Heisman winner Johnny Lattner was the one-platoon prototype

ByIvan Maisel via ESPN logo
Saturday, February 20, 2016

Johnny Lattner, the Notre Dame halfback who won the 1953 Heisman Trophy, was the best player on the last of legendary coach Frank Leahy's Fighting Irish teams. But history has burnished Lattner's achievements to a finer glow. Lattner, who died Saturday at age 83, stands out as one of the last paragons of the 60-minute man, the prototype of the kind of player on which one-platoon football was based.

You can't measure Lattner's statistics against today's game. In three seasons for Notre Dame, Lattner rushed for a total of 1,724 yards and 20 touchdowns. He caught 39 passes. But here's where Lattner's talent can begin to be understood -- he also returned kicks and punts and, as a defensive back, intercepted 13 passes.

For nearly a quarter century, from the start of World War II into the early 1960s, the keepers of the NCAA football rulebook argued over whether the game should be played by the same 11 men whether a team had the ball or not. Loosening the limits on substitutions began during the war, and a good segment of coaches wanted to keep them loose after the troops came home and returned to college.

By 1952, nearly every coach had shifted to two-platoon football. Yet Leahy still played Lattner both ways. That's how good he was, or at least could be. He had a bad habit of fumbling. When Lattner fumbled five times in a 26-14 defeat of Purdue, Leahy had a handle taped to a football and instructed Lattner to carry it with him for the entire week. Alas, Lattner fumbled three times in a late-season, 21-3 loss to No. 1 Michigan State.

But the week before that game, Lattner starred in a 27-21 upset of No. 4 Oklahoma, the first game ever nationally televised from Notre Dame Stadium. Lattner did fumble the ball at the Sooners' 1-yard-line. But he also set up two Irish touchdowns on offense and a third with an interception.

After the 1952 season, the old-guard coaches in the game, led by Bill Neyland of Tennessee, pushed through a revocation of all the substitution rules and a return to one-platoon football. That was Lattner's turf, and in 1953, he led the Irish to a 9-0-1 record and a No. 2 ranking. The season began with a stark reminder of past problems -- Lattner fumbled the opening kickoff of the season at Oklahoma.

In Bill Pennington's 2004 book "The Heisman," Lattner said that Leahy turned to his assistant coach, Bill Earley, and said, "There's your All-American. How long do I have to tape the football to his arm this time?"

But Lattner righted himself, and his interception late in the game preserved the 28-21 victory. The Sooners didn't lose another game for 4 seasons.

"If I had dropped that interception," Lattner told Pennington, "they would have kicked me out of school."

Lattner finished second on the Irish in rushing and second in receiving. But the voters decided to reward him for doing everything well. Lattner narrowly won the Heisman over Minnesota running back Paul Giel, even though Giel outrushed him by nearly 100 yards (749 to 651). That might have been the power of Notre Dame, but no one could deny that Lattner's humility and grace made him the kind of Heisman winner you could take home to Mom.

For instance, Lattner played basketball for the Irish in his sophomore year, even hitting a shot in the last seconds of overtime to beat NYU. The next season, as Jimmy Breslin described in a 1953 profile of Lattner in True Magazine, Lattner quietly dropped off the team late in tryouts. He figured out he would be the 12th man, and his cousin, Tommy Sullivan, got the slot instead.

Lattner played only one season of professional football. He got drafted, and, while playing football in the Air Force, suffered a knee injury that ended his career. He went into business and later opened a restaurant in Chicago where he shared his Heisman with his patrons. Archie Griffin once explained why he placed one of his two Heismans on permanent display in the student union on the Ohio State campus and the other at a local sports bar.

"If they're sitting in my house," he explained, "no one would see them."

Lattner felt the same way.

"I always felt a great deal of pride whenever a father and son would come in just to get a glimpse or touch the trophy," Lattner said in the 2002 book, "Rudy Riska: 40 Years at the Home of the Heisman." "It really makes me realize just how prestigious it is to be a Heisman Trophy winner."

In his later years, Lattner and his daughter Maggie lugged his Heisman to banquets and fundraisers in the Chicago area, happy to share it with old and young as long as the cause was good. About 15 years ago, a sixth-grader named Jordan Lynch had his photo taken with Lattner and his Heisman. Lynch grew up to play quarterback at Northern Illinois and finish third in the 2013 Heisman vote. He didn't know who that gray-haired man with the smile was.

"All I knew," Lynch said, "was he had a Heisman Trophy and I wanted to be around it."

In so many ways, they don't make them like Johnny Lattner anymore. He will be buried in suburban Chicago later this week.

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