Looking Back At Johnny Rodgers Following 50-Year Anniversary Of Award

In December, the Heisman Trophy Trust honored its 10, 25 and 50-year Heisman Trophy anniversary winners at the Heisman Trophy Gala. 

Below is the profile on 50-year anniversary winner Johnny Rodgers that was included in the 2022 Heisman Trophy Journal.

Rodgers enjoyed others ceremonies as well, honored community leaders in Omaha in February during Black History Month.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Heisman Trophy’s 38th winner, Johnny Rodgers, is not exactly a walk down memory lane. It’s more of a full-on sprint. How else to keep up with “The Jet.”

Rodgers was born in Omaha, became larger than life in Lincoln and remains one of Nebraska’s most popular athletes to this day. 

He became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in 1972 and his name still appears in so many spots in the Nebraska football record book after five decades that you’d think someone hit the copy-paste button a few too many times. 

Rodgers, all 5-foot-10, 180 pounds of him, was also a savant as a kick returner who grew a national following with his uncanny ability to maneuver through defenses en route to the end zone. Is it too late to update “The Jet” to “Top Gun”?

Rodgers, who grew up in a poor part of Omaha, found success in athletics at a young age and became a star athlete at Omaha Tech High. He earned all-state honors in football and played on both sides of the ball. He also won a state title in the long jump and starred on the school basketball team, averaging over 20 points a game.

After graduating high school in 1969, Rodgers signed with Nebraska and redshirted as a freshman. He made an immediate impact for the Cornhuskers as a sophomore in 1970, catching 39 passes for 710 yards and seven TDs, helping Nebraska win its first national title. Rodgers’ role increased as a 1971 junior and he caught 57 passes for 956 yards and was a key part of the Huskers’ second straight championship. 

It was in the second-to-last contest of that 1971 season — a Thanksgiving weekend match-up between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma in a game billed as the “Game of the Century” — that Rodgers truly grew into a national star.

In what was the signature play of his career and maybe the most famous moment in Cornhusker history, Rodgers opened the scoring with a daring, darting and weaving 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in what would ultimately be a thrilling Nebraska 35-31 win. 

Late in the game with Nebraska trailing 31-28, Rodgers also caught a key 33-yard pass to the Sooner 15 that set up the winning score. But it was the punt return that electrified the imagination of the country.

The radio call from play-by-play announcer Lyell Bremser captured the magic that day as he belted out: “Holy moly! Man, woman and child, did that put ‘em in the aisles! Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers just tore ’em loose from their shoes!” 

Indeed. Following a win at Hawaii, Nebraska took on Alabama in the 1972 Orange Bowl. Rodgers returned another early punt for a touchdown, this one 77 yards, as the Cornhuskers romped to a 38-6 victory and their second title.

As the 1972 season started, Rodgers was among the stars of the sport and the marquee player on the No. 1 team.

The bubble burst in the 1972 season opener as Nebraska’s 32-game unbeaten streak (31 wins and one tie) and 23-game winning streak was halted in a 20-17 upset road loss to UCLA (quarterbacked by Mark Harmon, the son of Heisman winner Tom Harmon). Rodgers managed 184 all-purpose yards and one scoring run in his senior debut.

Nebraska dropped to No. 10 in the polls but rebounded with seven straight blowout wins, starting with a 37-7 home-opening victory over Texas A&M in which Rodgers had 185 all-purpose yards, including 94 on four punt returns.

Rodgers had a regular-season high three touchdowns in a 77-7 win at Army, snaring two TD receptions among his five catches while also scoring on a run. Including the Army game, he would go on to score at least two touchdowns in seven of the next eight games.

He recorded his first 100-yard receiving game of the season with seven catches for 127 yards in a 49-0 win over Minnesota (the first of four straight shutouts that tied a 1937 NCAA record). The game also included his first punt return for a score that year and another rushing touchdown, generating a season-high 290 all-purpose yards.


In fact, huge shutout wins became the norm for a month. In blowouts over Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma State, the Cornhuskers won by a combined 201-0.

In the trio of wins against the Tigers, Jayhawks and Cowboys, Rodgers totaled another 17 receptions for 341 yards in the three-game stretch, averaging 20.1 yards per catch and scoring a combined five more touchdowns (three on receptions, two rushing).

