First Posted: 11/12/2013
(AP) More than 40 years after he won the Heisman Trophy, Johnny Rodgers remains one of the most celebrated figures in Nebraska.
Now 62 and walking with a slight limp from football-ravaged knees, Rodgers couldn’t make it to his vehicle outside a restaurant last week before a silver-haired man rushed up to him.
“I’m 71 years old, and I’ve always wanted to tell you I enjoyed that run so much,” the man told Rodgers. “I enjoyed it even more because Oklahoma lost.”
Rodgers let out a big laugh. His career-defining 72-yard punt return started the No. 1 Cornhuskers on their way to the 35-31 win over the No. 2 Sooners in the 1971 “Game of the Century.”
“See,” Rodgers said, turning to his lunch partner and back to the man, “people still remember.”
People of a certain age around here remember the good and the bad about Rodgers. For all the glory he brought to Nebraska and himself, he’s still dogged by what he called “10 minutes of insanity” in 1970.
It was on the last day of his freshman year that he and a couple buddies hatched a plan to rob a Lincoln gas station. The drunken prank, as he characterized it, netted $90 that was split three ways.
The crime was first investigated as an armed robbery. Rodgers pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of felony larceny and was sentenced to two years of probation. Rodgers has repeatedly denied that he had a gun during the holdup.
Rodgers went on to win the Heisman in 1972, punctuating a career that earned him recognition as one of the greatest college players of all time.
Yet he’s never been able to shake the stigma of being an ex-felon. On Thursday, he will go before the Nebraska Board of Pardons to ask to have his felony conviction pardoned. He’s eligible because at least 10 years have passed without his having any law-enforcement contacts or convictions.
“I have a history of 43 years now of rather decent things happening,” Rodgers said. “I’ve done and accomplished more things after I had a felony charge than most people ever do.”
Tom Osborne, who was Rodgers’ position coach and later the Huskers’ three-time national-championship head coach, wrote to the pardons board in support of Rodgers. So did a former Nebraska congressman and former Omaha mayor, Hal Daub, and several community leaders.
Osborne said he continues to see Rodgers fairly often. “He has done many good things the last 40 years,” Osborne said, noting Rodgers’ work with charities and youth.
Rodgers rose from poverty to star at Nebraska and play professionally in Canada and in the NFL. He’s capitalized on his Heisman and national championships won in 1970-71 to make a living as an entrepreneur and pitchman.
He returned to the university in the 1990s and now holds two degrees, in journalism and advertising. He talks with pride about his five children and their successes, and about how he’s tried to be a role model for youngsters in the hardscrabble North Omaha community where he grew up.
Rodgers said he was under the impression he had the equivalent of a pardon in 1973. That’s because the court order releasing him from probation said, “The defendant’s civil rights are restored the same as though a pardon had been issued.”
Those rights didn’t extend to possession of firearms, however. California convictions for assault with a firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm he was placed on probation for both remain on his record. They stem from a 1985 run-in with a cable-television technician who was disconnecting service to Rodgers’ San Diego-area home.
Rodgers acknowledged having a gun in his pocket when he confronted the cable man but said he did not display it. He said the gun belonged to someone who lived at his house, though he wouldn’t say who.
“I’ve never owned a gun,” Rodgers said.
Nebraska law requires a person convicted of a felony to first receive a pardon, and then permission from the governor, to possess firearms again.
Rodgers asks in his application to be authorized to own a firearm. He said he doesn’t plan to carry a gun. “I’m requesting all my rights,” he said.
If he receives a pardon in Nebraska, he plans to ask for one in California.
Rodgers has had several business ventures since his last season with the San Diego Chargers in 1978. For five years in the 1980s, he published a television and entertainment magazine in San Diego. In Omaha, he founded a company named JetWear, which primarily sold college sports-themed bedding for children.
Rodgers also runs a foundation that promotes programs geared toward education and social development for youngsters. Two years ago, he founded the Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers Award for the top return specialist in college football. He said proceeds from the banquet are used to pay tuition for about 10 students pursuing a trade at an Omaha community college.
Rodgers said he is confident he’ll receive his pardon, though “there’s no such thing as a slam-dunk.”
“The state says you’ve had to have done good for the last 10 years,” he said. “I’ve followed the rules. I can follow the playbook. I’m serious about this. I’ve made some mistakes, and I still make mistakes all the time. But I’m not going to do stupid things. I want to show people that if somebody does something stupid like I did during my 10 minutes of insanity, you can come back from it and it’s going to be all right.”