Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane has a little-known football legacy, and his uniform No. 41 is a big part of it.
Spillane’s grandfather, Johnny Lattner won the 1953 Hesiman Trophy and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame for his play as a halfback at Notre Dame .
Lattner was the Steelers’ first-round pick in the 1954 NFL Draft, but he played just one season in Pittsburgh before entering the Air Force, where a knee injury prevented him from continuing his football career.
Lattner wore No. 14 with the Fighting Irish, but what he was drafted into the NFL, he was assigned a number more fitting a running back: 41.
So when Spillane was given the opportunity to choose his number for the first time on the eve of the 2020 season, he chose to honor his grandfather by wearing the same number. It just worked out that uniform numbers in the 40s are available to be worn by both running backs and linebackers, as well as tight ends and defensive backs.
When Spillane first joined the Steelers in February 2019 as a street free agent, he was assigned uniform No. 49. But after making the practice squad that fall, he was able to choose his own number for the first time.
“As an undrafted player, you don’t get to pick your jersey number,” Spillane said to Missy Matthews of Steelers.com. “They give you the jersey number and you accept. We actually had two No. 49’s on the team, Christian (tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson) being the other one. Once the season started, they said, ‘it’s time to change your jersey number.’
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) March 30, 2021
“I asked, ‘Can I have 41 please?’ That was the number that my grandfather wore back with the Steelers over 50 years ago. So he was a 41 with the Steelers and I said if that number is available, can I please have it, so that number is very special to me.”
Spillane recently signed a one-year contract to remain with the Steelers for a third season — two more than his grandfather played in black and gold. Unfortunately, Lattner did not get to see Spillane’s NFL career. He died from cancer in 2016, while Spillane was playing at Eastern Michigan.