The Jet Likes To Run

'72 Heisman winner Rodgers dreamed big

Oct. 10, 2007

By Adam Caparell



Adam is's football editor and national football writer.
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Growing up in the ghetto of Omaha, Neb., Johnny Rodgers didn't let his dreary surroundings suppress his dreams.


Rodgers so badly wanted to live large that when he told friends and family his dream they either laughed at him or thought he was insane.


"Back in the 50s and 60s black people really weren't supposed to make the type of accomplishments I was trying to make," Rodgers said. "I had trouble at home because I kept talking about wanting to make $100,000 when I grew up."




A $100,000 back then was like a million today and no one from Rodgers neighborhood could ever even think of making that kind of money in a year - let alone in 10. But Rodgers was a different breed and his path to the Heisman Trophy was different, probably as different and controversial than any other's. 


After all, Rodgers didn't live a life of privilege - far from it in fact. And while that may not distinguish him from other Heisman winners growing up, it's the winding, weaving nature of Rodgers life including some head-scratching decisions and an inability to stay out of trouble that separates him from many of his fellow Heisman winners.


From running away from home at age 14 to run-ins with the law that included jail time, Rodgers readily admits he was no saint, but he'll tell you he was able to overcome.


"I haven't been in a situation where I've had a story book type life where I've been able to have the silver spoon or anything," Rodgers said. "I've had to scuffle and hustle for every bit of accomplishment in life."


And few, if any, in the crazy life of Rodgers can top the moment in 1972 when he received the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club in lower Manhattan, becoming the first Cornhusker to win the award. .


It was his athletic prowess that allowed him to overcome the tribulations in his life - and there were many of them.


Rodgers fled the streets of Omaha for the streets of Detroit barely a teenager at 14. He would later return and to his native city only to find out he was a father.  


"You really don't run away from home from Omaha, Neb. to Detroit," Rodgers said. "That's like going right into the fire."


But running away was something Rodgers did maybe better than anyone.


Rodgers was never the best student, but he was determined to get out of the ghetto. He knew sports was his avenue and he was highly gifted at both football and baseball while working hard in the classroom.


His natural gift of speed, agility and athleticism made him highly desirable to not only Nebraska and coach Bob Devaney after he was named the Nebraska Athlete of the Year, but major league baseball teams as well. Before arriving in Lincoln, Rodgers was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and offered $25,000 to play baseball. It being $75,000 short of his ultimate goal, he turned them down.


But baseball was still in his blood, until those with the Nebraska football program told him that if he quit baseball, they would endorse him for the Heisman Trophy. Already nicknamed "The Jet" before he stepped foot into Memorial Stadium, Rodgers certainly did not disappoint as a Cornhusker and promoting his greatness became an easy job.


From 1970-72, Rodgers set nine Big Eight and two NCAA records - including eight career touchdowns scored via either a punt return or kick return and seven punts returned for a touchdown - and helped lead the Cornhuskers to back-to-back national championships in  1970 and '71 as a running back, wide receiver and return man.


But more than anything, Rodgers was best known for his returns and always one to do things his way, Rodgers shuttered some of the cardinal rules of punt returning.


"I had a deal where I never fair caught, ever," Rodgers said. "No matter what. They had to give me a little bit of room to catch it and that's all I really needed.


"But sometimes they would take me out before I caught the ball."


That mantra helped him orchestrate the "Punt Return of the Century" in the "Game of the Century" on Thanksgiving 1971 against arch-rival Oklahoma. Rodgers made something out of nothing and 72 yards later he scored yet another touchdown as the Cornhuskers would eventually go on to win 35-31.


"I've had better," Rodgers said. "But I don't think I've had better in bigger games. And that was the biggest game we had to date."


The notoriety of the return and his subsequent performance in the Cornhuskers Orange Bowl victory over Alabama made him a popular choice for the Heisman entering the 1972 season.


But despite his gaudy stats and Nebraska's winning ways, as the announcement for the Heisman Trophy approached in December of that year, there was a groundswell opposition toward Rodgers and the Heisman because of his record off the field.


But when the announcement finally came down, Rodgers became the first Nebraska Cornhusker to win the award over his good friend from Oklahoma, Greg Pruitt.


"It surprised me. I never take things for granted," Rodgers said.


Rodgers couldn't, not in the kind of environment he grew up in where every day was a struggle.


But life would improve rather quickly after the season ended. Rodgers would turn down another offer to play baseball to sign with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. They offered him $100,000 and he jumped at it. He had realized his dream, made it from the ghettos of Omaha to the big time, made his hundred grand. 


"But by the time I got it I realized it wasn't very much money," Rodgers joked.