By Jason Schock
Mr. Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and considered the best football player to ever play at Nebraska or all of the Big 8 Conference, spoke to a group of local youth about pursuing dreams when faced with adversities, setting goals, investing in oneself and investing in others during “An Afternoon with the Heisman” Wednesday, June 24 at the Falls City Library & Arts Center.
Rodgers spoke of growing up poor in the “The Flatts” of Logan Fontenelle projects, without running water or electricity. And how the sickly kid – he suffered from asthma and tuberculosis – once ran away from a nasty rooster to the outhouse on cold winter mornings before he eluded lead-footed Sooners in Norman to the delight of announcer Lyell Bremser.
“I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance.”
To be sure, the legend of Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers came from perhaps the most explosive, agile set of crazy legs ever to set foot on a college football field. The records that have stood for 40 years and the smart money, considering they held firm during the glorious 90s, says most will stand another 400.
He turned in the single greatest play, prompting the single most dramatic radio call, in the single greatest Nebraska football victory, in the greatest game ever played. It took him all of four minutes to tear ‘em loose from their shoes – Bremser somehow kept up as the “Jet,” at least compared to those clumsy-looking Sooners, seemed to threaten the sound barrier. Rodgers soared where the air was thin long before his senior season at Nebraska, but he kept climbing, stopping only briefly in New York to grab a Heisman before capping it all with, naturally, the greatest single-game performance in Nebraska and perhaps even all of college football history: Rushing for three scores, catching a 50-yard TD bomb and even throwing a 52-yard TD pass in a 40-6 Orange Bowl win over Notre Dame.
Yes, when it comes to Nebraska football, Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers hovers by himself – with all due respect to Mike Rozier, Eric Crouch, Tommie Frazier and Ndamukong Suh and the other 89 All-Americans – up in the stratosphere where no other man, woman or child can climb. Others can, however, own a bronze trophy depicting Rodgers’ escape from OU’s Greg Pruitt in that aforementioned Game of the Century if they win the recently founded “Jet Award,” given annually to the best return specialist in the country. The “Jet Award” is named after the greatest return man ever, but it wouldn’t exist if not for Falls City’s William Reed, the man behind the scenes who got the event off the ground.
Rodgers wasn’t the first of his kind off the Omaha production line so unlike all other college football players of the time that announcers spoke in terms of air and space travel. Omaha Central’s Gale Sayers, “The Kansas Comet,” was a brilliant fleeting flash across the sky that illuminated briefly Memorial Stadium, not Allen Fieldhouse, at the University of Kansas.
“The Jet,” too, caused a sonic boom over a Memorial Stadium. While Rodgers was certainly less an anomaly at Nebraska than Sayers was at KU, both were revolutionary players who to this day are the very best players to wear their respective school colors. No, the oft-used “arguably the best” doesn’t apply here. Sayers, because of what he accomplished in six tragically short injury-plagued years for the Chicago Bears, is considered by many to be the greatest running back to play the game, let alone, with all due respect to our southerly hoops heavyweights, the best at KU. Rodgers played in Canada, where the top “sport” appears to be driving semis on ice. Canadian football might be televised somewhere in those 1,000 channels, but who would know for certain? And in 1972 in this country, “The Jet” would’ve had to make a cameo on “Hee Haw” to get screen time and bib overalls and straw hats really aren’t his style.
Even comparing Rodgers and Sayers would undoubtedly be considered ludicrous to many and downright blasphemous in Kansas and/or Chicago. The reality, however, is that Sayers’ college career hardly compares. Rodgers gained 6,059 all-purpose yards (Sayers, 3,917) and led Nebraska to a 32-2-2 record and its first two national titles (KU, 12-8-1 and no bowl berths during Sayers’ career). Rodgers, who still holds NCAA records for punt return touchdowns in a career (seven) and most career kick return touchdowns (nine), ranks as Nebraska’s all-time leading pass receiver with 143 catches for 2,479 yards, and ranks fifth in points with 264 on 44 touchdowns in his career. In all, he currently holds or shares 41 school records.
Two main points to all this: 1. Sayers, obviously, should’ve played at Nebraska (let that be a lesson to all great young players); and 2. Rodgers is the best player from the winningest college football program in the country the last 50 years and a valid argument, at least, can be made that he was a better college player than the legendary Gale Sayers. Hence, “The Jet” Award.
Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. On offense, when the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle.
“When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.
“I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”
Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates. Despite being younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park, his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.
At Nebraska, after earning All-Big Eight honors as a sophomore slotback and wide receiver in 1970, Rodgers blossomed as a national star in 1971 to help lead Nebraska to its second consecutive national championship. It was Rodgers’ sensational 72-yard punt return for the first touchdown that ignited the Huskers’ thrilling 35-31 victory over Oklahoma in the “Game of the Century” in 1971. His 77-yard punt return touchdown against Alabama helped trigger the 38-6 Orange Bowl victory that sewed up Nebraska’s second national title.
Capping a tremendous career with a fantastic final performance, Rodgers devastated Notre Dame in the 1973 Orange Bowl. In the most sensational finale ever for a Heisman winner, Rodgers moved into the I-back spot and blitzed the Irish with four touchdowns, runs of eight, four and five yards, and a 50-yard pass from quarterback Dave Humm. Rodgers passed for another, a 52-yard strike to Frosty Anderson. Rodgers’ point total set an Orange Bowl record.
The top pass receiver and kick return man in Big Eight history, Rodgers owns 41 school records, seven conference records and four NCAA records. He was named ABC-Chevrolet Offensive Player of the Year in 1972 and received a $5,000 scholarship. Few players in NCAA history have shown Rodgers’ versatility. During his three-year career, in which Nebraska posted a 32-2-2 record, Rodgers gained a then-NCAA-record 5,487 all-purpose yards with a total of 6,059 including bowl games. His 13.8 career average was a national record for yards per touch. Rodgers was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 14, 2000, in New York.
More recently, Rodgers was one of six Huskers named to Sports Illustrated’s 85-player All-Century Team, joining Mike Rozier, Rich Glover, Dean Steinkuhler, Tommie Frazier and Aaron Taylor.
Rodgers, who still holds NCAA records for punt return touchdowns in a career (seven) and most career kick return touchdowns (nine), ranks as Nebraska’s all-time leading pass receiver with 143 catches for 2,479 yards, and ranks fifth in points with 264 on 44 touchdowns in his career. In all, he currently holds or shares 41 school records, including most career all-purpose yards (5,586), most touchdown receptions in a season (11) and career (25) and most receiving yards in a career (2,479).