Johnny Lattner: Heisman Winner and Steeler Dies of Mesothelioma

Reading Time: 4 mins
Publication Date: 02/26/2016

Written by Tim Povtak

Heisman Trophy winner and two-time college football All-American Johnny Lattner died of mesothelioma earlier this month, joining a growing list of famous people stricken by this rare and aggressive cancer.

Another hero lost to the horror of asbestos.

Lattner, who died at 83, won the Heisman in 1953 as a senior at the University of Notre Dame. He was featured that year on the cover of Time Magazine, which hailed him as a shining star.

He played only one year in the National Football League with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was selected to the Pro Bowl, but then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he suffered a career-ending knee injury.

The Notre Dame campus observed a moment of silence in his honor recently before a basketball game against the Louisville Cardinals.

Lattner was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in September of 2014, later citing his summer jobs in college working with asbestos products as the cause of the cancer. His two years in the U.S. Air Force also exposed him to the toxic mineral.

Mesothelioma’s Well-Known Victims

He was further proof that asbestos does not discriminate, touching all walks of life, ranging from the blue-collar working class to the rich and famous. Other well-known mesothelioma deaths have included:

  • Steve McQueen, (1930-1980): Movie star known as the King of Cool who was once America’s highest-paid actor.
  • Ed Lauter, (1938-2013): Character actor who appeared in more than 200 film and television projects.
  • Merlin Olsen, (1940-2010): Hall of Fame football player turned successful broadcaster and actor.
  • Hamilton Jordan, (1944-2008): White House chief of staff for President Jimmy Carter.
  • Warren Zevon, (1947-2003): Singer-songwriter who was nominated for five Grammy Awards shortly after his death, winning one with Bruce Springsteen for Best Rock Performance by a Duo.
  • Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., (1920-2000): U.S. Chief of Naval Operations during the Vietnam War.

Lattner was born, raised and spent most of his adult life in Chicago, where he owned two restaurants, served as vice-president of a graphics printing company and raised eight children with Peggy Lattner, his wife of 58 years.

He Always Helped Others

Lattner became known throughout the Chicago area for his generosity and willingness to help others. He often gave speeches for free at charity events throughout the city. He signed autographs while watching his children’s sporting events. He lent out his Heisman Trophy for fundraisers.

He was credited once with helping rescue 25 people from a burning apartment building near one of his restaurants.

After his diagnosis, he used his football fame to help advocate for other asbestos victims, traveling to Washington, D.C., to speak with elected officials about the issues.

He lobbied against the proposed FACT Act, legislation that would make it more difficult for those seeking compensation from asbestos trust funds. Lattner also worked with local Chicago legislators for an amendment to the Illinois Statute of Repose, which helps victims hold corporations responsible for the asbestos scourge.

One of America’s Greatest Athletes

As he aged, Lattner never viewed himself as anything special, despite once being one of the most gifted athletes in American history.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He was one of only two players (Tim Tebow of Florida was the other) to twice win the Maxwell Trophy, also awarded annually to the best player in college football.

Although he never had the gaudy statistics of modern-day stars, he played on offense (running back), defense (safety) and special teams (kick returner). He rarely left the field during a game, which is unheard of today. Notre Dame finished unbeaten his senior year when he also played on the school’s basketball team.

He finished three years of football at Notre Dame with 3,095 all-purpose yards and 13 interceptions.

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