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Johnny Rodgers was USC’s for the asking, or more accurately for the offering of a scholarship. That was the only incentive Rodgers would have needed to play for the Trojans.
Rodgers was a prep All-America football player at Omaha Technical High School (also the Trojans), which produced several notable athletes during its 60 years, among them baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson and professional and Olympic basketball player Bob Boozer.
Gibson’s older brother, Josh, was Rodgers’ baseball coach at the Omaha Boys’ Club.
Rodgers played baseball well enough that the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him, in fact. But football was his sport of choice. And Southern California was his college of choice.
Coach John McKay’s Trojans were then what Rodgers would help Nebraska to become under Bob Devaney, perennial national-championship contenders. During McKay’s 16 seasons (1960-75), USC won four national titles, including the one in 1967, when Rodgers was a junior at Tech. His senior year, USC was No. 1 until late November and No. 2 before losing to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
Southern California “was top of the line then, no comparison,” Rodgers said during an interview in 1994. “It was why people come here (to Nebraska) now.”
In addition to team success, USC featured its tailbacks. O.J. Simpson earned All-America honors in 1967 and 1968, when he also won the Heisman Trophy, the Trojans’ second in four years; Mike Garrett won it in 1965. During McKay’s time, USC became known as “Tailback U.”
And Rodgers envisioned himself adding to that tradition.
At Tech, class of ’69, he “could do it all,” his football coach, Dick Christie, told the Omaha Sun newspaper in August of 1972. “His senior year he ran for us, threw for us, caught for us and played middle linebacker on defense, too. He was unquestionably the best athlete at Tech High since I’ve been here.”
Christie, the school’s athletic director at the time, coached football from 1958 to 1970.
But McKay backed off recruiting Rodgers. If he hadn’t, “there probably wouldn’t have been anything anybody could have done,” said Rodgers.
“There wouldn’t have been much Coach Devaney could have said.”
Rodgers saw himself as a running back, a self-perception that remained despite his record-setting career as a wide receiver – a “slotback” in Nebraska’s terminology when he was recruited.
He finally got an opportunity to play I-back in his final game as a Husker, against Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. “I always told them (the coaches) I wanted to do that,” Rodgers has said. “I can’t say who cleared it, probably Bob (Devaney) because he was the head coach.
“But Tom (Osborne) was the offensive coordinator.”
Rodgers made the most of the opportunity, of course, rushing for three touchdowns, throwing a 52-yard touchdown pass to Frosty Anderson, after taking a throwback toss from quarterback Dave Humm, and catching a 50-yard touchdown pass from Humm in the 40-6 Husker victory.
The only thing Rodgers didn’t accomplish that night was rushing for 100 yards. He finished with 81 yards on 15 carries, an average of 5.4 yards per carry.
Earlier that day, USC defeated Ohio State 42-17 in the Rose Bowl to wrap up a 12-0 national championship season. All-America fullback Sam Cunningham led the Trojans.
NORTH OMAHA CONNECTION
In any case, with USC out of the recruiting picture, Rodgers picked Nebraska, crediting Dick Davis and Mike Green with persuading him to become a Husker.
Davis, a graduate of Omaha North High School, was a senior at Nebraska in 1968. He played fullback and was first-team All-Big Eight as a junior, as well as a two-time, first-team academic all-conference honoree and second-team Academic All-American.
Green, the uncle of former Husker Ahman Green, was from Omaha Tech and played fullback his senior season, 1969, after moving from halfback. He was the team’s fastest back both seasons and also a co-captain as a senior, a reflection of his popularity among teammates.
Freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity competition in 1969, so Rodgers played on the Husker freshman team, leading it in rushing, receiving, returning punts and kickoffs, and scoring.
“Fine speed and quickness,” the 1970 Husker media guide said, listing him at 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds. “Great in broken field . . . Extremely dangerous one-on-one.”
(His senior year he was listed at 5-9, 173.)
He developed the elusiveness, Rodgers has said, growing up on Omaha’s tough north side. By the time he got to Horace Mann Junior High, he had shown the potential for athletic greatness.
He left for school early in the morning and didn’t get home until evening, walking in the middle of the street to improve his chances of evading gangs, he has said. “They would hurt you, beat you up. But nobody shot anybody. It wasn’t just one or two guys, people jumping on me.
“I had to get up and run.”
He couldn’t always avoid such trouble, however.
“I was small because I spent the week sipping soup through a straw” from being in fights “all weekend,” Rodgers has said. “My jaws were sore.” After regularly breaking free from multiple would-be assailants on the street, evading tacklers on a football field “was no big deal.”
That skill was most evident on punt and kickoff returns. When Rodgers completed his Husker career, he held NCAA records for punt-return touchdowns (7) and kick-return touchdowns (9) as well as all-purpose yards (5,487). And those totals didn’t include bowl-game statistics.
The punt- and kick-return records held for three decades.
In a story published in the Nov. 13, 1972 issue of Sports Illustrated, less than a month before Rodgers became Nebraska’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Dan Jenkins, a legendary figure in his own right, wrote that “for his size” Rodgers “is the most devastating player ever suited up.”
The story’s headline was: “Try to catch a bolt of lightning.”
In 1992, then-Iowa State head coach Jim Walden, a full-time Husker assistant (after two years as a grad assistant) during Rodgers’ final two seasons at Nebraska, was quoted by the Associated Press: “Once you’ve been around a Johnny Rodgers, it’s all kind of downhill after that in my lifetime. I spent time at Nebraska with the greatest punt-returning athlete in the history of the game.”
Rodgers’ punt returns were improvisational, like the music of jazz musicians. Assistant Clete Fischer, who worked with special teams, gave him a green light to do whatever he wanted.
“The script was, there was no script,” Rodgers has said. “They had no idea what you’re thinking because you don’t know what you’re going to do.”
One thing he wouldn’t do on punts was signal for a fair catch.
“Johnny Rodgers probably could impact a football game in more ways than anyone I’ve been involved with,” Osborne has said. He was Rodgers’ position coach.
Nebraska’s 1971 team is generally regarded as college football’s best of the 20th Century. In 2011, The Sporting News named it the best of all-time. But “as great as the team was, take Johnny Rodgers out of there on kickoff and punt returns and it probably wouldn’t have been 13-0,” Osborne has said.
McKay and Southern California could have had him for the price of a scholarship. “The Jet” would have been taking off from the LA Coliseum instead of Memorial Stadium.
But then, Lyell Bremser wouldn’t have bestowed the nickname on him in that case.