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Sunday special | Grandsons of Heisman winner stand out at Fenwick

FootballHeisman TrophySouth Dakota State Jackrabbits

Ryan Smith, in his coach's estimation, shouldn't require any selling.

Fenwick's senior tight end stands a legitimate 6-foot-5, weighs more than 250 pounds and possesses soft hands, light feet and video that proves his production between the white lines.

Bewildered that he's still trying to convince someone — anyone — to offer Smith a scholarship, Fenwick coach Gene Nudo will take a card out of his pocket and lay it on the table:

"His grandfather won the Heisman Trophy."

The response from the college coach on the other end of the conversation, Nudo said with a frustrated laugh, usually goes something like this:

"What about your running back?"

"His grandfather," Nudo then says, "won the Heisman too."

Notre Dame's Johnny Lattner was the Heisman winner in 1953, the only born-and-bred Chicagoan to claim college football's most prestigious award.

More than 60 years after the 1950 Fenwick graduate's legend was sprouted in the Catholic League, Lattner's grandsons are at the forefront of the school's football resurgence.

Two of his 25 grandchildren were seniors last fall on the Friars' team that had its best season since 2004.

Two others, Smith and Western Michigan-bound RB/LB Robert Spillane, cousins, are the leaders of a team that expects to be even better in 2013.

"These two slugs," Lattner said, "are pretty big kids. They play good. I think they're going to have a lot of fun this year. Last week, when they played in Texas (Fenwick beat Dallas Bishop Lynch 32-14), we had a huge projector at my daughter's house, Ryan's house.

"We got some bleachers from the park district. I don't know how they did it, but they hooked the projector up to the computer and we watched the game on the big screen. It was great. We did the same thing for the Notre Dame game."

The going-on-81-year-old Lattner wisely has chosen the role of loving grandfather rather than overbearing former star. A picture of health, he worked as a sales executive until January.

Smith and Spillane lit up at the sight of "Papa John" on the practice field earlier in the week. They have different views on the pressure that comes from being the grandson of a local legend.

"It is a big name to live up to," Smith said. "I know the game is totally different now, but I want to make him proud."

"I never felt the need to win the Heisman Trophy," said Spillane, who is 6-3, 225 pounds. "It is just nice to play under his legacy. I'm not looking at it like I need to be better than him."

Almost nothing about football, on or off the field, is as it was when Lattner played running back and defensive back at Fenwick and Notre Dame.

Yes, the stopwatch had been invented, but 40 times were not yet an essential piece to the recruiting puzzle.

Lattner might not have played for Notre Dame otherwise.

"My coach at Fenwick, Tony Lawless, told me, 'If (Notre Dame coach) Frank Leahy calls, don't put on a sweatsuit, he'll want to time you,' " Lattner recalled. "So I wouldn't put on a sweatsuit. Nobody timed me. What you saw was what you got. I wasn't that fast, but I ran real hard."

Six decades later, fractions of fractions of seconds are all that separates a four-star recruit from a productive player hoping someone will take notice.

Smith's 40 time of 4.9 seconds is not fast for tight end, but his size is ideal and he has quick feet.

Lattner, for one, is impressed with his improvement.

"He played rugby and I think that helped his speed," 'Papa John' said. "He should be able to play Division I ball. He is fast enough."

Bowling Green, Toledo and South Dakota State are showing interest, but Nudo is outraged there aren't more.

"Last year I told everybody they needed to look at Pat Hart," Nudo said. "He was the player of the year in our conference, and he couldn't get a dime at a state school. Now he's a freshman walk-on at USC, he dressed for both games and is listed on the depth chart at third string (fullback).

"I'm not going to sell a kid who can't play."

Spillane's ability was not a matter of debate after he proved to be one of the top players in the Catholic League as a junior, but his 4.65 40 time gave some reason to hesitate.

Several are regretting it now, including Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who called Spillane last week.

Spillane remains firmly committed to Western Michigan. He loves new head coach P.J. Fleck, a former Kaneland and Northern Illinois standout, and said he's not going to "lose my head over a logo" as other offers come in.

Matching Johnny Lattner's Heisman Trophy may not be on his agenda, but being a throwback to his grandfather's era is.

For now the cousins will concentrate on this season. The Friars are 3-0 after Spillane ran for 149 yards and a touchdown and caught two more in a 28-20 victory against Brother Rice on Friday.

"I want to play both (running back and linebacker in college)," Spillane said. "(Fleck) is willing to put me in on offense and defense."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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