The shutout streak ended with a 33-10 win at No. 14 Colorado as Rodgers caught four more passes for 79 yards and returned five punts for a season-best 144 return yards, totaling 266 all-purpose yards overall.

Nebraska was rising in the polls and had sat at No. 3 for three straight weeks. But any hope of a third straight national title was dashed in a sloppy 23-23 tie with Iowa State. Rodgers caught a season-high eight balls for 90 yards and two scores but it wasn’t enough to overcome eight turnovers.

The Cornhuskers demolished Kansas State, 59-7, in the penultimate regular season game as Rodgers scored his final two touchdowns of the regular season.

Nebraska, now fifth, returned to Lincoln to host No. 4 Oklahoma on Thanksgiving in Bob Devaney’s final home game as head coach, but the Cornhuskers couldn’t replicate 1971’s magic, falling 17-14.

Rodgers’ regular-season body of work as a senior included 1,978 all-purpose yards. That featured54 catches for 919 yards, 58 carries for 268 rushing yards, 607 punt returns yards and 184 kickoff return yards while scoring 17 combined touchdowns. All of that helped Nebraska nail down another trip to the Orange Bowl.

The 1972 Heisman vote wasn’t especially close nor was it a runaway, but it was decisive as Rodgers became Nebraska’s first Heisman Trophy winner with 1310 points, including 301 first-place votes. He beat out rival and friend Greg Pruitt of Oklahoma (966 points) and defensive tackle teammate Rich Glover (652).

Rodgers, who earned his second straight All-American first team honor, also won the 1972 Walter Camp Award. If there were any who questioned Rodgers’ bonafides, he quieted the skeptics with perhaps his best all-around performance of his career in the 1973 Orange Bowl, leading Nebraska to a 40-6 win. 

Devaney, in his final game as the Cornhuskers head coach, shifted Rodgers to I-back from his typical wingback spot. Good call.

Rodgers responded with season highs in carries (15), rushing yards (81) and rushing touchdowns (three) while also catching one pass for a score (among 71 yards receiving) while throwing a 52-yard TD pass for good measure. Rodgers remains among only a handful of NCAA players ever to run, throw and catch a TD pass in one game.

He finished his Nebraska career with 5,586 total yards, still second all-time at the school, and 45 touchdowns in three glorious seasons. His eight career touchdowns scored on kick returns remains tied as an NCAA record.

Rodgers still owns Nebraska records for career receiving touchdowns (25) and career 100-yard receiving games (10) and shares marks for most receptions in a game (three). He also owns NU career marks for punt returns (98), punt return yards (1,515) and punt return scores (seven).

His career-best 11 TD receptions in 1971 are still second-most in school history while his 942 receiving yards and 2,011 all-purposes yards in 1972 are both third most. He caught at least one pass in all 37 games in which he played, one short of the school mark, and he is one of only two Cornhuskers to return a punt and a kickoff for a score in the same season.

Rodgers was a first-round draft pick by the San Diego Chargers in 1973, but he pivoted as deftly as used to on the field, opting to start his career in the Canadian Football League, where he became a star with the Montreal Alouettes. 

Nicknamed the “ordinary superstar”, a moniker Rodgers coined that became popular with the team’s following, he was a fan favorite for his breathtaking style of play and earned the Most Outstanding Rookie Award in 1973.

Rodgers led the Alouettes to the Grey Cup title in 1974 and was among the league’s best players from 1973-76.

In 1977, Rodgers decided to give the NFL a try and signed with the Chargers. Fate had other ideas and a hamstring injury cost him much of 1977 and a devastating injury to his kneecap later ended his playing career in 1978 after only 17 NFL games.

In 1999, Rodgers was selected by Sports Illustrated as the Cornhuskers Player of the Century and received a similar nod by the Walter Camp Foundation. In 2000, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

He has remained active in private business and community service throughout his post-playing days and also established The Jet Award in 2011 to honor the top return specialist in college football.

Rodgers still resides in Omaha as one of the state’s most popular sports figures. He thrilled college football fans throughout the country five decades ago and remains one of the Heisman Trophy’s most unique and exciting players.