College Football

ND Heisman Trophy winner cheers on Irish's national title bid

2012-11-17T22:00:00Z 2012-11-19T00:36:06Z ND Heisman Trophy winner cheers on Irish's national title bidJohn Burbridge john.burbridge@nwi.com, (219) 933-3371 nwitimes.com

GRIFFITH | During Johnny Lattner's appearance at Bridges' Scoreboard Restuarant and Sports Bar on Saturday, a television announcer remarked, "Where will the Heisman Trophy go?"

The response was too easy.

"It's right here," someone said to the screen.

The Notre Dame 1953 Heisman Trophy winner helped Irish fans cheer on their team during a "Senior Day" blowout victory over Wake Forest and Lattner brought his trophy with him.

"It's aged throughout the years," said the ebullient 80-year-old Chicago resident, who himself seems to have aged more gracefully.

"It's taken on more of a bronze color, which you can say gives it more character," Lattner said of the award he received after starring at halfback for Notre Dame's 1953 championship team. "It's most noticeable around the crotch because that's where most people handle it.

"It's heavy (at about 40 pounds) and it can be awkward to carry."

It almost drown during a home flooding incident.

"It was put on a bucket (to help seal a leak) and the water got up to its neck," Lattner said. "But that didn't seem to do too much damage to it."

Like many in attendance, Lattner is excited about Notre Dame's chances for a 15th national championship.

"(Notre Dame head coach Brian) Kelly hasn't been as boisterous as he's been in the first two years, and he appears to be settling down," Lattner said. "Now my coach (Frank Leahy) didn't talk much to us directly. He communicated more through his assistant coaches."

Lattner is particularly impressed by the Irish defense, which he considers one of the best he's ever seen.

"And Manti (Te'o) is a helluva player," Lattner said of Notre Dame's star linebacker. "But I've got to be careful when I talk about Heisman candidates with me holding one of the ballots.

"We get each get first-, second- and third-place votes. One time I gave a Notre Dame player all three votes and they threw my ballot away."

Among those in attendance was lifelong Irish fan Del Smallwood, of Hobart. He was able to add Lattner's autograph to his golden ND football helmet which already had the signatures of Irish all-time leading scorer Allen Pinkett and Rudy Ruettiger, whose walk-on story was the subject of an acclaimed motion picture.

"The first two years (under Kelly) were a little rough, but now he has his own recruits and these are his players," Smallwood said.

Don Hill, of Griffith, couldn't miss the opportunity of meeting Lattner.

"I've been a collector for 40 years, and you won't see too many of these," Hill said of Time Magazine cover featuring Lattner, which he signed for Hill.

"This was before Sports Illustrated, and there were only a few magazines around back then ... Time, Life, Look," Hill said. "So it was rare for a sports figure to get on a national cover."

Pro glory seemed likely for Lattner, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and made the Pro Bowl his rookie season.

"I was part of the ROTC program, so I had to put two years in the service," said Lattner, who served in the Air Force and suffered what would be a career-ending knee injury while playing football for an Air Force team.

"After the injury (and operation), they had to redo my contract which I could understand," Lattner said. "I tried to play in the preseason when I came back, but after the last preseason game, I knew that was it.

"I'm just glad they allowed me to play that one season."

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