Nebraska's 1972 Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Rodgers, has requested a pardon for his 1971 conviction of felony larceny for robbing a gas station in 1970. Rodgers was given two years probation for that conviction.
His request for a hearing from the State Pardons Board will be on October 8th. The board consists of Governor Dave Heineman, Secretary of State John Gale and Attorney General Jon Bruning. The board will decide whether Rodgers deserves a follow-up hearing.
Bob Devaney was Nebraska's head football coach at the time of Rodgers' actions. Devaney's autobiography "Devaney" (or "*Devaney and friends" as it's sometimes called) contains a chapter on the Johnny Rodgers ordeal entitled "The Johnny Rodgers case caused more soul-searching than anything I've ever done". In it, Devaney talks about what happened, and how he came to the decision to let Rodgers continue playing football:
John had robbed a gas station as a last-day-of-school prank his freshman year. The police had caught some kid doing something and he told them that if they though that was bad, he'd robbed a gas station the year before with Johnny Rodgers. By that time everybody had heard of Johnny Rodgers. The police called him in and he confessed right away. He said he'd thought about giving the $90 back t the gas station, but didn't know how to go about it.
Agonizing over the whole Johnny Rodgers situation was harder than anything I'd ever done. I stayed awake nights trying to decide what to do. I knew there was no right answer. If we kept him on the team, people would think we'd do anything just to win. If we kicked him off, we'd be kicking his life away. Most people would think justice had prevailed. But what would it do to the only person that really mattered? What would it do to John Rodgers? Every coach meeting we had, we discussed John. We didn't know how we were going to allow him back on the team.
The trouble was, we were convicting him before the courts were. The public sentiment was definitely against letting him back on the team., but our main concern was trying to do what was right, not what was popular. I think Tom Osborne was the first guy to bring it up. He said if the courts decide to put John on probation, why shouldn't we do the same thing? Yes, John was a football player, but the crime did not occur during football season and it sounded a hell of a lot worse than it was.
We know how this would be handled in today's world. Rodgers' deed would be discovered in a day rather than a year. His name would explode on social media and there would be no chance of him continuing as a scholarship athlete at the University of Nebraska. I am not a lawyer or in the legal system, but I'd have to say it's doubtful he'd be given probation for grand larceny, although it's equally doubtful that someone in Rodgers' position then would easily confess without legal representation.
Bottom line - a player in Rodgers' position would be metaphorically burned at the stake. He certainly wouldn't have won the Heisman Trophy nor be regarded as one of the best players in school history as Rodgers is now.
I had the chance to interview Rodgers a few years ago, and I asked him about robbing that gas station:
What was it that got you to turn your life around after you robbed that gas station?
Well, you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes. And when you learn something significant from a mistake then it helps you to get more successes. You know what not to do and what not to do is more valuable sometimes than what to do. You get to know the difference between right and wrong and the consequences you've got to pay and you make choices.
I'm 55 now, and I make different choices than I did at 19, don't you? (laughing).
Human nature is such that we want forgiveness and a second chance when we make mistakes, but we want others to be punished to as full extent as possible.
Rodgers has served as an ambassador for Nebraska over the years, and been a decent one at that. He returned to Nebraska to earn degrees in Broadcasting and Advertising in 1997. He has been doing public speaking for years, and the Jet Award, named after him that is given to the nation's best college punt returner assists in funding his foundation whose stated purpose is to "create opportunities for youth through character, educational, and social development".
Still - does Johnny Rodgers deserve to be pardoned?