Spillane carries Lattner tradition at Fenwick


Spillane carries Lattner tradition at Fenwick

Robert Spillane is Fenwick's workhorse, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior tailback and one of four cousins on coach Gene Nudo's roster who have picked up the torch left by their grandfather, the legendary Johnny Lattner, a two-time All-Stater on Fenwick's 1948 and 1949 Prep Bowl teams and the 1953 Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame.

Fenwick is all about history...from Tony Lawless to Dan O'Brien to Bill Shay to Ken Sitzberger to Ed Norris to Motts Tonelli to John Jardine to Corey Maggette to Mike Healy to Johnny Barrett to Mike Rabold to Johnny Lattner.

Johnny Lattner celebrated his 80th birthday at a big family gathering at the Spillane home last Saturday. About 40 people were there...children, grandchildren, cousins. At such occasions, he often takes time to sing the Fenwick fight song.

"I guess I didn't realize how much of a legend he really was until 2005, when he took me and my other cousins to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony," Spillane said. "We met Vince Young and Reggie Bush. All the former winners loved to meet him. He is the oldest living winner.

"I think he is a huge legend, especially in the family. There are so many stories. He will stay a legend even when he passes. At Fenwick, he is on the Wall of Fame. I hope I'll be there someday. I hope I can live up to what he lived up to be."

Spillane and his three cousins--senior safety John Lattner, senior wide receiver Danny Lattner and junior tight end Ryan Smith--are frequently reminded of their grandfather's legacy. There are old helmets and posters of him around their homes. He attends every football game. In fact, he used to attend the youngsters' flag football games.

"He is a caring man. The cousins always have been close to him," Spillane said. "He brings breakfast and eats at our house. He uses his Heisman Trophy as a doorstop. But he also auctions it for charities. Donate money and you can have the trophy for a while and he gives the money to a charity. My dream is to play football at Notre Dame. I would want to walk where he walked at Notre Dame."

Lattner is very proud of his grandchildren. Spillane has rushed for 860 yards and six touchdowns and caught 22 passes for 230 yards and eight touchdowns. And there are two more Lattners on the way. Luke, John Lattner's brother, is a basketball player. Will, also John's brother, is a freshman who plays football and basketball.

"Going into this season, we thought we would go to running back by committee with Spillane and Pat Hart alternating on each series," Nudo said. "But Robert did so many good things and Pat has had a great year on defense (Player of the Year in the Catholic League's White Division) as a linebacker."

Nudo, who launched Driscoll's football dynasty by producing a state championship team in 1991, has quickly repaired a fractured program that was 4-6 last year and had fielded only five winning teams in the last 13 years. The Friars (8-2) will meet top-ranked, unbeaten and two-time defending Class 7A champion Rockford Boylan on Saturday in Rockford.

"I like how we got coach Nudo into the program. He brought in new stuff and new organization. He changed the whole face of Fenwick football," Spillane said. "We are more focused, more hungry to win. Last year was disappointing. We didn't have the same work ethic as this year. We wasted a lot of talent.

"Coach Nudo carries his own tradition with him. He won a state title at Driscoll and he won as a professional coach. He is building his own tradition. He will be the face of Fenwick in the future, like my grandfather. He will be one of the great coaches ever to coach at Fenwick."

It is surprising that Spillane had so much time to evaluate Nudo and express his feelings to a reporter. He didn't have much time to celebrate Fenwick's spectacular 10-9 victory over Huntley last Saturday night. The Friars drove 45 yards in the last three minutes to win on Zach Laszkiewicz's 27-yard field goal with no time on the clock.

Only a few hours later, at 6 o'clock on Sunday morning, before the sun was up, Spillane and his cousins and their teammates gathered at the Oak Park school to lift weights and watch film of the Huntley game. And Nudo and his staff met to begin preparing a game plan for Boylan.

"We knew Boylan would be a challenge," Nudo said. "But look at the Class 7A pairings. Where do you want to go? Glenbard West? Lincoln-Way East? Wheaton North? It is loaded with quality teams. You have to beat good teams to win the title in 7A. And Boylan kids know how to win."

Nudo has already achieved some of his first-year goals. The Friars won their division title, qualified for the playoff and won a playoff game. "It isn't a program until you win a playoff game," he said.

Another goal was to have as many one-way players as possible. Only one player will start both ways at Boylan, 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior tackle Kyle Pullia.

Pullia is one of eight Fenwick players who landed on the All-Catholic squad. The others are Spillane, Hart, Laszkiewicz, John Lattner, senior defensive end Rich Lasek, senior guard Rocco Stefanini and senior center Jim Krecek. Seventeen of the 63 varsity players are on the National Honor Society.

"This is the beginning of a new era at Fenwick. We're trying to write our own chapter. I'm not Tony Lawless or John Jardine. It's hard to walk these hallways and not know about those people. The alumni believe in the past. You have earned the right to wear the uniform. The great 1962 team had its 50th reunion a month ago."

Nudo said he force feeds his players with big helpings of tradition. He breaks his squad up into 10 weight lifting groups and each one represents a well-known alumnus of the school, like Gov. Pat Quinn or astronaut Joe Kerwin or Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Caputo or NBA star Corey Maggette.

"The players write letters to them," Nudo said. "We send difference-makers out into the world and we want our kids to be difference-makers and we want them to know about the others who came through this school. It makes me feel we're doing the right thing here. We want the to know what this place is about and want them to be a part of it."

