Lattner hailed from Chicago, and he first made a name for himself on the gridiron at the Catholic Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois. He held top offers from across the country and considered Michigan before settling on Notre Dame with its Catholic education and high-level of success on the football field.
Lattner played under the legendary Frank Leahy at Notre Dame from 1950-1953, and led the Fighting Irish to a No. 2 national finish in his senior season with a 9-0-1 record. Only the Maryland Terrapins stood in front of the Irish at the end of the regular season when national champions were crowned, but then the Terps lost 7-0 to the Oklahoma Sooners on January 1, 1954, in the Orange Bowl leaving Notre Dame as the highest-ranked, undefeated team in the country.
Lattner took home the Heisman Trophy that fall for his efforts, and he also became the first two-time winner of the Maxwell Award (1952 and 1953) – a feat that went unmatched until Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won the award in 2007 and 2008. Lattner was then selected with the seventh overall pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1954 NFL Draft and made his debut with the Steelers that fall. He proved to be a serious all-around threat rushing for 237 yards and five touchdowns while hauling in 25 catches for another 305 yards and two scores. He also returned kicks and punts, and ultimately was selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
It turned out to be Lattner’s only year as a professional as he entered the Air Force for a two-year stint following the season to fulfill an ROTC commitment and suffered a catastrophic knee injury in a club game during his service that ended his football career for good. Lattner entered the coaching profession briefly in the late 1950’s, but he left coaching after the University of Denver dropped football in 1961 where he was the running backs coach.
Lattner returned to Chicago, and in 1962, he opened Johnny Lattner’s Steakhouse. A fire in 1968 destroyed the restaurant and Lattner’s Heisman Trophy, which was on display there, was lost as well. Lattner paid for a new trophy, and one of his greatest legacies in the Chicago area was using his trophy for charitable purposes lending it out to organizations who used it to raise money by putting it on display.
The Notre Dame legend also continued to support his old high school, and each year, the Fenwick MVP is presented with the Johnny Lattner Award. Several of Lattner’s 25 grandchildren have gone on to play college football and others have played for Fenwick including Will Lattner, who was the team’s MVP last November. The elder Lattner was able to present the trophy personally to his grandson last fall.
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