The ‘JET’ Award
By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor
PHILADELPHIA (BASN/STR ITR) When it comes to College Football, formations ruled over PlayStations as the sport took its baby steps back in the day.
But in the world of offense defense and special teams, the momentum of a game can change in seconds when a kickoff or punt is returned for a touchdown.
In the annals of college football, few players, if any, ever did it better than Johnny Rodgers. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Rodgers, who was nicknamed “The Jet” for his rapid acceleration and speed on the field, was a whirling dervish in cleats. While in high school, Rodgers was voted athlete of the year as a player at Omaha’s Tech High, with guarantees of playing for any school he wished.
Staying home, Rodgers went to the University of Nebraska, and as a Cornhusker, Rodgers was a true triple threat as a pass receiver, running back and return specialist.
In only three years, Rodgers re-wrote virtually every offensive team record, accumulating 5,586 yards of total offense. He was twice named first team All – American and won the Heisman in 1972 for most outstanding player in college football in the United States.
Then – Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne said Rodgers had the greatest ability to return punts of any player he ever saw. Before he left for the world of pro football, Rodgers returned seven punts and nine kickoffs for touchdowns in his college career, both NCAA records.
Over the years as the NCAA and media exposure have altered the evolution of the sport, awards recognizing position players have become standard. While the Heisman focused mostly on quarterbacks and running backs, it is fair to say that it wasn’t until Rodgers’ appearance that those commensurate skills he brought to the table were truly appreciated.
I don’t believe that players like Tim Brown, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Deion Sanders, Joe Washington and Charles Woodson would have been given proper Heisman scrutiny were it not for having The Jet on the scene as a blueprint for analysis of overall talent and impact on their team’s respective success.
Now football fans know the long bomb and the big run for a touchdown will get the crowd up; but when the change of possession via punt happens, there is a momentary relaxing because a team is preparing what it will do to either advance or defend against its opponent.
It is in that timeframe where the returner does his damage, and Rodgers did enough of it to warrant having an award for such a weapon named after him.
In 1971, as Nebraska played the University of Oklahoma Sooners, Rodgers returned a punt 72 yards to score the first touchdown which set the tone for his team’s 35-31 victory over the rival Sooners. But when Rodgers punished Notre Dame by accounting for 30 of the 40 points scored against them in a 40 – 6 shellacking in the 1973 Orange Bowl, the point of the threat of Rodgers touching the ball at any time was made clear.
As specialization became more prevalent, it seems only fair that if awards are given to the best passer (Davey O’Brien, Unitas, Manning), best offensive and defensive lineman (Outland), receiver (Biletnikoff) linebacker (Butkus) placekicker (Lou Groza) and punter (Ray Guy) what name could be more fitting for college football’s best return man than The Jet?
Many Happy Returns
Rodgers would have success at the next level, excelling in the Canadian Football League, where he helped the Montreal Alouettes to a Grey Cup victory in 1974. While injuries cut short his career as he returned to the States and the NFL by San Diego, the spirit of what the position embodies is best translated by the image of Rodgers, who was named to the NCAA’s All – Century Team…as a returner.
The Arizona Cardinals star Patrick Peterson would have been a prime example of a Rodgers “Jet” Award winner. Coming out of Louisiana State University, Peterson, effective as a return man for the Bayou Bengals, has already made his mark as a punt returner with the Cardinals, setting a team record with a 99 – yard punt return last season.
As great pro – level returners like Rick Upchurch, Bill Thompson, Mel Gray, Mel Gray (both of them – ask your father about that one) Sanders, Rodger Bird, Dante Hall, Terry Metcalf, Eric Metcalf, Devin Hester and Henry “Gizmo” Williams have made their mark as returners, this is one time the Powers That Be in collegiate sports should be of one voice in presenting annually the Johnny Rodgers Award for excellence as a return specialist.
Copyright c 2012 Michael – Louis Ingram – all rights reserved.