Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers Still Making Moves
by Leo Adam Biga
Fifty years ago, Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers won the 1972 Heisman Trophy as college football’s outstanding player for his video game moves on the field as a star University of Nebraska receiver, runner and return specialist. The Omaha native was a key cog on the back-to-back national title teams that established Big Red football as a dynasty.
The living legend is still making moves at 71, only now on the racquetball court and in his various community and entrepreneurial activities, most of them centered in his hometown, where his athletic dreams first got fired. Rather than looking back, Rodgers looks forward, leveraging his renown to honor today’s electrifying players via The Jet Award. The annual gala recognizing the nation’s top punt-kick returner raises funds to support a trades scholarship in his name at Metropolitan Community College. The next gala is April 13th, 2023, at Baxter Arena.
The lessons Rodgers learned playing varsity ball for NU from 1970-1972, including the Game of the Century win over Oklahoma and three Orange Bowl victories, still resonate for him.
“It was an impactful three years that really redirected my life,” he said. “I was with great guys that understood the value of teamwork, which I never forget. I got a lot of attention and accolades, but I couldn’t have made it without them blocking for me. They put about as much effort into it as I did it and that’s what made it successful because they were just as serious about it as I was. I had a punt return against Oklahoma State that I show all the time when I’m out speaking, and you see that every single one of my teammates on the field got a block.”
“I never felt I was THE one. Without those guys I would not have been able to get to where we were going. They really made me successful. Teamwork is what makes things happen.”
Rodgers has remained close to teammates from those championship teams and to the NU athletics program and its retired Hall of Fame coach, Tom Osborne, who mentored him. Though he travels widely, he’s maintained his home in the North Omaha neighborhood he grew up in. He’s encouraged by North O redevelopment but sees a need for more synergy.
“It’s not nearly enough but we’re moving. People need to see more changes. We need to get more people involved. We need to collaborate. We don’t need everybody doing their own thing, competing, we need to collectively come together and do more group things. I believe we’re starting to realize that anything you can do by yourself isn’t big enough. It’s teamwork that makes your community strong.”
Rodgers, former president of 100 Black Men Omaha, is active in a similar group called The Black Knights. He’s headed up various initiatives over the years.
“I do take the lead, when necessary, but I’m not trying to be a leader, I’m just trying to get things done in our community. I just do what I can. I’m always working with somebody to do something. I’m not trying to do anything by myself because you can’t do things by yourself. I’ve learned through team sports how highly important teamwork is. Teamwork truly does make your dreams work.”
His Johnny Rodgers Career and Technical Scholarship are perfect examples. He’s found support for it from Omaha investor Mike Yanney and MCC President Randy Schmailzl. He works closely with MCC Manager of Community Relations Tim Clark in promoting the program.
The Jet Award that Rodgers founded to fund the scholarship has found support from well-known figures. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts year 2022’s honorary chair. NU Athletic Director Trev Alberts was a guest speaker. Big name athletic and media celebrities also helped attract a crowd. The April 2023 gala’s keynoter speaker is Hall of Fame Tight End Kellen Winslow.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised by the event to underwrite scholarships for both graduating seniors and nontraditional students transitioning from other careers.
“We’ve given scholarships to people from 18-years-old to 62 to get training in trades at Metropolitan Community College,” Rodgers said. “I have a passion for the trades. I attended (Omaha) Technical High School in the trades.”
When the Omaha Public Schools closed Tech and its trade programs, he said, “it was a blow to the community.” MCC and some high schools are trying to fill the gap. “There’s a high demand for and a short supply of people with skilled trades training,” said Rodgers, noting that high paying jobs await graduates of one or two-year trades training programs.
“A four-year degree is not for everybody. It mean taking on a load of debts and still not being guaranteed a job or a career. Getting a scholarship to learn a trade that leads to immediate employment is an opportunity that could change a person’s life.”
Rodgers visits schools, identifying prospective scholarship candidates. Just as when he was their age, he discovered that most do not plan for life after school.
“I relate to young people just fine. I’ve been there, I’ve been young and dumb myself. I know exactly where they are and where they’re trying to go. I know how easy it is to get distracted or sidetracked. That’s why I try to encourage them to have a mentor to encourage you and keep you accountable. I try to team them up. When two or more people can come together in a spirit of agreement and harmony, then you start making things happen; things that you’re not able to do by yourself. It’s great to have someone like-minded on your journey to help you when you need help.”
A frequent motivational speaker, Rodgers has organized his ideas around success into a formula that plays off his Heisman brand.
“Success is not a secret, it’s a system,” he said, “and I’ve come up with the Heisman Factor System.”
Hold yourself to a higher standard.
Every day is game day, not every other day.
Invest in yourself and others.
Mental toughness is a must.
Ask for help.
No fair catch – you never give up anything big or small or it will become a habit.
He shared his system as a guest speaker at the Dec. 10th Heisman ceremony at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City.
At one time, Omaha produced a cohort of great Black athletes who went on to collegiate and professional success and Rodgers was among them. Four of the most prominent of these figures – Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe – as well as many others are now deceased.
A severe bout with COVID19, that landed Rodgers in the hospital in 2021, reminded him of his own mortality and the need for “someone taking my spot and carrying the torch on forward.”
“Most of my friends I came up with are gone,” he lamented. “They didn’t keep themselves healthy or they just ran out of time. It goes by quick.”
Many Omaha Black sports legends of his era were shaped by the same coaches (Josh Gibson, Bob Rose) and community activists (Charlie Washington).
“I do feel like I stepped into their shoes to do the work that they were doing,” said Rodgers. “People don’t do what you say, they do what they see you doing. I would not be here where I’m at in this 50th anniversary of winning the Heisman Trophy, had it not been for these men who took me by the hand and walked me through a lot of different things that prepared me for adversity and success.”
He’s tried following their lead of personal discipline, and sacrifice in giving back to the community.
“It’s a gratifying sacrifice because you don’t talk about “me” or “we”, you show it. It’s in your lifestyle and DNA where you put others first. I never get paid for half the work I do. I never expect to get paid. Payment comes when people behind me get the benefits.”
The College Football Hall of Fame inductee’s legacy is secure. Beyond that, he said, “I don’t even think about legacy to be honest. I just do what I do, and it’s going to fall where it falls. I could have done a lot better, but it could have done a lot worse. I made my mistakes. But I’m still in the game. I’m in a good spot. And I’m still moving forward fast.”