Spillane carries Lattner tradition at Fenwick

Spillane carries Lattner tradition at Fenwick
October 30, 2012, 4:47 pm

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."