Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
In the constellation of University of Nebraska football legends, Johnny Rodgers is probably still the brightest star, even though it’s been going on 40 years since he last played for the Huskers. So dazzling were his moves and so dominant was his play that this 1972 Heisman Trophy winner , who was the one big play threat on the 1970 and 1971 national championship teams, remains the gold standard for NU playmakers. The fact that he was such a prominent player when NU first reached modern day college football prominence, combined with his being an Omaha product who overcame a tough start in life, puts him in a different category from all the other Husker greats. The style and panache that he brought to the field and off it helps, too. He’s also remained one of the most visible and accessible Husker legends.
Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
“Man, woman and child…the Jet has put ‘em in the aisles again.”
Viewing again on tape one of Johnny Rodgers’ brilliant juking, jiving broken field runs, one has the impression of a jazz artist going off on an improvisational riff and responding note by note, move by move, instant by instant to whatever he’s feeling on the field.
Indeed, that is how Rodgers, the quicksilver University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy winner known as The Jet, describes the way his instinctive playmaking skills expressed themselves in action. Original, spontaneous, unplanned, his dance-like punt returns and darting runs after catches unfolded, like riveting dramatic performances, in the moment. Poetry in motion. All of which makes his revelation that he did this in a kind of spellbound state fascinating.
“I remember times when I’d go into a crowd of players and I’d come out the other side and the first time I’d know anything about what really happened was when I watched it on film,” he said. “It was like I was in a trance or guided or something. It was not ever really at a conscious level. I could see it as it’s happening, but I didn’t remember any of it. In any of the runs, I could not sit back and say all the things I’d just done until I saw them on film. Never. Not even once.”
This sense of something larger and more mysterious at work is fitting given Rodgers unlikely life story. In going from ghetto despair and criminal mischief to football stardom and flamboyant high life to wheeler-dealer and ignominious failure to sober businessman and community leader, his life has played out in surreal fashion. For a long time Rodgers seemed to be making his legend up, for better or worse, as he went along.
Once viewed as an incorrigible delinquent, Rodgers grew up poor and fatherless in the Logan Fontenelle projects and, unable to get along with his mother, ran away from home at age 14 to Detroit. He was gone a year.
“You talk about a rude awakening. It was a trip,” he said.
He bears scars from bashings and bullets he took in violent clashes. He received probation in his late teens for his part in a Lincoln filling station robbery that nearly derailed his college football career. He served 30 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Unimaginable — The Jet confined to a cell. His early run-ins with the law and assundry other troubles made him a romantic outlaw figure to some and a ne’er-do-well receiving special treatment to others.
“People were trying to make me out to be college football’s bad boy,” is how he sums up that tumultuous time.
Embracing his rebel image, the young Rodgers wore shades and black leather and drove fast. Affecting a playboy image, J.R. lived a Player’s lifestyle. By the time he signed a big contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, he was indulging in a rich young man’s life to the hilt — fur capes, silk dashikis, fancy cars, recreational drugs, expensive wines and fine babes. Hedonism, baby.
Controversy continued dogging him and generating embarrassing headlines, like the time in 1985 he allegedly pulled a gun on a cable television technician or the two times, once in 1987 and again in 1998, when his Heisman was confiscated in disputes over non-payment of bills. Then there were the crass schemes to cash in on his fame.
Rodgers, whose early life could have gone seriously astray if not for strong male figures around him, said, “I really wish I would have had mentors in mid-life like I had coming up so I could have been prepared for a lot of things I found myself getting into and out of, whether good or bad. I really don’t have any regrets as far as whatever has happened, one way or the other, because I’ve grown on both sides. I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes.”
It is only in recent years he has settled down into the kind of calm, considered, conservative life of a reborn man who, in conversation, often refers to his Creator and to giving back.
As he was quoted in a 2001 Omaha World-Herald story, “I’m a little boring now. I make people nervous these days because they have to put their drugs away now.”
Not that this inveterate risk-taker and spotlight lover still isn’t capable of surprises, just that his escapades are less brazen. In the late 1990s he went back to school to finish his degree and added a second degree for good measure. In 1996 he started a sports apparel, bedding and accesories business, JetWear, located in the Business and Technology Center at 24th and Lake, that got him named entrepreneur of the year. He and his wife Jawana own and operate it today. Then, cementing his lofty status as a sports hero, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and named Husker Player of the Century.
These days, Rodgers, looking fit with his shirt-popping muscular physique and jaunty with the gold bling-bling draping his every appendage, seems comfortable in his role as venerable legend. The media seeks his opinions on the state of the Husker Nation in the aftermath of last season’s debacle.
However much he plays the role of wizened old football warrior, he is forever seen as the dangerous artful dodger whose unique combo of strength, quickness and intuitiveness let him do the unexpected on the gridiron — leaving people grasping thin air with magical now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t moves. In an interview from his office, adorned with images and clippings from his glory days, he spoke like a man still in touch with the electrifying, enigmatic athletic genius that left fans breathless and opponents befuddled. Still every inch the star, he’s finally come to terms with himself.
