This is the first in a series of stories from the 1971 Oklahoma-Nebraska game, college football's Game of the Century. The 50th anniversary of the game is being commemorated this season when the teams meet on Sept. 18 in Norman.
The two most electrifying participants in the 1971 Oklahoma-Nebraska Game of the Century stand atop one of college football’s most unique trophies.
Well, one of them is standing. Running, really. The other is on the ground wishing he’d listened to his coaches.
The Jet Award — nicknamed for Nebraska’s Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers — goes to the nation’s top return man.
Today: Johnny The Jet vs. Do-It Pruitt
“To the baddest man on the planet,” Rodgers clarifies. “Punt return and kick off guys, game breaker at any moment. Because we love great returns.”
Past winners include Tavon Austin, Ty Montgomery, Tyler Lockett, Christian McAffrey and Adoree Jackson. Oklahoma’s Joe Washington received the 2016 Legacy Award.
Rodgers also identifies the form atop the trophy — the one running away from the other one.
“Well, I’m on the trophy,” he said. “I’m the big figure on the trophy. And I got Greg Pruitt right behind me, a little bitty guy, trying to reach up.
“I told him I did that because that's what you get when you close your eyes.”
Rodgers’ first-quarter heroics produced a 72-yard touchdown on a Cornhuskers punt return that was ultimately the difference in a 35-31 victory for No. 1-ranked Nebraska over No. 2 Oklahoma.
ESPN named it the greatest college football game ever played, and it’s being commemorated this season as OU and Nebraska resume their Big Red Rivalry with a Sept. 18 non-conference game in Norman.
Rodgers got the last laugh on "Do-It" Pruitt that Thanksgiving Day in Norman, and he gets the last laugh every time Rodgers hands out the Jet Award to a deserving return man.
In 2012, when Rodgers gave out the second annual Jet Award, he even invited his good friend to Lincoln to help him honor Austin, the irrepressible talent from West Virginia.
“Well he didn’t tell me about the trophy,” Pruitt said. “You can Google the Jet Award. It’s a trophy of a guy returning the football — and there’s a guy laying on the field, and the guy laying on the field is me.
“I saw and it and said, ‘That's a heck of a trophy,’ and I walked up on it and I noticed that the helmet on the guy was an OU helmet, and his number was 30. And, Johnny was way bigger than I was — and that’s not true neither!”
They laugh about their friendly rivalry now because this summer, both Rodgers and Pruitt — the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and the 1971 third-place finisher — turned 70 years old. Football and Big Red rivalries and trash talk are now relics of the past. Friendship endures.
They first met at the 1970 Kodak All-America presentation, and they struck up an immediate and lasting relationship.
The Cornhuskers had won the national championship in 1970, and the Sooners unveiled Chuck Fairbanks' new wishbone under Barry Switzer during the 1971 season. These were two offensive juggernauts, loaded with defensive talent, that everyone knew would be headed for an epic showdown at the end of the 1971 season.
The stakes were high: an undefeated season, the Big Eight championship, and the national championship against Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska took care of business in Miami, too, crushing the Crimson Tide 38-6.
The OU-Nebraska buildup was immense and lasted for months. So was the friendly banter between the game’s most dynamic players. They spoke to each other almost weekly, and about each other more often than that.
“We were just talking noise about each other,” Pruitt said.
The noise got so intense that Pruitt — the Sooners’ gunner on punts — admits he failed to heed the warnings of the OU special teams coaches that week. All he could see was himself standing over Rodgers’ No. 20 after the game’s first big hit.
It never happened.
“The game came,” Pruitt says, “and the big punt came — and the first guy to miss Johnny was me.”
Pruitt cut to his right to try to blast Rodgers, but struck Rodgers with just a glancing blow. Rodgers had already begun his slithery escape, first sliding to his left, then, spun around by Pruitt's grip, stumbling backwards. Pruitt held on just enough to pull Rodgers out of the grip of two potential OU tacklers, then Rodgers changed directions a handful of times and scored the game’s first touchdown.
“He was coming out for me because we had been vocal with each other and talking about one another and I think he had in his heart, he wanted to take me out,” Rodgers said. “And he got right there on me. He did hit me. But I was able to slide to the side and start it off. And I got some help from my friends, the way it’s supposed to be.”
Pruitt said there were some “questionable blocks” that sprung Rodgers through the OU coverage. Sooner Nation more succinctly points to at least one clip. But now, 50 years later, Pruitt still takes full responsibility. All week, the coaches had implored everyone on the coverage team to stay disciplined, stay in their lane, because Rodgers was so unpredictable.
Pruitt says he didn’t.
“If I had listened to my coaches and did what I was supposed to do,” Pruitt said, “maybe the outcome wouldn't have been the way it was.”
Nah, says Rodgers.
“I probably would have shook him anyway.”
Johnny Rodgers and Greg Pruitt, two lifelong friends, two College Football Hall of Famers, two competitors who continue to trade barbs after all these years.
Pruitt tells the story of his visit to Rodgers’ home in Omaha, when the TV repairman came and almost fell to his knees worshipping Rodgers’ living room Heisman shrine — and Pruitt told him to knock it off and move that old thing anywhere so he could just fix the TV.
“Did get him back a little bit,” Pruitt says.
Pruitt also recalls his South team beating Rodgers' North squad 17-3 in the 1973 Hula Bowl all-star game. Pruitt, arguably Switzer’s fastest halfback, took home the game’s offensive MVP trophy with with 17 carries for 61 yards, while Rodgers, a wingback for Bob Devaney’s Husker squads, ran five times for minus-9 yards in the loss (he did catch a 47-yard pass on the game's final play).
Also, Pruitt played 12 seasons in the NFL, compiled more than 13,000 all-purpose yards and scored 47 touchdowns with the Browns and Raiders — and won a Super Bowl in 1983 — while Rodgers, after four good years in the Canadian Football League (8,014 all-purpose yards, 37 touchdowns and reportedly the first $1 million contract in CFL history), got just two NFL seasons, finished with 882 all-purpose yards and never reached the end zone.
In their unending game of one-upmanship, Pruitt became one of the NFL’s most dangerous return men — aka, one of the baddest men on the planet.
“You know, my grandfather always told me you can find some good in any tragedy,” Pruitt says, “and the tragedy was we lost the game. The good was, from that point on, I made everybody who was not disciplined in covering punts that I returned — pay for it. Just like Johnny made us pay.
“And this is another part of the good that’s coming out of that tragedy: we became good friends.”