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Jack Aho is the reigning state champion in Class 2A and recently shattered a course record at Warren High School. 

But beyond posting some of the area's fastest times, cross country is also a family affair for Aho.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

“Football is life. Until it’s not.”

That message Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar relayed to his team in the week leading up to the Griffins’ Week 5 tilt against Thornton was an important one. For the 115 student-athletes who make up a team with legitimate state-title aspirations, high school football can feel like a life-and-death situation. Until it’s not.

Private First Class Aaron Toppen, a 2013 Lincoln-Way East graduate, was 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. And on that June 9, 2014, a country lost a hero, a family lost a son, a brother and an uncle, and a community lost a friend who had walked through the halls of Lincoln-Way East High School and drove his famous pick-up truck through town just a year earlier.

So when the Griffins held their annual Salute the Troops night last Friday night, before blowing out the Wildcats 42-6, Aaron’s surviving family was an easy choice to join the team as honorary captains. Aaron’s mother, two sisters, uncle, grandmother and niece were recognized before the game, all in loving memory of a fellow Griffin graduate who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country.

“Aaron’s passing was a big deal to our community,” athletic director Mark Vander Kooi said. “And we wanted to embrace his family and let them know that we cared about them, loved them and appreciated the sacrifice they made.”

When Lincoln-Way East principal Dr. Sharon Michalak contacted Aaron’s sister, Amy, about honoring her brother last week’s football game, the family jumped at the opportunity. Aaron and his family had been honored at a game in 2014, just months after Aaron’s death. And with the Griffins hosting “Salute to Troops” night, and that coinciding with the annual 5k run held in Aaron’s name the following day, the family accepted the invitation with open arms.

“It’s just amazing. The support never stops, and to hear that they want to keep Aaron’s name alive and honor him, it just really makes us feel wonderful,” Aaron’s mother, Pam, said. “It’s a way we’re getting through it, is through the support of everybody.

Many of the Griffins know the Toppen family – Amy and Amanda are also graduates – but for those unfamiliar with Aaron’s story – like the student-athletes who transferred from North – head coach Rob Zvonar made it a point to relay that message during practice week. Before the team dressed Friday night, all 115 players watched a pair of video tributes to Toppen in one of the school’s classrooms.

“It’s awesome playing in his honor,” senior Sam Diehl said. “We understand football’s just a game and that (Aaron) made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for our country, that we have more to give than just football to our community, that there are people out there we need to be more thankful of.”

Once the pregame festivities ended the Griffins put on a worthy performance. They scored touchdowns on their first six drives of the game into the third quarter. Jake Arthur threw three more touchdown passes, wide receiver Nick Zelenika topped 100 yards and the Griffins’ offense averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry.

Devin O’Rourke tallied five tackles for loss and two more sacks – he has five in the last two weeks – and the Griffins defense limited the Wildcats to only a late touchdown in the final minute. The Griffins first team defense has allowed zero points in its last six quarters and appears to be putting its early-season struggles behind them.

But the night belonged to the Toppen family and Aaron’s legacy. The night coincided with homecoming weekend, and it brought back more than a handful of Aaron’s old classmates. One of them, current Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, spoke highly of Aaron and the impact he left on the school and community.

“I always enjoyed talking in class sitting with him,” he said. “Any person that’s going to go out and fight for our country and fight for our freedom, I have unlimited respect for. So obviously it’s a sad thing to remember, but I think it’s awesome seeing the support we have out here, from the community to the school to the administration.”

The following day each member of the Griffins and the coaching staff traveled to Mokena to participate in the third annual Our Fallen Hero 5k run in Aaron’s memory. Zvonar and the seniors joked about the aches and pains they’d feel running the 3.1 miles less than 12 hours after a football game, but they also understood the importance of showing up, honoring a fellow Griffin and raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“We’re able to run if we have to, walk if we have to, do what we have to to get it done,” running back Nigel Muhammad said. “Because it’s not about us.”

Added the 285-pound Diehl: “We’re more than happy to run the 3.1 miles. Even us offensive linemen don’t mind.”

More than 600 people were expected to show up for the fundraiser run, which had raised nearly $50,000 in its first two years.

“Aaron would probably say, ‘Mom I don’t like attention, what’s going on here?’ Because he was never that type,” Pam said. “But such a tragedy has brought together a community, and like Amanda said we’re blessed to be a part of this community…We just love seeing everybody.”

Football is life. Until it’s not.

It would have been enough for Zvonar and the coaching staff to speak about who Aaron Toppen was, and the impact he left on a school, a community and a country. The Toppen family could have simply been honored at halftime. Attending the 5k could have been optional for the team to attend.

Instead, football took a back seat for a night in Frankfort. The Toppens were gracious enough to be placed front-and-center to remember a young man who gave his life to protect the freedoms of each one of the thousands in attendance that evening.

“You think back to Aaron Toppen, who a few years ago was walking the hallways of this school and in the same classroom as these guys, and going to the same homecoming dance, and this was just a little bit ago,” Zvonar said. “A young man that’s barely older than these guys and then he goes off and serves his country and fights for the rights for all of us, and pays the ultimate sacrifice. You certainly don’t let that go by unnoticed.

“You want to really make sure that that’s pointed out, that freedom doesn’t come free. And these young men have an opportunity to come out and play this great game tonight. And all these things they’re allowed to do because of the bravery of young men like Aaron Toppen. One of those situations where I know as long as Coach Vander Kooi and myself are here we’ll do everything we can to stop and talk about him.”