As Heisman front runner Cam Newton continues to get hammered in the press, we look back at the most scrutinized Heisman campaign ever, someone that was poked and prodded by the national media for his off-the-field transgressions: Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers. We are not comparing Rodgers and Newton’s transgressions (Rodgers was convicted of a felony), but rather the media firestorm for both. We now look back at Rodgers’ career, his candidacy and how he still was able to win the bronze statue.
Even before he came to Nebraska, Omaha native Johnny Rodgers would’ve been considered a question mark. The Nebraska native couldn’t go to USC, his favorite team as a child, because his grades weren’t good enough. He also had reportedly been stabbed and shot another youth by the time he was 15 but even today neither one of those facts can be corroborated.
So he headed to Lincoln where, adding to an already poor reputation, Rodgers and several others decided to rob a gas station during Rodgers freshman season, using guns all for a measly $90. Rodgers was the get-away driver and eventually apprehended and pleaded guilty to holding up the station. The felony was put on his record, but he wasn’t sentenced to jail time. Instead he got two years of probation.
In 2007 Rodgers said: “It was a stupid thing that three young guys did 37 years ago. It wasn’t even about the money. It was a dare. . . . I’ve got to be one of the most rehabilitated persons you can find.”
Today, Rodgers would be kicked off the team in an instant. But 40 years ago this didn’t make national news and Nebraska was still not particularly relevant in college football, so Rodgers’ reinstatement to the team didn’t make any splash on the national scene. In fact, no one had even heard of this freshman from Nebraska, let alone cared he had just robbed a gas station.
But soon people learned his name after the “Game of the Century” between Nebraska and Oklahoma in 1971. It was during that game that Rodgers returned a punt 72 yards to the house. The play-by-play said it all:
“Man, woman and child did that put ‘em in the aisles!”
That punt return and the ’71 national championship propelled Rodgers’ Heisman candidacy in 1972. Nebraska didn’t have as good a season but Rodgers’ numbers were still impressive: 942 yards receiving, 308 yards rushing, and 802 yards off of punts and kickoffs. Take away his receiving yards and Rodgers averaged 13 yards a play any time he touched the ball.
Famous sports writer Dan Jenkins once wrote of him, “For his size (5-foot-9), he is the most devastating player ever suited up.”
In 2005 Rodgers also tried to explain his success: “I just wanted to win more than anyone else. I took a lot of risks, although I never considered them risks at the time. Like never fair-catching a punt. I had the attitude that as a little guy, I always had to try to do whatever it took to make plays.”
Known as Johnny “The Jet” for his lightning-quick speed, Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy easily but, despite putting the gas station hold up well behind him, some used it to take shots at Rodgers. Others also questioned bristled at his personality.
For instance Jim Murray of the Lakeland Ledger wrote, “Somewhere along the line, I had gotten the idea the Heisman Trophy was for more than athletic excellence, that a candidate had to be something more than ‘Mr. Touchdown USA.’… I don’t mind that this year’s winner knocked over a gas station. Anybody can do that. It’s his public utterances that stop me, not what he does in private…. Johnny was quoted as saying, ‘But there are people who get paid more than I do for making decisions like that.’ Wait a minute! Get paid more than YOU do?! How much, pray tell, is THAT?!”
Rodgers coach Bob Devaney didn’t take kindly to anyone who attacked his player: “Johnny should certainly win the Heisman Trophy. I can’t see how any problems he had over two years ago should affect him for the Heisman.”
With all the controversy swirling around Cam Newton these days, it’s hard to imagine Rodgers winning the bronze statue if it were in this day and age. But Rodgers prevailed over Oklahoma’s Greg Pruitt despite his past mistakes.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t Rodgers last run-in with the law. In 1987, he was arrested in San Diego for allegedly threatening a cable TV repairman who came to disconnect his cable. Rodgers defended himself in the case and actually placed the Heisman Trophy on the defense table next to him in an attempt to sway the judge. It didn’t. Rodgers was jailed until he had the conviction overturned with the help of an actual attorney.
Looking back now, cheating on a school paper and even possibly seeking cash to play football seems pretty minor compared to armed robbery, but it’s a different era and we’ll have to wait and see if Heisman voters are as forgiving as they used to be.