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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.