Johnny Lattner could have been one of the greats of Pittsburgh Steelers history, had he had the opportunity to play more than one season. A star in high school, and then a star at Notre Dame, and a Heisman Trophy winner, he was drafted by the Steelers with the seventh pick in the first round of the 1954 NFL Draft.
He made the Pro Bowl during his rookie season as a return man, totaling over 1000 all-purpose yards that year, but it would be the only season he ever played professionally. He enlisted into the United States Air Force a year later, and suffered a severe knee injury while playing in a game there.
The 1954 season saw Lattner score five rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns, averaging 5.8 yards per touch on 94 touches with 542 total yards from scrimmage. He would add nearly another 500 yards on returns, with 413 kick return yards on 16 returns, averaging 25.8 yards per attempt. He split duty as kick returner that season with Lynn Chandnois, who was one of the best kick returners in the league at that time.
While his football career was cut short, he was even more of a hero off the field, and in fact was responsible for saving dozens of lives in alerting the residents in the early morning hours of a November day in 1963 that their apartment building was on fire, carrying a five-year-old girl out of the building himself.
Before he passed away in 2016, he would go on to have eight children, and 25 grandchildren. One of those 25 grandchildren is Robert Spillane, who is currently the starting mack linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, wearing his grandfather’s number.
The second-year player was invited to have an interview on SiriusXM Radio last night with Gil Brandt and Alex Marvez, and they were sure to ask him about his grandfather, whom Brandt noted was the only Heisman winner the team has ever drafted.
“One thing I do know about my grandfather is, he was a very inclusive person”, Spillane said. “Everyone he met, he wanted to shake their hand, give them a hug, tell them to come out to eat dinner. He was that type of person, and just to be able to live in his legacy, playing for the Steelers, wearing the game 41 that he wore for his single year in the NFL. Every moment I get to honor his legacy is special for me and my family”.
While he did not live long enough to see his grandson accomplish his NFL dreams, I don’t think there is any doubt that he would be very proud of what he is doing, and especially that he has been able to do it with the same team he played for, in the same jersey. Rarely do the stars align like this, so it’s worth taking the time to appreciate it when they do.