By Randy York
It took a few years … okay, maybe a few decades, but Johnny the Jet Rodgers made a personal confession to Joe Blahak. “Johnny finally admitted to me that he never would have made that touchdown in the Game of the Century without my block,” Blahak said late Saturday afternoon, sitting in a folding chair on a platform of seats behind Nebraska’s bench. Blahak joined his 1971 teammates for their 40-year anniversary that included a bonus - The Sporting News’ declaration that they were just voted college football’s best-ever team.
The video tribute for the ‘71 team’s reunion brought Husker fans to their feet 40 years later, and while Rodgers smiled humbly and soaked in the well-deserved applause, Blahak flashed the No. 1 sign with his right hand and made a 360-degree rotational pivot, just as he was instructed to do. “It brings back a lot of memories,” he said, unable to choke back the emotion. “You know, you never get it out of your system. I’d still play if I could.”
Joe Blahak means what he says, but now is as good a time as any to acknowledge how lucky he feels just to be alive. “I had open-heart surgery in ’03. They replaced a valve, and then I had a stroke in ’05,” he said. Rodgers calls Blahak one the greatest competitors he’s ever seen and pointed out how the All-Big Eight Conference cornerback shot a 78 in the 1971 Reunion Golf Tournament at Ekhorn’s Indian Hills last Thursday (Randy Borg won the event with a 73).
“I don’t get caught up with being the greatest,” Blahak said. “In our time, we were the greatest. But that ‘95 Nebraska team was so much bigger than we were, and they were really fast, too. I don’t know how we would have compared against them, but I do know we had great skill players, and Johnny was the difference that Thanksgiving Day.” He was the difference because a certain downfield block from a hard-charging teammate sprung him loose to deliver a knockout punch in the first 3½ minutes of the game. Yes, Johnny was the one that turned on his jets to reach pay dirt. But Joe was the one that paved the most critical part of the path. That’s why it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to call Blahak’s all-out effort the Block of the Century. What do you think?
P.S. Husker fans can order commemorative copies of 1971 Nebraska - Big Red Best Ever from The Sporting News.
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Voices from Husker Nation
"Going to high school in Columbus and working with Bill Kosch and Joe Blahak summers at Behlen Manufacturing made for great memories. After work, we would play touch football or go golfing. Joe could drive any green but couldn’t putt. Bill couldn’t hit a wood but would hit a 5-iron more than 200 yards. It was a real pleasure when all of us had sons that played at NU in the early ‘90s." Ron Scribner, Colorado Springs, Colorado
"Every time Nebraska has played Oklahoma since 1971, my family gives thanks for Joe Blahak, whether it’s Thanksgiving or not. We like watching that block almost as much as we enjoy Johnny stopping on a dime and galloping 71 yards. This is good stuff. Keep it coming." Mark Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska
"If you’re counting votes for Block of the Century, make mine a yes. Fans talk about that block like they talk about John Ruud’s vicious hit against Oklahoma in 1978." Steve Christensen, Lee’s Summit, Missouri
"I just read the Johnny Rodgers-Joe Blahak piece and really enjoyed it. Joe was just plain crazy. Always liked him. Always will. I knew about some of his health issues and am glad to hear how well he’s doing." Chuck Sinclair, Akron, Ohio