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Try to catch a bolt of lightning

Sure, Nebraska is awesome, brutal, all those things, but what has really shattered opponents for three years is the brilliance of Johnny Rodgers, whose punt returns and pass receptions can mean instant defeat

If the typesetters are not careful, Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers may leap right out of this sentence, and then, like the hummingbird that he is, go flitting through ads, photographs, along the margins of the pages, in and out of other stories and maybe right out the back cover if that is what it takes to beat somebody. For three seasons Rodgers has been the super gnat of college football, the biggest reason of all why the Corn-huskers have been up there mashing everybody, and—oops, there he goes again, quicker than a blink, darting from the Contents page into the kidneys of Colorado with another surreal punt return.

It would not be fair to the legends of all the Red Granges, Tom Harmons, Doak Walkers and O.J. Simpsons to say that Johnny Rodgers might be the most excruciatingly exciting player who ever made forced landings on real grass or artificial turf, but he is surely among the alltimers in the category of jerking the occupants of entire stadiums upward every time he touches the ball. Or, for that matter, of causing a whole defense to feel like it was coming down with a head cold if he even goes in motion before the snap.

For his size, which is no more than 5'9" and 173 pounds, Rodgers has to be the most devastating player who ever suited up, and every Saturday he man-ages to invent a new repertoire of dance steps with the ball that leaves national TV audiences and his own hoarse following mercilessly agog at the wonder of it all.

Last Saturday, on a glorious day in the Rockies, he was doing it all again against a rugged physical team, Colorado, that was aching for a shot at him. With a little help from his friends, Rodgers simply destroyed Colorado with a spectacular display of all his talent, which is known statistically around the NCAA records bureau as All-Purpose Running. Basically, that means returning kicks and interceptions and catching passes with some occasional rushing from scrimmage. Rodgers all-purposed Colorado for 266 yards, most of it on punt returns, and Nebraska looked as strong as it ever has, winning 33-10.

About every 10 minutes throughout the afternoon Colorado would kick the ball to Rodgers for some mysterious reason, and here he'd come, a fiery, little figure of bounding, blurring, flitting energy. Nobody has ever stopped and started as quickly or retained his balance so beautifully in so many awkward positions. Colorado punted to him six times and kicked off to him once, and every time he stood under the football the thought must have occurred to all of the 52,128 people in the stadium that this might be a Nebraska touchdown.

Rodgers never went all the way with a kick, but he did go immense distances, such as 59 yards (partly nullified by a clip), 40 yards, 38 yards, 26 yards and 22 yards, and a couple of the runs just were not to be believed as he darted, retreated, sidestepped and spun his way over the yardage stripes like a Ping-Pong ball that somebody had let loose in a wind tunnel.

And the thing about it is, it has become routine. He has been doing it for 33 games in the Nebraska uniform, all this returning, receiving and reversing, and no wonder Bob Devaney wants to retire from coaching after this season. Rodgers will be gone, much to the delight of the rest of the Big Eight. After that, catching Johnny Rodgers will become the problem of the National Football League.

He has three more regular-season games to play for the Cornhuskers, however, and undoubtedly a bowl game after that before his brilliant collegiate career will have ended. But even when his final statistics are totaled up and enshrined somewhere around Lincoln, they can hardly be much more impressive than they already are.

In Rodgers' case, statistics are inadequate, anyway. Figures don't reveal anything about how thunderous the Nebraska attack has been for three years in other departments just because of his presence in the lineup. As a pro scout said, "Everywhere they put him—at slot, wing, flanker, anywhere—you can see the defense lean a little."

And the figures don't describe all the astonishing thrills provided by a player who has that knack of making a mere six-yard run seem like a journey into outer space.

But they probably ought to be recited here and now, because that funny old thing called the Heisman Trophy ballot will be going into the mails soon, and if Johnny Rodgers is not this season's leading candidate (if not, in fact, the only candidate) then most of the voters must be planning on writing in the names of their cousins.

Dwell on these numbers, if you will: In three seasons, or 33 games through last week, Rodgers has returned 99 punts for 1,564 yards; he has returned 33 kick-offs for 790 yards; he has caught 134 passes for 2,488 yards; he has rushed 124 times for another 688 yards, 5,530 yards in all, and he has scored 42 touchdowns.

If anything is going to harm Rodgers' chances for the Heisman, or any other award that will be given to the outstanding college player of 1972, it will be, quite unfortunately, his reputation. He is a guy who has had a knack for being, off the field, in the wrong place at the wrong time and a standing gag around the envious Big Eight is that the Nebraska police must really be nimble because they're the only people who have ever managed to catch him.

Today, Rodgers is a senior who credits football with "saving" him, who signs autographs by the dozens, and visits hospitals and schools trying to overcome his "bad kid" image. He has become a team leader, mature, outgoing, and apparently as inventive in his current private life as he is on kick returns, seeing as how he has become engaged to a Playboy secretary, a former "Miss Sepia."

"Sure, I'd like to win the Heisman," Rodgers says, "and I hope the fact that I blew it when I was younger doesn't go against me."

He says, "I'll tell you. Greg Pruitt and I have become friends. We call each other every Sunday after our games and kid around. He has a good chance. I'm hoping he wins if I don't, and he feels the same way."

Rodgers' past is not all that evil, despite the fact that Nebraska's opponents would have the world believe that he is a mini-Capone during the off-season.

It was in the spring of 1971 that his troubles began. It came to light that a year before, as a freshman, he had taken part in a service-station robbery. The publicity made Rodgers sound like a full-time stickup man whose ambition was to heist the Orange Bowl during a timeout. Actually the robbery occurred on the last day of school, 1970, a day when thousands of students were up to all kinds of pranks around Lincoln. The robbery had really begun as a prank, but it worked, much to the astonishment of Rodgers and his pals, and, oh, well, they kept the $90, seeing as how they had not been caught.

"It was wrong and I'm very lucky and grateful that all I got was probation," Rodgers says. "And the only way I can explain why we kept the money is that you have to be black and poor and young and dumb and think that $90 doesn't mean anything to a white man."

The next thing that happened to Rodgers was truly overblown. An automobile in which he was riding with a friend got stopped for speeding and the wonderful police announced to every newspaper in the Western world that Rodgers was being held under suspicion of possessing marijuana.

He did not. No evidence, no charge, but the publicity damage had been done.

His final trouble came last spring when he was arrested for running a stop sign while driving with a suspended license. Headlines. They were not bad enough to say "Stickup man and dope fiend runs another stop sign," but they did damage.

For all of this, Johnny Rodgers has managed to be the superb athlete he is and get an education. A hundred times he must have wanted to quit, to hide, to steal away and brood about his bad timing and a world that kept insinuating he was not welcome. He hung in, however, and found an understanding and a faith, and maybe that's why he tries so hard and performs so well—to pay back a sport that keeps saving him.

Rodgers may not win the Heisman because no one knows how many of the 1,200 voters are anti-stop sign running. But there happens to be one—me—who intends to vote for the best football player in the country, in or out of a courtroom, or in or out of a crowd of tacklers, and that player happens to be Johnny Rodgers.