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’53 Heisman winner Johnny Lattner loans out statue in name of good causes

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Updated: December 13, 2013 9:17PM

The only Illinois-born Heisman Trophy winner believes in sharing the hardware with anybody representing a cause worthy of some Heisman support.

Johnny Lattner, a Fenwick High graduate who was born in Chicago and raised in Oak Park, won the 1953 Heisman as an all-purpose back on a Notre Dame team that went 9-1 and finished second to Maryland in the wire-service polls that then determined college football’s national champion.

For years, the iconic statue occupied a place of honor in the restaurant Lattner operated at Clark and Madison in downtown Chicago. But Johnny Lattner’s Steakhouse and Johnny Lattner’s Heisman were destroyed by a fire in 1968. The Downtown Athletic Club provided a replacement award, and it went back on display when Lattner’s reopened on the ground floor of Marina City. But after Lattner sold the business in 1972, the trophy was no longer needed to attract customers, so Lattner decided to put it to work on behalf of good causes.

“I’d be approached about a speaking engagement, and people would say, ‘Can you bring the trophy?’ — it seemed like it was a bigger deal than I was,” Lattner recalled. “I’m not sure it was my idea, but since the thing has such value we decided we should put it to good use.”

Special Olympics fundraiser? Mr. Heisman will be there. Need an attraction to boost interest in a youth sports event? Book him. Bingo Night at your church or school? Let’s talk.

Maggie Skiver, one of Lattner’s four daughters, is the trophy’s booking agent, with input from Lattner, now 81. The statue stays with her when it’s not on the road. There’s no formal application process — “It’s pretty much first come, first served,” Skiver said — but bachelor-party outings to gentlemen’s clubs need not apply.

“We try to make sure it’s for a good cause that involves a charity,” Lattner said. “I don’t know where it is half the time, but I don’t worry about it. Maggie knows what I want. She goes a good job.”

Lattner and the Heisman appeared at a banquet for St. Christina grammar school’s Southwest Conference football champions in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood 10 years ago. Among the honorees who touched the trophy: 12-year-old Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois’ record-setting dual-threat quarterback from Mt. Carmel High School who will be in New York this weekend as a Heisman finalist.

Lattner will attend the ­ceremony and will be pulling for his fellow Catholic Leaguer, even if it means relinquishing his status as his home state’s only Heisman winner.

“He’s a great kid and a great player,” Lattner said. “What a story that would be, a kid from Northern Illinois wins the ­Heisman.”

While Lynch has emerged from mid-major obscurity, that was hardly the case for Lattner. With Frank Leahy expanding a Knute Rockne-created brand, Notre Dame was the nation’s preeminent college team in the pre-television, post-World War II era, producing five Heisman winners in 13 years. Lattner was the fourth, following Angelo Bertelli (1943), Johnny Lujack (’47) and Leon Hart (’49).

And he was a deserving recipient, compiling 3,095 all-purpose yards in three varsity seasons as a runner, receiver and kick ­returner, a school record that stood until Vagas Ferguson surpassed it in 1979. He also intercepted 13 passes as a ball-hawking defensive back and scored 20 touchdowns.

“And I fumbled five times in one game against Purdue,” Lattner added with typical self-deprecation. “I thought I was going to lose my scholarship after that game.”

Lattner worked as vice president of sales for a west suburban printing firm after departing the restaurant business, retiring last year at age 80. He lives in Melrose Park with Peggy, his wife of 55 years. His eight children and 25 grandchildren are nearby, and he’s a fixture at Fenwick games, following the eight grandkids who have competed for the ­Friars, with more on the way.

“Getting a scholarship to Notre Dame, raising my family, doing OK in business … I’ve had a lot of good things happen in my life,” Lattner said. “Winning the Heisman was definitely one of them.”

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