Warm Thanksgiving memories for Southern’s Lattera brothers

The game was played 52 years ago, but Joseph Lattera still remembers the play calls.

“It was called a 32-Dive,” said Lattera, a 1972 graduate who played running back and cornerback for South Philadelphia High School’s football team. “We had a wishbone offense and our quarterback handed it off to our fullback who was Andrew Whittington. Normally, the most you gain on that play is three yards. But I had a friend on Neumann who later said they were expecting the ball to go to me.”

Lattera admits the best thing that could have happened was not getting the ball at that moment on Thanksgiving in 1971 against Bishop Neumann High School. Neumann had heavily scouted the Rams, and a week prior, Lattera had taken the ball on a handoff on a fake sweep and threw a touchdown pass. 

Thanksgiving was a big rivalry between two South Philly schools and the Pirates had done their homework, although it proved detrimental.

“Neumann had the opportunity to watch films of all the teams they played,” Lattera said. “We never did as a public school. Supposedly, Neumann was looking for me to run that play. But the handoff went to the fullback and he dashed about 55 yards for a touchdown. His second touchdown was the same play. We won 14-6. Our defense played really good that day.”

Lattera eventually got his moment as he picked off a pass with under three minutes remaining to stall the Pirates’ comeback attempt. These are the proud memories that reside more than a half-century later for Joe Lattera and his brother George Lattera, who was a 1965 graduate and played a big hand in the Rams’ Turkey Day victory in 1964.

“He has a heck of a memory about this stuff just like I do,” Joe said of his brother. “And he gets together with football alumni once every few months for lunch. I love talking about it to anyone who will listen, especially people who were involved in it back then.”

Joe claims he and his brothers own a quirky stat in Southern football history. He says the Lattera brothers are the only siblings to each have a Thanksgiving Day victory that didn’t come in the same game. It speaks to Neumann-Goretti’s dominance in the matchup as the Saints hold a 61-19-3 advantage in the rivalry that began in 1934, has had a few stops and starts, and resumed in 2021. This year, Neumann-Goretti defeated the Rams, 41-0. Since 1955, Southern has won just seven times. 

It makes the Rams’ victories all that much more memorable. Take, for instance, George’s big game in 1964. It followed a bit of disappointment the previous fall.

“He was the star player during his junior year, too,” Joseph recalled. “He scored two touchdowns in the Southern-Neumann game but then he got hurt. I mean, they shredded his shoulder and Neumann came back and won.”

Bishop Neumann won that game 28-14. The next year George got his revenge by scoring the deciding two-point conversion and was named MVP in the game. Younger brother Joe was in the stands at 12th and Bigler. 

“It was a really defensive game,” Joe said. “It was an 8-6 game and it was played between the 20-yard lines at midfield, back and forth.”

It still comes up time to time at holiday gatherings as both Lattera brothers are now grandfathers and have plenty of young ears to take in the stories. Growing up at 6th and Ritner, sports meant everything to the Lattera family and it extended beyond football. George went on to play three years of minor league baseball in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Joe has great memories of playing in the Public League baseball championship at a newly opened Veterans Stadium in 1972.

Joe, who was 5 feet 7 and 145 pounds in high school, was said to have hit like a torpedo on the gridiron. 

“You wouldn’t see me,” he said. “I was like a torpedo. I’d hit low and all the sudden, boom, the guy would flip in the air.”

But his favorite memory wasn’t a hit. It came on that key interception to seal a victory over Neumann.

“It was about three minutes left and they were on our 25,” Joe said. “I played right cornerback and played the opposite side. I ran over and was just determined because there were about five players in the end zone and I just jumped and caught it. I tried running it out of the end zone and got tackled at about the 2 or 3 yard line. And I heard it from the coach even know we had the game won.”

They were able to laugh a little bit later. They’re still able to today.