,'” marvels Connor.
Lattner arrived at Notre Dame in the fall of 1950. It was hardly the easiest of transitions.
Notre Dame was riding a 38-game unbeaten streak and had won three of the most recent four national championships. The Irish entered the 1950 season ranked first in the nation, retaining the ranking with an opening day victory over North Carolina.
But the Irish lost their second game, 28-14 to Purdue, and finished the season 4-4-1, Leahy’s only season without a winning record.
Freshman were ineligible to play on the varsity that season, so Lattner and his classmates were cannon fodder for the upperclassmen – a group of players that wasn’t often in the best of moods.
Lattner had even bigger struggles off the field. His beloved father’s health deteriorated throughout the year.
“It was rough,” says Lattner.
“I remember going down to the Grotto a lot. Being under Our Lady’s care was very helpful.”
Lattner’s father finally lost his battle and died during the spring of his freshman year. The only game he ever saw his son play at Notre Dame was a scrimmage against the varsity.
“He was a great guy in my eyes,” Lattner says.
Leahy and his coaching staff traveled to Evansville for the funeral of Lattner’s father. While paying his respects, Leahy made it clear that he expected both Lattner and the Irish team to move beyond their struggles of that year.
“I was walking out of the church when Leahy came up to me and asked me if I need a ride back to school,” he says.
“I told him that I had to accompany my mom back to Chicago, and that’s what I did. But Leahy made it clear that he wanted me back to school and to practice.”
Johnny Lattner was honored with the Tradition of Excellence Award by the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame at the Michigan State game.
Leahy needn’t have worried about the progress of his young star. Lattner earned a starting spot in the defensive backfield as a sophomore, and also played on offense. The following season, he was starting on both sides of the ball, and people were taking notice.
As a junior, Lattner rushed for 732 yards, had 17 receptions and intercepted four passes. He also returned punts and kickoffs. He was a consensus All-American, won the Maxwell Award and finished fifth in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy, setting up his storybook senior season.
Lattner was a star among stars in Notre Dame’s 1953 backfield, combining with quarterback Ralph Guglielmi, halfback Joe Heap and fullback Neil Worden. With Lattner winning the Heisman, the latter-day Four Horsemen led the Irish to a 9-0-1 record and recognition as national champions from a slew of selectors in what turned out to be Leahy’s final season at Notre Dame.
Paul Hornung, who would become Notre Dame’s fifth Heisman Trophy winner in 1956, spent a few days as Lattner’s “little brother” as a freshman in 1953.
“I was injured in preseason practice my senior year, and Leahy was getting frustrated,” says Lattner.
“One day he called me into his office and told me that Notre Dame had a big brother program and that I was Paul Hornung’s big brother. I had never heard of such a thing, and I had never had a big brother at Notre Dame. I think Leahy made it up on the spot, but I went and knocked on Hornung’s door and introduced myself.
“He told me that he knew who I was, and then I asked him if he wanted to go see a movie. Hornung said he wasn’t interested in seeing a movie, but wanted to know if I wanted to go to Mishawaka. Well, I was a senior, but I didn’t have a car or any way to get to Mishawaka.
“Hornung said, ‘I’ve got a car,’ so we went to Mishawaka. After three nights of going to places I had never been, I told Hornung, ‘I don’t think there’s anything else I can show you,”
Hornung laughs when he hears Lattner’s version.
“I never had a car at Notre Dame,” Hornung says.
“Johnny wanted to go someplace in town to have a Coca-Cola. I didn’t want to have a Coca-Cola, I wanted to go some place where I could have a beer.”
Turning serious, Hornung pays Lattner about the highest compliment possible between two hall-of-famers.
“Johnny got more out of his talent than anybody I ever saw,” Hornung says.
“He wasn’t very fast, he wasn’t very strong, but he had the biggest heart of all.”
Following his graduation, Lattner enjoyed a stellar rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL before an injury suffered while playing on an Air Force football squad prematurely ended his playing career.
After hanging up his cleats, Lattner coached football at the high school and college levels for several years before entering the business world. He was the proprietor of a restaurant bearing his name in Chicago’s Marina Towers for over a decade before joining Pal Graphics, where he is still going strong after more than 25 years.
But in a way that surely would make his late father very proud, Lattner has made his family the centerpiece of his life. He and his wife Peg have eight children, all of whom live in close proximity. Their youngest grandchild, Tommy Lattner, is known as “Tommy the Tiebreaker,” as his arrival swung the Lattner ledger of grandchildren to 12 boys and 11 girls.
“Johnny is one of the real Chicago greats,” says Hornung.
“He came from one of those working class, hardworking Irish families, and he never changed.”
Every Tuesday in the summer, Johnny and Peg host a family cookout at a suburban Chicago forest preserve.
“We do all the cooking, and it must be all right,” Lattner says.
“Because it’s not a command performance, but lots of people show up.”
“They don’t come any better than Johnny,” says Jack Connor, who has authored a delightful book on the 1946-49 Irish entitled Leahy’s Lads, and is putting the finishing touches on a biography of his late brother, George, a member of both the college and professional football halls of fame.
It seems like Lattner is the only one who isn’t in on the “secret.”
Roger Valdiserri was Lattner’s classmate at Notre Dame before later becoming Notre Dame’s longtime sports information director and associate athletic director. Valdiserri is a member of several halls of fame, and was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the history of college football by one national publication.
“The one thing about Lattner was that he didn’t know how great he was,” says Valdiserri.
“He was so unassuming, so self-deprecating.”
It’s nice to know that so many others have appreciated and recognized the greatness of Johnny Lattner, both on and off the field.