Johnny Rodgers was a high school All-American while playing for Omaha Tech, and later the speedy wingback was a star on Nebraska’s freshman football team in 1969.

But to Jerry Murtaugh, Rodgers wasn’t much of anybody until the spring of 1970, going into Rodgers’ sophomore year.

“I didn’t pay any attention to the freshman team back then,” said Murtaugh, the Huskers' co-captain that year. “Didn’t know anything about those young men. And Johnny comes in and he plays spring ball, and he’s jumping around like a fart in a hot skillet. And I’m going, ‘Who is this little fella?’

Related

Related

“And he’s just moving around and catching the ball. You knock him down and he’d pop right back up. And I go, ‘Well, this young man’s a pretty good football player.’”

And when the season came in the fall of 1970, Rodgers was still full of energy and making explosive plays while helping the Huskers win the 1970 national championship, the first of Nebraska’s five national titles.

It didn’t take Rodgers long to make an impact. In the first game of the season — and Rodgers’ first varsity game — he scored on a 61-yard touchdown pass from Jerry Tagge in the second quarter. Nebraska beat Wake Forest 36-12.

That was a flash of what was to come. Rodgers would help the Huskers win back-to-back national championships. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1972 and is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

And maybe the ’70 team wasn’t the Huskers’ best team, but it was Nebraska’s first national champion.

“I think it really does make a difference that of all of the years, whether we’re the best team or not, that we were the team that got it started,” Rodgers said last week. “To get it started and get that attention and be able to recruit from that.”

Coming out of Omaha Tech — the large high school near downtown that closed in 1984 — Rodgers had lots of colleges wanting him.

“I had about 40 schools that recruited me,” Rodgers said. “I could have gone a whole lot of different places. I had my eye on (USC) because they had Black players. I was trying to get where they had Black players, and if you went to SC you were going to get to go to the pros.”

Johnny Rodgers runs past Wake Forest defenders in Nebraska's season-opening game Sept. 12, 1970, at Memorial Stadium. Journal Star Library

When Rodgers was getting recruited, Nebraska wasn’t doing great. The Huskers didn’t even make a bowl game in 1967 or ’68. But eventually, coach Bob Devaney convinced Rodgers to come to Nebraska.

“When I met Devaney he told me he was going to recruit more Black players,” Rodgers said. “And if I were to come to Nebraska I could really make a difference and I could be a part of something that was going to be huge. I told him, ‘I realize that is good, but I’m going to SC. And I’m either going to play baseball with the Dodgers or I’m going to play football with SC.’

“And somewhere along the line he came back and he made me an offer that if I came to Nebraska he would give me a scholarship in baseball and a scholarship in football, and if I played those together I’d have a better chance (to make the pros).”

Rodgers scored in 11 of 12 games that season. He led NU in receiving with 39 receptions for a record 710 yards and seven touchdowns.

It was a special season, and the Huskers were just getting started.

“People here at Nebraska were hungry for a winning program, and we were able to get them a winning program, and they followed us all over,” Rodgers said. “Sometimes we had more of our own fans than the home team. And whenever I went back for a punt return or kickoff everybody in the stadium would stand up. I got a standing ovation before the ball even got kicked. They didn’t want to miss anything, because we were getting ready to put on a show."