Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers won the 1972 Heisman Trophy. He built his case on Nov. 25, 1971, Thanksgiving Day, with a 71-yard punt return that was the first touchdown in the Game of the Century, the Huskers' 35-31 victory over OU in Norman.
Rodgers, who played in the Canadian Football League and briefly in the NFL, has since been an entrepreneur and pitchman in Omaha.
On Nov. 14, Rodgers received a pardon from the state of Nebraska for a felony larceny from his college days.
I was out to Cabella's just today, on a business trip. I had some Game of the Century photographs I put together with the punt return. They're in black and white. I had some four-color pictures I have that have been painted, of my 50th touchdown, diving over the top in the Orange Bowl. The people that ask me for autographs, they would rather have the black and white versus the four-color, really, really nice Orange Bowl picture. Because of the Game of the Century.
The game means so much. People understand the history. The only game played on Thanksgiving Day. Even our soldiers over in Vietnam, it was piped over to them. Just something people looked forward to. Very well missed and appreciated. Everything changes. It changed too.
I remember it was No. 1 vs. No. 2. We had the No. 1 defense in the country, Oklahoma had the No. 1 offense in the country. Both teams were undefeated. We had two great football teams. During the whole game, between them, we had only one penalty. An offsides on us. It was a nearly perfect football game. We didn't make mistakes.
I remember I was taunting Greg Pruitt before the game. Greg and I had been friends for awhile there. I had told him what I was going to do, he was going to do this that and the other. On the punt return, he came down as hard as he could to tackle me, I think because of the taunting. He left his lane, he was the first one I was able to shake. The rest is history.
The kind of punt I caught, you would have to fair catch today, in fear you might drop the ball. I never had to fair catch any at all, just because he (coach Bob Devaney) believed in what we were doing. Believed in me and allowed me to establish myself as a great punt returner.
Everybody remembers that play in particular. Few people, those football advocates, remember the biggest play of the game. 3rd-and-10, I caught a pass from Jerry Tagge that allowed us to continue drive. As a matter of fact, I'm going to Tagge's house this Saturday. We still get together. We still have reunions. Lot of fun things to remember. None quite as good as the Nebraska-Oklahoma game.
Bob Devaney had a real good relationship, not just with the players, but the fans. He had the ability to make people feel they were a part of the whole system, whether you gave $50 to the program or half a million. He was a great motivator. The players knew legitimately he cared about them. We would rather slide bare belly on a razor blade than disappoint him.
I grew up in Omaha. It was challenging. We had riots and things during the '60s. The civil rights was significant then. I was more thinking of getting out of here than staying. My dream initially was to go to USC, until I met Bob Devaney. That was a turning point.
My trouble, that was a devastating thing. A childhood prank, 10 minutes of insanity. Last day of school of my freshman year. Two or three buddies got together, decided we were going to do a prank, took $90 from the gas station attendant, for the thrill of it. Not until a year later did the police come to my room and ask me about it. I got two years probation, almost got kicked off the team, I thought my life was over. I was ready to quit school and quit life. It was just a devastating time.
Then Coach Bob Devaney came to my apartment to visit with me and talked me into staying and getting myself together. He was going to stick by me and we were going to work through it. He put Tom Osborne over me as my mentor. We were able to work through it. It was all because of the leadership of Bob Devaney and being able to get a second chance. It was just stupid. It was hard times.
Since that time, I have never really had all of my civil rights. We had people we talked about in the '60s, trying to get equality, and I had put myself in position where I was never a complete, whole citizen. I waited 40 years, but I have been an example for my children and others, that the devil's all in the details. You can't tell people not to quit on things great or small, when you've quit.
It happened when I was a young man, now I'm an old man. A lot of people didn't know about it, but I knew. Last Thursday, I was successful in receiving the governor's pardon.
The significance of it is because going through those other milestones, it allowed me to be daring enough. The poorest blacks in America are right here in Omaha. A lot of that is because black people who have felonies have not taken the step to get their pardons, get back in the mainstream, take care of their families. I thought it was important to take that step as a an example, to create hope for those.
It's a big step. It was really a big step. People want to know why. I don't know why people wouldn't think you wouldn't want your civil rights. People have died for those rights. I thought it was important, even though people had forgotten about it, so people could move forward and we could put some closure to it.
If you've done anything significant in life, someone has helped you. I did something because of Coach Devaney and Tom Osborne and my teammates.
You don't win Heisman Trophies by yourself and you don't win championships by yourself and you don't build a great community by yourself. Teamwork truly does make your dreams come true.