When viewed in the context of a rather rash fellow who follows his instincts, then his punt returns — the plays where he improvised the most, displayed the most creativity and took the greatest chances — make more sense just as some of his reckless off-the-field antics can be better understood if not excused. For better or worse, his let’s-wing-it, go-for-broke attitude explains his life inside and outside of athletics.
“When you’re a risk taker you do make mistakes because you’re going for it all the time,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance. In a lot of ways I should have been more conservative about things but it’s just not my nature.”
Just like calling a fair catch or lining up behind a wall of blockers was not about to happen when fielding a punt.
“You don’t think, you just react. You don’t know, you just feel,” is how Rodgers describes what it’s like for an impulsive person like himself to feed off whatever is happening around him at any given time, including the chaos swirling about when running back a punt in a preternatural daze. “It’s not like being in what athletes call a zone. You get yourself ready in a zone so you can think about what you need to do and you can get it done. Being in a trance is a whole other level. It’s not a planned thing. You don’t know what’s going to happen. If you make a plan, you’re already wrong because it hasn’t happened yet. The plan is, there is no plan.”
Because of Rodgers’ unusual, innate gifts, then NU head coach Bob Devaney gave him great latitude.
“I had a green light returning punts. I just did whatever came natural,” Rodgers said. “I’d call a punt return right and I’d go left in a heartbeat. When I saw everybody going left, I’d change direction. I never would know. I was never ever told to fair catch the football, even in dangerous situations. There were never any rules for me. I was given that freedom. It got to the point where the only thing I could tell my guys is, ‘Get that first man and meet me down field’ because I didn’t know myself what I was going to do.”
Some of his most famous returns illustrate Rodgers at his extemporaneous best. Take the famous 72-yard touchdown versus Oklahoma in the 1971 Game of the Century.
“It was a right return and I started off right but the whole darn thing happened on the left. On that return my guys didn’t get the first man. I had to shake the first man, who was Greg Pruitt. Joe Blahak broke one way and I went the other way, but still he circled all the way back around the field to pick the last guy off my back and that was because we always agreed to meet down field.
“Where most players would be satisfied getting one block and be jogging the rest of the way my guys, like Blahak and (Rich) Glover, were still fighting until the whistle blew. They knew to meet me down field and that attitude really panned out.”
Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. “I watch myself returning punts on film and I see guys reaching at my head and I’m ducking and you can see clearly that I can’t see them, but I can feel them. At the exact right time I make the move. It’s an instinct. A spiritual thing. Unconscious.”
In a remarkable series of sideline returns against Colorado in 1972, Rodgers executed some fancy arabesques and tightrope maneuvers that defied logic and balance as he repeatedly made sharp cuts, spins and leaps to escape trouble.
On offense, he also enjoyed a degree of freedom. When the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle. “When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.”
He got things done to the tune of setting numerous single season and career school marks for catches, yards receiving, punt returns and total offense. Amazingly, Rodgers isn’t sure he could be successful today in NU’s highly regimented schemes.
“I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”
Precociously talented from an early age, Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates formed with their interlaced bodies in tumbling shows. Despite being much younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.
“I was ‘too small’ to play but they let me play ball with them because I was good enough.” He honed his repertoire of fakes playing flag football and, later, tackle with teams sponsored by the Boys Club and Roberts Dairy. By the time he starred at Tech High in football, baseball and basketball, Rodgers had a sense of his own destiny. “I noticed I seemed to be special. I saw these older guys go on and do something nationally and I felt if they could, I could, too. It was almost supposed to happen.”
Rodgers wasn’t always comfortable with his own prodigious talents. He said early on his gift, as he calls it, was “definitely a burden because I didn’t know why I was so good and whether I was chosen or something. I didn’t know if I even wanted to have that type of a burden. I was almost upset because I had it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I really wasn’t spiritually grown enough to really appreciate this gift, which it really was.” Then there was the fact his prowess caused grief off the field. “My gift was getting me in fights every single weekend…and for no other reason than I was popular, I had notoriety and people were jealous. Girls were telling their guys we were together or whatever. I had people coming down where I lived trying to beat me up. I remember having to crawl out the gall darn window.”
Things got so bad during junior high school he took extra precautions walking to and from the home of his grandmother, who’d taken him in after his brash runaway stunt. “I’d walk in the middle of 25th Street so that if anybody came after me I could get away,” he said. “And it would never be one on one. It would always be several guys and they could never catch me.” If nothing else, being chased helped him develop his broken field moves. One day, Rodgers wasn’t so sure he’d make it past the gauntlet facing him. He and his pal Leroy had just left a friend’s house when they were surrounded by a gang of boys.
As Rodgers describes it, “I had a dog chain and he had a knife and I said, ‘Leroy, you ready?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So, I’m looking around to check out the situation and when I turn back around Leroy is turning the corner up the street. He ran off and left me. So, I started swinging my chain until I got me a little opening and I broke. In those days, when I broke I was going to be alright because I had it covered. Well, those guys started chasing me, except they sent one guy out while the rest of them stayed back jogging.” That’s when he got a sinking feeling. Not long before the incident he’d watched a Western on television about a lone settler chased by Indians, who sent a series of runners out after the man until they wore him down and caught him.
