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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 �loign� 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.