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Johnny Rodgers hasn’t missed a Heisman Trophy presentation since he received one himself 37 years ago, and even though his Heisman came exactly 30 years after Rodgers’ award, Eric Crouch doesn’t plan on missing the New York Downtown Athletic Club event any time soon.
Asked his favorite Heisman moment ever, besides his own, Crouch doesn’t hesitate to answer – the one he watches every year when “the most outstanding player in collegiate football” accepts the same honor three Huskers have received in the 74-year history of the award (Rodgers in 1972, Mike Rozier in 1983 and Crouch in 2001).
“Seeing these players go through this every year, you always reflect back to when you were sitting in that same chair and your heart was pounding right before they were getting ready to announce the winner of the Heisman Trophy,” Crouch said. “Just for a second, I still get that same feeling, listening to who the next winner is. That’s always going to be a moment, for the rest of my life, at least one time a year, when I reflect back and know exactly what they’re going through at that time and realizing how they’re going to have that same experience for the rest of their lives, too.”
Last Saturday night, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, who received first-place votes from all three ex-Husker Heisman winners, won the 2008 Heisman Trophy over Colt McCoy of Texas and '07 winner Tim Tebow of Florida. Rodgers, Rozier and Crouch were all introduced before Bradford was named in the nationally televised award ceremony.
"Bradford will absorb the experience in every way he can because it goes by so fast,” Crouch said, “and he’ll understand the honor more and more as time goes on.”
Rodgers Doesn’t Miss Any Part of New York’s Festivities
Rodgers is proof of that. “I take in the whole weekend of festivities every year,” he said. “I go to the Wendy’s High School Heisman Dinner on Friday night, the announcement and presentation of the winner on Saturday night, the private party for the winner’s family on Sunday night and the big dinner where we host a couple thousand people on Monday night.”
Rodgers has been booking the Heisman weekend every year since he won the award. “When I was with the (Montreal) Alouettes and the (San Diego) Chargers, we never made the playoffs, so I don't remember ever missing one,” he said. “It truly does get better with time. It’s such a special honor. Every year I come back, I feel so fortunate to be in this great group of men. I really wasn’t a superstar myself. I was just fortunate enough to play with a whole team of superstars, and I happened to be the one singled out for the Heisman. I was surrounded by a team of Outland and Lombardi Award winners like Rich Glover and Larry Jacobson and All-Americans like Willie Harper and John Dutton.” (Glover finished third in the ‘72 Heisman voting behind Rodgers and Oklahoma running back Greg Pruitt).
Rozier, who said he missed “about 15” Heisman events before becoming a regular attendee at the Downtown Athletic Club over the last decade, will be featured in another Husker N-sider column following Monday night’s formal 25th anniversary celebration of his selection.
Like Rodgers, Superstars Surrounded Rozier’s Heisman
Like Rodgers, Rozier was surrounded by a team of superstars that included Turner Gill, Irving Fryar and Dean Steinkuhler. Dave Rimington’s last year at Nebraska was 1982, but the two-time Outland Trophy winner and former Lombardi Award winner also helped pave the way for Rozier to become a runaway winner in the ‘83 Heisman voting. Rozier beat BYU quarterback Steve Young by 629 points. Boston College Quarterback Doug Flutie, the ’84 Heisman winner, finished a distant third and Gill fourth.
“Mike, Turner, Irving and those linemen just missed several national championships, and they were second to none offensively. They really put on a show in college football,” Rodgers said. “In my mind, Mike was destined to win a Heisman and put us on the map again. So was Eric. I lobbied hard for both those guys. It’s nice to win the Heisman, but you don’t want to be the only one ever. You don’t want people thinking you’re just a blip in the program.”
Interestingly, the ‘08 Heisman race featured quarterbacks from tradition-rich Oklahoma, Florida and Texas. Before Bradford, the Sooners had four Heisman winners – Billy Vessels (1952), Steve Owens (1969), Billy Sims (1978) and Jason White (2003). The Gators have had three Heisman winners – Steve Spurrier (1966), Danny Wuerffel (1996) and Tim Tebow (2007). And the Longhorns have had two Heisman winners – Earl Campbell (1977) and Ricky Williams (1998).
With Nebraska’s football program getting back on solid ground, Rodgers believes Heisman Trophies will be part of the Huskers’ future again. “Look at our past,” he said. “We won one in the ‘70s, one in the ‘80s and Tommie Frazier came close to winning one in the ‘90s. Eric, of course, won his Heisman this decade, but we’re still looking to make up for some lost ground. It’s very difficult to get two winners in the same decade, but if we can get one every decade, I would take that as something we can all be proud of forever.”
Heisman Trophies "are a big part of tradition and really important to our fan base,” Rodgers said. “At Nebraska, it means as much to the university, the alums and the state as it does to the player. Since Eric and I are both from Omaha, we’re well aware of how kids listen to their parents and grandparents and how they talk about and look up to their favorite players. Having three Heisman winners certainly doesn’t hurt recruiting, but we want more.
“Until four years ago, we had 35 straight winning seasons and had played in tons of big bowl games,” Rodgers said. “I look at the Gator Bowl as the first year of our new football life. It’s a perfect time for great players to come here and learn why Nebraska is such a special place. I mean, we have Bo Pelini and Tom Osborne in the same place at the same time. In my mind, there’s no question that Nebraska will be back on top again, and the players who come here won’t believe what that means at a place like we have.”
Hornung, Howard and Crouch Support GMA’s Coat Drive
Crouch knows he’s an important part of both Nebraska’s past and its future. Early last Friday morning, ABC’s Good Morning America (GMA) asked three former Heisman winners – Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung (1956), Michigan’s Desmond Howard (1991) and Crouch – to help promote a citywide drive that is expected to supply at least 200,000 winter coats for New York City’s needy.
GMA co-host Robin Roberts introduced Hornung, then Howard and then Crouch, who was standing next to college football analyst Jesse Palmer, the former Florida quarterback who became a reality television star on The Bachelor.
Rex Grossman, another former Florida quarterback, finished only 62 points behind Crouch in the 2001 Heisman voting. The rest of the top six that year were four more quarterbacks – Miami’s Ken Dorsey, Oregon’s Joey Harrington, Fresno State’s David Carr and Indiana’s Antwaan Randle El.
“Winning the Heisman is the same kind of fine line as aging,” Crouch said. “You get to a point where you appreciate it more and more as you get older. You appreciate the things that it has brought you and the knowledge that you’ve gained over the years. Just being a part of it every single year is an honor. It’s amazing how fast this has gone for me. It seems like yesterday when I was up there myself, but it’s been seven years almost to the day. It's gone by incredibly fast, and I wouldn’t take anything back for the world.
“I never thought anything like this would ever happen in my life,” Crouch said. “It’s been such a great experience. Getting invited back here every year to watch each new Heisman winner is incredible. To be a part of this fraternity and to meet these new guys every year . . . well, it’s just an honor to shake their hand and welcome them in. I’m sure they’ll be like the rest of us. They’ll want to come back and take it all in every year, too.”