The old grads in Omaha, Lincoln and kindred points who thrilled to his derring-do for the University of Nebraska are no doubt gratified to note that Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner, is vibrantly alive and doing exceedingly well in the Canadian Football League. The only alumnus disappointed in Johnny Rodgers is Johnny Rodgers.
Last May Rodgers signed a three-year, no-cut contract with the Montreal Alouettes, spurning the offer of the San Diego Chargers who had made him their No. I draft choice. After he went to Canada, the Chargers sourly expressed doubt whether a 5'9" 175-pounder would have long remained in one piece in the NFL anyway. If Montreal had similar fears they have been dispelled. In 11 games all that has been fractured is his French.
The highest-paid player in CFL history, Rodgers reportedly will earn more than $100,000 this year, but the Alouettes figure his exploits as a receveur éloigné and a demi offensif might boost not only the team's fortunes (Montreal was 4 and 10 last season) but its attendance as well. Although it has three million people to draw upon, Montreal has suffered the acute embarrassment of being a recipient of, rather than a contributor to, the CFL's shared pool of gate receipts.
Rodgers has certainly proved an attraction: the Alouettes are now the league's best-drawing road team, and home attendance has increased from an average of 14,200 last year to 21,300, still 13,000 short of filling the Autostade. But an NFL concept and a CFL rule have combined to hobble Rodgers, even though his statistics are impressive. As of Oct. 8, when the Alouettes schneidered the Calgary Stampeders (who had lost to Toronto two days earlier) 45-0, Rodgers had rushed 55 times for 303 yards, caught 29 passes for 633 yards and seven touchdowns (making him the top scorer among nonkickers in the Eastern Conference) and led the conference in kickoff returns with a 29.9-yard average.
Despite these figures and the Alouettes' 6-4-1 record, which puts them just a point behind the conference leader, Toronto, Rodgers isn't exactly overjoyed; he feels he needs to get his hands on the football more often to dazzle the fans the way he did in the 1973 Orange Bowl.
Enter Marv Levy. Before the Alouettes signed Rodgers, they hired Levy away from the Washington Redskins, where he was the special team coach, to be their new head coach. To Rodgers' dismay, Levy's approach to the game differs little from that of his old boss, George Allen, even on the longer, wider CFL fields, where you get only three shots, not four, at making a first down. While the pass is the primary weapon of Canadian football and offense a necessity. Levy has stuck with the doctrine that took the Redskins to the Super Bowl. The Alouettes are defense-oriented, rely on; the opposition's mistakes, take few chances and eschew the bomb.
"One of the reasons I signed up here," Rodgers said after the Calgary game, "was that I thought I could tear this league apart the way they emphasize passing. I felt I'd get the ball twice as much here as I would in San Diego, but the way our offense is set up, I can't do that much. We only throw maybe 18 times a game. It's been a disappointment because I know I'm capable, not because I'm not doing my job. I'm not unhappy or anything like that. Last week I got two touchdowns on three receptions, but I'd just like to do more."
He caught only three passes for 69 yards in the two periods in which he played against Calgary, but that he played at all was indicative of his zeal. Rodgers was suffering from tonsillitis and had practiced for all of 20 minutes, yet on a 44-yard reception from George Mira, he left a Calgary cornerback looking like a man roller-skating on a waterbed. The play would have gone for a touchdown had not Rodgers lost his footing in the mud that passes for turf at various spots on the Autostade field.
"Today I felt like a big germ or something," he said, "but I didn't think that I wouldn't play. In Canadian ball [with 32-man rosters] they don't have that many people to take your place. I hurt my foot just before the half, that's why I didn't go back in. I would have if they'd needed me." Rodgers' long reception set up Mira's 20-yard touchdown pass to Larry Smith, who scored twice more before the wearying contest ended.
"It's true that our system doesn't really showcase Rodgers," Levy admits, "but I think that's to his advantage. We've thrown far and away the fewest number of passes in the league. We don't put the whole thing on Johnny. We do have some other good football players for one thing and we don't build a team around one man. Yet he stands out.
"He refers to himself as 'just an ordinary superstar.' I don't know about that, but I do know that he is one. There are maybe eight or 10 players coming out of the American colleges each year with his kind of ability, but what makes him stand out is he is a fierce competitor. He wrings everything out of himself."
"Pro ball is strange," Rodgers says. "You catch three passes and people think you excel. I don't think that's true. You can always do more and you should. I feel a big obligation to the fans and it disappoints me when I can't do what they expect me to do. I'd like to be known by the fans as an entertainer. Not just a football player, but one who can entertain them in a way they haven't seen before. Against Ottawa, I ran one of my touchdowns in backward and the people really took off on that. They'd never been entertained that way before. You want to do well, but you want to entertain the people so they'll come back again.
"I don't have any grievances against Coach Levy. He's one of the reasons I came to the Alouettes. We're on the best of terms, but everyone can't take the same share. I want to take a bigger share of it. There are guys on the team who have said in the huddle, 'Don't call my play' or 'Don't give me the ball.' That's exactly the time I want it, when the tension and the pressure are the highest.
"In this league you have to pass to set up your running game, but we're doing exactly the opposite. We hardly have any plays designed to go deep. Here they only want me to go down 15 yards to get the first down. If we throw deep and it's incomplete, they feel that play was a waste. But even if you don't complete the pass, you've made the defensive man worry about when he's going to see it again. At Nebraska we felt we had to have one or two big plays to win the game. Here we don't take any kind of chance whatsoever. None. When Coach Levy has enough confidence in me, then he'll take a chance."
One thing that Rodgers and Levy do agree on is the necessity for changing the CFL's punt-return rule, which makes the beanball and the rabbit punch look like acts of charity. In brief, the rule, which Levy terms a "blight on a great game," stipulates that the receiving team cannot block on a punt return and that you must return the ball. There is no provision for a fair catch. Thus the return man, looking more like a Christian in the Colosseum than a football player, fields the ball and disappears beneath 11 tacklers. Make it 12 if the punter can run. In the CFL a six-yard return is sensational.
"That takes away a big part of my game," says Rodgers, who is not used for such masochistic chores. "I really enjoyed returning punts, but you can't go back by yourself and get anything accomplished."
"I'd love to have Johnny returning punts," Levy says, "but not under this rule. It's barbaric."
So, too, is CFL scheduling, which calls for near back-to-back games of the sort that Calgary played against Toronto and Montreal. League owners defend the practice as a saving on transportation costs, but Levy, among others, doesn't buy it. "The economy they supposedly gain by it," he says, "they lose in medical bills, salaries to injured players and fan interest. It's unjust." It also makes for a game that is both dull and brutal. Montreal's conquest of Calgary, whose No. 1 quarterback was sidelined along with four other starters who were injured at Toronto, was less a sporting event than a mugging.
Rodgers doesn't plan to let such barbarities distract him from his goal of giving the Montreal fans new cause for cheer. That applies outside the Autostade as well as on the rare occasions he gets hold of the football inside it.
"This city has taken to Johnny Rodgers like a duck to water," says J. I. Albrecht, the Alouette general manager. "He's one of the finest kids I've ever come across. Before we had him signed, I asked him for some autographs for my three boys and he wrote a different thought to each one. To the oldest he said, 'Keep the faith. I do.' To the youngest he wrote, 'From one little guy to another,' and to the middle one he said, 'When you're in the middle, you can go up or down. See you on top.' "
That's still the place to look for Johnny Rodgers.