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By Randy York
Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers is a legend not only because he was Nebraska’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 1972, but also because he’s found ways to be innovative four decades later. Never was that more evident than Thursday night when he launched an Omaha banquet that will honor the nation’s best college football kick returner on an annual basis. The award carries an image of Rodgers on the trophy and solidifies his legendary status. Only an effervescent personality like Johnny R can make something like that happen and convince everyone that it is simply the right thing to do.
Yes, Rodgers capitalized on a simple fact that few have disagreed with since the early 1970s: When it comes to punt returns and kickoff returns in college football, no one does it better than Johnny R. And I find it fascinating that two recent stories by two prominent Nebraska sportswriters added new capstones to Johnny R the Legend. Mike Babock retraced an interesting twist on Johnny R the Recruit for Huskers Illustrated, and Tom Shatel authored a compelling account about Johnny R the Man for the Omaha World-Herald. Consider both pieces N-Sider recommended “must reads”. In a nutshell, here’s why:
Babcock relates how Johnny would have gone to Southern Cal if John McKay simply would have offered him a scholarship. USC “was top of the line then, no comparison,” Rodgers told Babcock in a 1994 interview. “It was why people come here (to Nebraska) now.” If McKay had not backed off recruiting Rodgers, “There probably wouldn’t have been anything anybody could have done,” Johnny said. “There wouldn’t even had been much Coach Devaney could have said.” According to Babcock, Rodgers saw himself as a running back, a self-perception that remained despite his record-setting career as a wide receiver – a “slot-back” in Nebraska’s terminology when he was recruited. Who can forget the one game that Rodgers finally got an opportunity to play I-back? It was his final game as a Husker, against Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. According to Babcock, Rodgers always told his coaches how much he wanted to do that. “I can’t say who cleared it, probably Bob (Devaney) because he was the head coach,” Rodgers said before pointing out something else. “Tom (Osborne),” he said, “was the offensive coordinator.”
This week, Shatel wrote that on the night Johnny won the Heisman, “I said I wanted to reach back into my community and pull people up,” Rodgers said, adding: “It seems like just a few minutes ago.” Shatel points out that it’s been 40 years and “Rodgers has been through a lot in his life. Good, bad, happy, sad. Triumph, trouble. In some ways, his life has been like that punt return: Stop, start, change directions, find your way home. The common thread to it all has been his passion for North Omaha. And it’s a passion that still burns.” If anyone even considers criticizing Rodgers for using his own name on a trophy that should have been handed out every season for the past 40 years, I will email Shatel’s column to that person and explain how Johnny’s old neighborhood will benefit from every annual banquet and every trophy presentation from here to who knows when. Through Rodgers, Shatel gives a stirring account of life in his old neighborhood – a neighborhood in which he still lives I might add. The column talks about kids in his neighborhood attending school in the winter time because it’s warmer there than it is at home. It talks about how leaders like Rodgers want to help the neighborhood with heat bills, transportation, mentorship and a more holistic vision. Read Shatel’s column, and The N-Sider guarantees it will warm your heart.
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