Tuesday, November 14, 2000
Where Are They Now? Johnny Rodgers
By Dan O'Sullivan
It's hard to believe now, but Nebraska wasn't always considered one of the best programs in college football.
Before the national championships, before the Heisman Trophies, the Cornhuskers were just another good team in the Big Eight. Sure, they started to achieve prominence with the arrival of legendary coach Bob Devaney in 1962, but it wasn't until the early 1970s that Nebraska became the one-of-a-kind football power it is today.
1972 Heisman winner and two-time All-American Johnny Rodgers had a lot to do with that.
A native of Omaha, Neb., Rodgers dreamed of playing for USC. However, his grades were not good enough for him to earn a scholarship there. On the prodding of Devaney and assistant coach Tom Osborne, Rodgers instead settled on his home state's university and came to Lincoln in 1969.
In Rodgers' sophomore season, the Huskers rampaged through the Big Eight and Orange Bowl game to win their first national championship. The next year, Devaney's squad started its title defense with 10 straight wins. Then came the game that defined Nebraska's season. The date: Nov. 25, Thanksgiving Day.
The annual Nebraska-Oklahoma contest was always an eagerly anticipated event. In 1971, the hype was greater than ever. At stake were the Big Eight title, an Orange Bowl bid and a shot at the national championship. The Huskers were No. 1 and had the nation's top-ranked defense, while the Sooners were No. 2 and the nation's top-ranked offense. Both teams were undefeated.
"We realized whoever won that game probably would win the national championship, so it wasn't like just another football game," said Rodgers, who played wingback. "We were mentally and physically preparing ourselves for an all-out, gladiator-type war."
The game more than lived up to its billing.
Rodgers opened the scoring less than four minutes into the game with a circuitous, 72-yard punt return. The run was nothing new for Rodgers, a special-teams man extraordinaire who averaged 16.6 yards on punt returns and 30.4 yards on kickoff returns in 1971.
The two teams battled back and forth for the rest of the game. Nebraska finally came out on top after I-back Jeff Kinney scored on a 1-yard run with 1:38 left in the game. After their 35-31 victory, the 'Huskers trampled Hawaii and then Alabama in the Orange Bowl to take home their second straight national championship.
Following two undefeated seasons, Nebraska's 9-2-1 record in 1972 was a letdown for the team. However, Rodgers' sensational all-around performance (942 yards receiving, 308 yards rushing, and 802 yards off of punts and kickoffs) won him the Heisman. Nebraska defensive guard Rich Glover placed third, completing the best teammate finish since Army's Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard went 1-2 in 1945.
The San Diego Chargers selected Rodgers in the first round of the 1973 draft, but he rebuffed the NFL to join the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
"I had always dreamed of having $100,000, and San Diego didn't offer me anything close to that," he said. "So I went to Montreal, and they offered me what I was looking for right out of the gate."
Rodgers played four seasons in the CFL, winning Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and All-Pro honors, along with a Grey Cup. He had the personal glory but still longed to prove himself in the United States. In 1977, the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder got into tip-top condition and finally became a Charger.
"I did all I could do in the CFL," he said. "So I came back to try because I wanted to see just how good I could be."
Unfortunately, the NFL did not work out for Rodgers. He pulled both hamstrings in the first year and saw limited action. The next year, he suffered a horrendous knee injury when a teammate stepped on his foot during practice. The injury put an end to his football career. Only after several years of operations and rehabilitation did the knee return to normal.
Following his pro career, Rodgers pursued a number of business ventures. First he started "Tuned in San Diego," a successful magazine that provided cable listings for the San Diego area. He later sold the magazine and went back to Omaha in 1989.
In 1992, the former Heisman winner returned to Nebraska to complete his undergraduate education. However, rather than continuing the degree he started working on in 1969, he started from scratch. Over the next four years, he picked up degrees in advertising and broadcasting.
Today, the 47-year-old Rodgers has two businesses: Jetware Inc., which manufactures bedding products with the Husker logo, and Champion Productions, a sports marketing company. He also works with his alma mater to encourage other athletes to come back to school and complete their education.
Five years ago, Rodgers and his wife were married in the Heisman Room at the Downtown Athletic Club. The couple lives in Omaha with their daughter, Jewel. Rodgers also has another two sons and two daughters.
With so much on his plate, his glory days are becoming a distant memory for Rodgers. However, he will always remember playing in the 1971 Thanksgiving Day game -- one of the greatest college football games ever.
"I don't really think it became the Game of the Century until afterwards," he said. "Then, over the last 10, 20, 30 years, there's really never been another matchup where teams were so evenly matched and played so tightly and played so well."
|Former Husker Johnny Rodgers poses with his 1972 Heisman Trophy.|