Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner passed away last week at the age of 83. The best player in the country in 1953, Lattner was one of Notre Dame’s record seven Heisman Trophy winners, and is the third of that group to have deceased, joining Angelo Bertelli and Leon Hart.
Lattner once quipped he spent the majority of his playing career in head coach Frank Leahy’s doghouse. But it’s hard to understand how that was possible, considering Lattner was one of the last football players to spent 60 minutes a game on the football field, a “one-platoon” player in an era where specialization took hold.
ESPN’s Ivan Maisel wrote about Lattner’s impact on the college game—something today’s numbers-driven era might have struggled to notice.
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.
Lattner’s life will be celebrated at a visitation this Friday at Fenwick High School, where he starred as a Chicagoland prep player. The funeral is Saturday at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in River Forest, Illinois.