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By Randy York
In 1971, Dan Jenkins was so eloquent in painting the picture of Johnny Rodgers' famous punt return in Nebraska's 35-31 Game of the Century win at Oklahoma, the Sports Illustrated writer, in essence, built the foundation for "The Jet's" 1972 Heisman Trophy campaign. Forty years later, the 20-year-old who "tore 'em loose from their shoes" and "put 'em in the aisles", was reading another Jenkins' article in the College Football Hall-of-Fame magazine and saw his name on the first-team - the Sammy Baugh Team - ranking the greatest college football players of all time. The category that included Rodgers was Kick Returner, and suddenly, an idea that had been rolling around in Johnny R's head for at least seven years surfaced and encouraged action. "If a writer of Dan's stature and a publication of the College Football Hall-of-Fame's stature can find a category that finally honors the best kick returners of all time, I thought it was time that someone sponsored a National College Football Return Specialist Award," Rodgers said. "Something like this is long overdue, and we're going to find a way to honor the best kick returners from the last 50 years of college football one decade at a time over the next five years."
Holy moly, man, woman and child, leave it to Johnny "The Jet" to pull something off like this. Rodgers is unabashedly willing to use his name on this national award because: 1) He's Jenkins' choice as the best in college football history; 2) A special team category now will elevate itself among the nation's top individual college football awards and become a permanent part of the post-season award scene once it's five-years-old; 3) Johnny is tying the first recognition banquet on April 12 at Omaha's Anthony's Steak House to his grand inaugural gala that will support his Youth Foundation for vulnerable students; 4) The event also will honor a Nebraska High School Offensive Player of the Year Award in conjunction with the college football Return Specialist Award; and 5) Omaha now will host two annual individual college football awards (including the Outland Award) and Lincoln will host one (the Dave Rimington Award honoring the nation's top center).
In a telephone interview Wednesday, the N-Sider asked Rodgers why he took on all of this, and his reply was as quick as the first step in every one of his record returns. "It's just like going for the catch," he said. "We're running it back." Seriously, he said: "Football is offense, defense and special teams. A punt return or a kickoff return can be such an electrifying play, it can change the game in a matter of seconds. If a return specialist happens to fumble, that can change it, too. There's a lot of pressure on every return. It's probably the most dynamic play in football. Last season, The Sporting News named our 1971 team the greatest college football team of all time, and a big reason behind that was our special teams. We put our best offensive and our best defensive players on those special teams, and that's what made us SPECIAL. Those returns played the biggest part in enabling me to win the Heisman."
Rodgers insists there are great athletes returning kicks every year who are worthy of national recognition. Jenkins named three other kick returners - fellow Heisman winner Billy Cannon, Dion Sanders and Joe Washington - on his four all-time teams published in the College Football Hall-of-Fame magazine. Interestingly, Gregg Pruitt is depicted in "The Jet's" award trophy, designed by an Omaha artist from a photo that shows Rodgers running away from the Oklahoma star on what Jenkins described as a "mind-boggling" 72-yard touchdown return. Rodgers' galloping move left Pruitt in the dust and became an equally iconic play for Joe Blahak, who unloaded a block that cleared the last piece of Owen Field real estate Rodgers needed to cover. Everyone who watches Blahak's block "oohs" while Rodgers sprints to the end zone. Hit a link above and relive "The Jet's" run to pay dirt one more time. It's a play that needs to come out of the vault at least once every spring and twice every fall. Please consider this link the N-Sider's way to wish Johnny R many happy returns in the years to come.
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