Even without the fanfare surrounding the presentation of the “Judge Jim O’Malley Memorial Game Day Award” to football immortal Johnny Lattner, this year’s event at St. Bernardine would have been memorable. That’s because 200 rabid fans watched a historic 51-20 thrashing of the Tennessee Titans by the Chicago Bears. It was a spectacular backdrop for honoring Chicago’s only Heisman Trophy winner.
Former St. B principal, Jerry Lordan, welcomed the orange-and-blue throng to Fearon Hall for the 24th annual “Game Day” celebration. As always, funds go to support local youth programs, but Lordan alerted the audience to a new tradition. “We’re going to honor people who have made St. B’s great.”
Lattner was led into the hall by Vincent Casey, dressed in full regalia, playing the Notre Dame Fight Song on his bagpipes.
Lordan recited the many accomplishments of the award’s first local recipient.
He noted that Lattner had been raised on the West Side of Chicago and played football at Fenwick and Notre Dame. He didn’t just win the Heisman (in 1953) but also the Maxwell Trophy twice. “The Maxwell Trophy is selected by coaches,” Lordan explaind. “The only other player to win it twice is [NFL quarterback] Tim Tebow.”
“Winning the heart of Peg Lattner for 50 years,” Lordan continued, was an even greater accomplishment for the former football star. The couple sent all eight of their children to St. Bernardine. They currently have 26 grandchildren.
Lattner took the microphone to warm applause. “It’s a great honor,” he said, gripping the plaque. “I want to give thanks to Judge O’Malley for starting this great tradition. We all hope the Bears win and that we raise a lot of money for St. B’s. We have a lot to be thankful for.” Casey started up “Hail, Hail Notre Dame” on his bagpipes with the crowd clapping along, as Lattner acknowledged the cheers.
The Notre Dame great wasn’t the only professional football player in the room. St. Bernardine alumnus Marques Sullivan, who played for the Bills, Giants and Patriots, was making his first appearance at “Game Day.” Sullivan attended the school from pre-K to eighth grade, during the time Lordan was principal. He had come at the invitation of his old principal.
Like Lattner, Sullivan played football at Fenwick. He went on to start at left tackle for the University of Illinois. He was drafted by the Bills in 2001 and had a solid career on the offensive line. When he retired from the Chicago Rush, he went into coaching. Besides coaching at area high schools and colleges, Sullivan was defensive coordinator for the Chicago Blitz. Speaking of the Lingerie League players, he said, “Some were very good. They were very coachable.”
Looking around the hall, Sullivan recalled playing dodge ball in its cozy confines. “I have good memories of St. B’s. I want to donate equipment to their sports program.”
Athletic Director Meg Roach welcomed Sullivan’s generosity, as well as the outpouring of donations from others in attendance.
Roach estimated they raised $15,000 at last year’s event.
“It supported the athletic program, as well as school and parish needs,” she said. The funds paid for soccer balls, basketballs and exercise mats. It also enabled St. B teams to enter holiday tournaments and rent gym time at St. John Lutheran.
“The park district has also been awesome. We wouldn’t have had a soccer season or pool parties without them.”
“Johnny Lattner comes every year,” Roach continued. “One of our most popular prizes is getting to keep his Heisman Trophy for a week. Last year, he donated a football signed by all the Heisman winners.”
Lattner’s soliloquy was interrupted by crowd members urging him to sing the Notre Dame Fight Song.
The spry 80-year-old belted out the song in a strong voice, while his wife, wearing a “Football is Everything” sweatshirt, beamed. After he finished shaking down the thunder, Lattner described his storied career at ND. “I played halfback ’51,’52’ and ’53 for Coach Frank Leahy. We won 23 games and lost four. I played in the East-West Game my senior year.”
That season, the shifty 6-foot-1 running back scampered for 553 yards and four touchdowns. He also played defensive secondary, snagging four interceptions. Lattner’s duties included fielding punts. “I averaged 35 yards on returns,” he recalled.
After that undefeated season, Lattner won the Heisman and his second Maxwell. His map-of-Ireland face graced the cover of Time magazine. Lattner was drafted by the Steelers. “We only had 33 players, so I played offense and defensive secondary. In my rookie year, I caught 18 passes and scored seven touchdowns. I also returned punts and brought one back almost all the way.”
The United States was embroiled in the Korean War at the time and Lattner knew he’d have to serve in the military. “Leahy called me at Christmas time, and I told him I wanted to go into the Air Force,” he recalled. His old coach helped him and he became a lieutenant stationed at Bolling Air Force Base.
“We had a team of All-Americans there,” Lattner said. “We went undefeated our first year.” Lattner was returning a punt against Fort Jackson in South Carolina, when he was blind-sided by a tackler. “I tore up my ACL.” Lattner’s doctor was ahead of his time, using a small incision to remove the damaged cartilage. After serving two years in the Air Force, Lattner wanted to rejoin the Steelers. His right knee kept swelling up, though, and he was forced to retire.
At halftime of the Bears romp, the Game Day crowd was treated to an interview with Lattner as a documentary about him played on the big screen. They watched No. 14 carry the load for the Irish, darting through the line, eluding tacklers and crossing the goal line. Hail, Hail indeed.