Rodgers’ return vs. Oklahoma still resonates 50 years later
Fifty years later, fans of all ages still ask Johnny Rodgers about that electrifying play.
They want a first-person account of the bobbing, weaving, 72-yard punt return for a touchdown that helped Rodgers and No. 1 Nebraska beat No. 2 Oklahoma 35-31 in Norman on Thanksgiving Day back in 1971. After all, it was the signature highlight of the “Game of the Century” — the best of the best in a rare game that lived up to that billing.
Rodgers, now 70, still lives on the north side of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. He is humbled that the play — and the game — resonate after all these years.
“It just means volumes that it’s been such a long period of time that has passed by, and people still give you credit for things that you’ve done in the past that have stood the test of time,” Rodgers told The Associated Press.
Many connect the punt return to the radio call by then-KFAB play-by-play man Lyell Bremser -- “Holy moly! Man, woman and child, did that put ‘em in the aisles!! Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers just tore ’em loose from their shoes!!”
“I still have kids and adults and older people who can call it play by play off Lyell Bremser’s call,” Rodgers said. “They have the kids learning that because it was of one of the greatest calls by one of our greatest sportscasters that we had at that time. And it still gives me chills just listening to Lyell Bremser. It was a real big play at a crucial time, starting to set the tone of the game for our side.”
Nebraska and Oklahoma will meet Saturday for the first time since 2010. The approaching event has college football fans revisiting a rivalry that once dominated the sport. The schools have 12 national titles between them, and the winner beat the other “Big Red” every time along the way.
Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy in 1972. He was an all-American, two-time national champion and a first-round NFL draft pick. Sports Illustrated named him Nebraska’s Player of the Century and a member of its All Century Team.
The return was his defining moment.
Early in the first quarter, with the game scoreless, Rodgers fielded a punt at the Nebraska 28-yard line.
Oklahoma’s Greg Pruitt was the first player to close in on Rodgers, but he just missed. The contact forced Rodgers to his right and helped him elude other Oklahoma players. Just as it appeared Rodgers would continue running to his right, he cut sharply upfield just before the 30-yard line. He juked left just past the 35 to avoid an official, made an improbable cut at full acceleration near the 50 to avoid another Sooner, then the race down the sideline was on.
Rodgers picked up a block behind the play just past the Oklahoma 35 -- Sooners fans have been calling it a clip for half a century -- and he went untouched the rest of the way to give Nebraska the lead.
“Johnny’s big punt return early in the game was critical,” recalled Tom Osborne, the former Husker coach who was Nebraska’s offensive coordinator that day. “That was the margin of victory, really.”
Rodgers and Pruitt had a rivalry within the rivalry. Pruitt said he and Rodgers had become friends after meeting at a previous function and had been talking trash by telephone in the week leading up to the game. Pruitt ended up being a first-team All-America running back and finished the season with 1,760 yards rushing while averaging 9.0 yards per carry. Rodgers ended up on the AP All-America second-team that year and made the first team the next year.
Pruitt had been given instructions on how to limit Rodgers’ effectiveness, but he planned to one-up his buddy.
“The emphasis was, be disciplined, stay in your lanes and don’t go after Johnny,” Pruitt said. “But me and Johnny had our own little thing going. And so I ignored what they told me. And so I got out of my lane and I went after Johnny. And when I went after him, I couldn’t hold him. I actually helped him to miss two guys. And he went off for a touchdown. And that turned out to be the difference in the game.”
Rodgers said most players would have fair caught the ball, but he didn’t believe in it.
“We’re not fair catching,” Rodgers said of his mentality at the time. “I tell people all the time that some of the mistakes I see in the return game are because the people are in doubt a lot. On our team, there was no doubt. We never fair catch. We were going to run every one back.”
The return and the returner now are immortalized. Rodgers gives the Jet Award to the nation’s top return man each year. Pruitt said one year, Rodgers invited him to Omaha for the ceremony. Rodgers took Pruitt into a room to see the trophy, designed by Omaha Westside graduate Joe Putjenter.
Pruitt was impressed. Then, he took a closer look.
“I noticed the helmet on a guy was OU. And I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ And then I looked again and the number was 30.’”
Still elusive as ever, Rodgers was gone when Pruitt figured it all out.
Eventually, Pruitt joked with his friend about it: “When I caught up with him, I told him, ‘That’s a great trophy, but I don’t remember you ever being that much bigger than me!’”
As for the clip or non-clip, Osborne calls it “debatable.” Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer -- the Sooners’ offensive coordinator that day -- thinks it’s overblown.
“Everybody talks about the clip, but the guy that was chasing him wasn’t going to catch him,” Switzer said. “He was going to score anyway. I don’t know if there was a clip on it or not, but it wouldn’t have affected the play.”
As big as that moment was, Rodgers points to a play he made later that was more important in his eyes. On a third-and-eight from the Oklahoma 45 and the Huskers trailing 31-28 with just under five minutes left, Rodgers made a sliding catch on a pass from Jerry Tagge for a first down.
“The biggest play of the game, although that (the return) was the most exciting play, was just a 10-yard catch in the fourth quarter to allow us to keep the ball, keep from giving up the ball back to them, and we were able to run the clock down far enough to win,” Rodgers said.
AP Sports Writer Eric Olson in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.
The story has been updated to correct the score late in the game to 31-28 Oklahoma when Rodgers made his late catch.