Johnny Rodgers chopped wood in his back yard during a gorgeous Thursday in north Omaha. He likes sitting by a fire on fall nights.

It doesn't take much to ignite Rodgers' enthusiasm for Ameer Abdullah.

For one, "He's physically in tip-top shape," says Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner as a big-play wingback and return man at Nebraska.

Rodgers also likes Abdullah's overall maturity away from football. "Well-groomed" is how Johnny puts it.

At 5-foot-9 and 173 pounds, as listed in the 1972 Husker media guide, Rodgers was more flashy than Abdullah. But don't mistake Johnny's flash for lack of toughness or work ethic.

Rodgers, nicknamed "The Jet," to this day believes the mantra, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." He believes the team that tires first in the fourth quarter often loses. He mentions Abdullah's 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 20 seconds left Sept. 6 against McNeese State. Ameer was in better shape than those defenders who couldn't pull him down or catch him.

That's Rodgers' theory.

"Abdullah stepped into the end zone and made us all proud," says the 63-year-old Rodgers, who watches virtually every home game from a sky box — and was cheering last week as Abdullah passed him as Nebraska's career all-purpose yardage leader.

"I think 43 years of holding a record is a pretty high bar to set," Rodgers says. "I'm just glad it's a guy like Abdullah setting a new bar for other athletes.

"It certainly doesn't hurt that he keeps my name in the news, too," he says with a laugh.

Win a Heisman, and your name really never goes away.

In a figurative sense, we're a long way from the fourth quarter of this season's Heisman race. Heading into essentially the second quarter, Abdullah is on the radar of most voters, or one would think.

In Heismanpundit.com's weekly straw poll — an accurate gauge in recent years — Abdullah is tied for fifth with quarterback Dak Prescott of Mississippi State. The top four are quarterback Marcus Mariota of Oregon, wide receiver Amari Cooper of Alabama, running back Todd Gurley of Georgia and quarterback Kenny Hill of Texas A&M. 

A quarterback has captured the award 12 of the last 13 years. Mariota will be extremely difficult to top if he maintains his output.

But Abdullah, with performances like last week's 229-yard rushing night against Miami, will be impossible to ignore even by voters on the coasts. He's running as if he's on a mission. Plus, the more voters learn about his off-field reputation and background, the more they'll appreciate him.

Abdullah has rushed 92 times for 625 yards (6.8 per carry) and five touchdowns. I'm assuming that Tommy Armstrong soon will place more emphasis on using Abdullah as a check-down receiver.

At 5-9 and 200 pounds, Abdullah is built to carry a heavy load, although it's not as if a running back has an infinite number of carries in his system. Nebraska coaches surely understand the season's a marathon — virtually any coach would tell you that.

Rodgers emphasizes the importance of team success in the Heisman discussion. When he won the trophy, Nebraska middle guard Rich Glover was third in the voting (behind Oklahoma's Greg Pruitt). Defensive end Willie Harper and offensive tackle Daryl White also were All-Americans in 1972.

Back-to-back national championships tend to spice up anyone's resume.

"If Ameer's teammates can rise to the occasion, so he's not the only name out there. ... Like when Richie Glover got 22 tackles in the Game of the Century, that was huge," Rodgers says. "Larry Jacobson and John Dutton and all those guys, we were killing people."

Mike Rozier (1983) and Eric Crouch (2001) — Rodgers' Heisman fraternity brothers — also benefited from strong teams.

After earning All-Big Eight honors as a sophomore slotback and wide receiver in 1970, Rodgers blossomed into a national star in 1971 as he helped lead Nebraska to its second national title.

He had been a star at Omaha Tech High School. He won't leave north Omaha, he says. He's proud of his roots and feels he can help the area.

He proudly recalls catching 100 passes after every practice from then-assistant Tom Osborne, no matter how long the practice lasted.

Because of that, Rodgers kept on ticking in fourth quarters.

What's more, "Because of that, I was able to catch a BB in the dark at midnight with no moon with my sunglasses on," Rodgers says.

That's Johnny. Forever flashy. But like Abdullah, the man has substance. You don't win that big, bronze trophy without some substance.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.​


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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