Two days before Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne had double-bypass surgery last January, he took time to write an angry letter to Nick Kish, the director of player personnel for the Jacksonville Bulls. Osborne was fuming because Kish had wondered publicly whether Mike Rozier, Nebraska's Heisman Trophy winner of 1983, had the heart to play professional football. "We'd had some concerns," Kish said. "We'd heard some things."
The letter was the least Osborne could do for the 5'10", 198-pound running back who almost brought Nebraska a national championship. "He [Osborne] said I had no right to question Mike's ability or character," Kish says. Asked why he had criticized Rozier, Kish says, "That was politics, enhancing our position. We wanted him bad."
At 3 a.m. on Feb. 1 in a Jacksonville hotel room, Kish and the Bulls got their man. Rozier signed a one-year, $200,000 contract with a pen offered to him by Kish. Rozier, however, was unforgiving: "I don't like Kish. He said I didn't have the heart. I'll never forget that."
Last Thursday night, an evening Kish himself is unlikely to forget, Rozier had his best game as a professional. In a 34-31 victory over the Orlando Renegades, he gained 199 yards and scored four touchdowns, three on short runs, another on a five-yard pass. That performance—which gave him 428 yards this season, third best in the United States Football League behind Gary Anderson of Tampa Bay and New Jersey's Herschel Walker—was a long time coming.
Rozier has always been a controversial figure—first in Nebraska; then in Pittsburgh, where he reached a settlement on his $3.1 million contract when the Maulers folded; and now in Jacksonville, where he has talked of a desire "to play straight through." Meaning that when the USFL season is over, he hopes to join the NFL, perhaps in Houston. "That's a possibility," Kish concedes, even though the Bulls have the right to match any contract offer Rozier receives.
Last October, Rozier admitted that the rumors that had followed him during his final weeks at Nebraska were true, that indeed he had signed with an agent and had accepted money before the 1984 Orange Bowl game, a violation of NCAA rules. He also had agreed to the Maulers contract "a couple of days" before that game. Nebraska denied knowledge of the deal, and the NCAA took no action against the school.
Rozier had already confessed that he had received money from Nebraska alumni. "What did I do wrong?" Rozier now asks. "I was just being honest about [being paid $200 a month by Nebraska alumni]. Everybody's paid. I was already a pro when I said that. I don't care what anybody thinks, except my family."
Adding to the Rozier controversy was a questionable ankle, which some people, Kish included, suspected was really a questionable heart. Rozier hurt his left ankle in the Orange Bowl game, and it is still weak. He scrimmaged with Pittsburgh three weeks after he injured his ankle and missed only four of 18 games.
Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboy vice-president of personnel development, is one person who detects something other than the ankle bothering Rozier. "He was never the biggest or fastest," says Brandt. "What set him apart was his competitiveness. I never doubted his ability. My question is, did the big contract take the fire away from him?"
"I didn't watch Rozier in college," says Larry Csonka, the Bulls' general manager and one of the most punishing runners in football history. "I don't follow the college game. But I can appreciate him. His pro career has lacked luster, frankly, but he has vast, untapped potential. He's devastating with that football. There are people on the ground after he runs. He can hurt you. I like that."
"Mike's young, full of himself," says Rozier's former road roommate, Archie Griffin, the two-time (1974 and '75) Heisman Trophy winner who retired on March 19. "Mike's had his problems, but he knows that everybody has problems. He works hard. He's proud of his Heisman. In fact, it was at [Doug Flutie's] Heisman dinner that he told me he'd be coming down to Jacksonville. Just like that. I think he just got inspired by the moment and wanted to play right then. And he does run like Walter Pay-ton, you know. They both attack you. Not many want to."
Rozier says he wants to "end up like Walter [Payton] because Walter's got respect." The way he's running for Jacksonville, Rozier won't have to worry about getting respect. Just ask the Houston Oilers, who definitely need a whole lot of respect.