“I remember thinking, They saw the same movie. I couldn’t believe it. They had me scared to death because I saw what happened to that cowboy. Luckily, I escaped down the street and ducked into an alley and dove in a car. I laid down on the floor in back and they went on by,” he said, laughing and flashing his best Johnny “The Jet” smile.
Growing up in The Hood then didn’t pose quite the same dangers as it does now, but there is no doubt Rodgers narrowly skirted the worst of its ills thanks to the influence of some black men who nurtured and guided him.
“I see how easily I could have went totally in the other direction and what it really took came from my athletic background.”
There was George Barber, his gym coach at Lothrop, who got him started in athletics. There was Josh Gibson, his baseball coach at the Boys Club. The older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh was a legendary baseball coach and “a hard disciplinarian.”
Rodgers, a good enough baseball prospect to be drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, credits Gibson with teaching him to switch hit. His basketball coach at Horace Mann Junior High, Bob Rose, taught him to shoot layups with both hands. Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from Gibson and Rose, Rodgers said, was that “we weren’t there just to play the game, we were there to win. Of course, we lost some games but we learned you never quit. You went back and worked harder and got better.”
And at the YMCA there was Don Benning, still years away from coaching UNO to an NAIA wrestling title, a man whom Rodgers said “has been like a father to me.”
By the time Rodgers emerged as the star of NU’s 1970 and 1971 championship teams and as the 1972 Heisman front runner he was befriended by two more key men in his life — the late community activist Charles Washington and high living attorney Robert Fromkin. A friend to many athletes, Washington helped Rodgers out with expenses and other favors.
But, Rodgers said, what he really gleaned from Washington was “a responsibility to help others. I learned a lot from him about helping out the community.” According to Rodgers what he got from Fromkin, who represented him after one of his arrests, were free lessons in style.
“Bobby was responsible for me having maybe just a touch of class. He always had an elaborate place and a brand new El Dorado. He would invite me to the fights and to shows. We’d have the whole front row. Then we’d go out to the French Cafe and he’d pick up the whole tab. That was stuff I looked forward to at an early age. That showed me how to do it. How to live right. It added to my flamboyance. The thing he taught me is the only shame you have is to aim low. You’ve got to aim high. You’ve got to go for the gusto. It only takes a little bit more to go first class.”
When, on the advice of Fromkin, Rodgers surprised the football world by spurning the NFL for the CFL, he found a perfect fit for his garishness in cosmo Montreal and its abundant night life. “I loved Montreal. It was the city of love. There were some great times in Montreal. The French people and I got along great. We were flamboyant together.” The dash he exhibited off the field complemented his flash on the field, where Rodgers again dominated. After four banner years, it was time to meet his next challenge. “The only thing left to do was to go to the NFL and prove myself there.” He signed with the club that originally drafted him — the San Diego Chargers — and worked like he never had before.
“Because I had so much natural ability I never pushed myself as hard as I really could have. When I got to San Diego I was really determined to go to the next level. I wanted to see just how good I could be. I made sure I was in the best condition I could be in.”
He was coming off a monster preseason showing against Kansas City when his dream fell apart. A series of torn muscles and hamstrings severely curtailed his rookie NFL season. He came back ready the next year only to suffer an ugly, career-ending knee injury. “That was it,” said Rodgers, who after surgery spent much of the next year in a wheelchair and crutches. For him, the biggest disappointment was “never really getting a chance to showcase what I could do. It hurt me, but I’m not bitter about it. I mean, I could have gone crazy but instead I grew from it.”
A perpetual optimist and opportunist, Rodgers has bounced around some since his retirement. For several years he made San Diego his home, starting up a cable TV magazine there that had some success. He returned to Nebraska in the late ‘80s to help support his son Terry during an injury-shortened NU career. Over the years he’s announced several business-community projects that have not come to fruition and some that have. In addition to JetWear, which he hopes to expand, he owns a sports memorabilia business and a promotion arm organizing events like his Husker/Heisman Weekend and public speaking engagements.
Rather than slow down in his mid-50s, he’s poised to make a big move.
“I feel like I had a rejuvenation on life at 50 and so I feel I’m just getting started. I think the best is truly still ahead of me. I have only touched on a small part of the potential I have. Because of my history and my visibility I can create a better future for myself, for my family and for my community.”
Eying Omaha’s riverfront redevelopment, he looks forward to being part of a north Omaha rebirth to match his own. “I think north Omaha’s future is so bright you have to wear shades.” Burn, Jet, burn.
- You: Oklahoma-Nebraska: The End of a Historic Rivalry (bleacherreport.com)
- Stewart Mandel: Nebraska ready to make right move at right time (sportsillustrated.cnn.com)
- Stories That Don’t Suck: College Football’s Greatest Game And Its Greatest Story [Stories That Don’t Suck] (deadspin.com)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)