Johnny Rodgers - Back/Receiver - 1973-76 - Nebraska
The Alouettes had had the flashy receiver and runner on their negotiation list two years before he became eligible for the NFL’s annual draft of college players. His exceptional talent was already well-known in both Canada and the United States.
Rodgers won the Heisman trophy, and was the first draft choice of the San Diego Chargers. All the publicity the player received put added pressure on the Alouettes because they now knew it wouldn’t be easy to lure him to Canada. The one thing in the CFL clubs favour was that Harland Svare and Ron Mix, the two men who would be responsible for enticing the player to San Diego would underestimate the competition they were about to get from the Alouettes and the formidable J.I.Albrecht. The Chargers did know the Alouettes were interested in Rogers because his agent, Mike Trope of California, who had signed Rodgers as his first client didn’t make it any secret.
That put more pressure on the Canadian team.
After Rodgers played in the Orange Bowl game, in which he was a standout against Notre Dame, he had to serve a thirty-day jail sentence, because he had been convicted of driving with a suspended licence and running a stop sign. Albrecht called the player every day he was in jail in Nebraska to remind him that the Alouettes wanted to sign him and that they wanted him to visit Montreal.
The problem wouldn’t be selling Montreal, the Alouettes figured. It was how much it would take to get him to sign. Owner Sam Berger was hesitant at first, but Albrecht and coach Marv Levy coaxed him along slowly. Rodger was electrifying on a football field and would attract a lot of fans, Levy said. On his release, Rodgers went to San Diego, and took part in the teams mini rookie camp. The Chargers let it be known that he was within their grasp. They took pictures of him in a team uniform and circulated them to the press. But they hadn’t signed him, and when it came down to discussing dollars they told him that although he was a first round draft choice (25th overall) he still had to prove himself as a professional.
Rodgers made his reservations for the trip to Montreal. His agent, Mike Trope, flew in first and figures were tossed around. Later in the day Rodgers arrived. He was introduced to Albrecht and then Levy. The Montreal head coach proceeded to explain how he fitted into team plans. There was no talk of proving himself. The Alouettes’ offence was going to be built around Johnny Rodgers.
The Als set Rodgers up in a suite at a hotel and never let him out of their sight, They drove home how much he was going to mean to the club, that he would be able to do the same things in Montreal – be a receiver, runner and punt returner – that he had done at Nebraska, and that Montreal was a star-struck city. He would love the fans, he was told and the fans would love him, Rodgers had a big ego and it was being fed at every turn. Rodger saw plenty of proof that he would be a big man in Montreal. He made the headlines in all the French and English newspapers, he was in demand for television appearances. He was big, big news. After three days of hype and hooplah, Rodgers wanted to go home and think things over. On their way to the airport Trope mentioned that another client of his, quarterback Jimmy Jones, was available and Albrecht put him on the clubs negotiation list too. Before he left, Rodgers told Albrecht how much he liked Montreal, liked Levy how much he liked the grandfatherly cigar-smoking Berger. In fact he liked everything. Albrecht said he would appreciate getting his decision within a week. Rodgers said that would not be a problem.
Shortly afterwards, Rodgers and Trope returned to Montreal, a press conference was called, and Rodgers signed the most lucrative contract ever awarded in the CFL. Rodgers did sign the contract at the press conference; three years at about $100,000 each plus $100,000 signing bonus. When Rodgers said he was insulted with the offer the Chargers had made, Berger took that to mean that he could have offered the player less. But in fact, the Alouettes got him because of the no-cut clause, the larger signing bonus, and because of the way they had treated him. And so, the Alouettes had landed the “Ordinary Superstar” as Rodgers called himself. He demonstrated that flamboyant style by wearing, to his contract signing, the rabbit-fur hat which was to become his emblem. Albrecht was vindicated and Berger got what he paid for, almost. Rodgers was about to fill every CFL Stadium with fans – except the Autostade. A year later he demanded that his precedent-setting contract be torn up, and it was.
Excerpt: HuddlingUp by Jeffrey Goodman, pg157-160, 1981 Fitzhenry& Whiteside Ltd.
"I had always dreamed of having $100,000, and San Diego didn't offer me anything close to that," he said. "So I went to Montreal, and they offered me what I was looking for right out of the gate."
Rodgers played four seasons in the CFL, winning Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and All-Pro honors, along with a Grey Cup. He was the Most Outstanding Player in the East Division in 1974 and 1975. He also helped the Alouettes capture the Grey Cup in 1974 with a touchdown reception in the game. A flamboyant performer Rodgers would on occasion backpeddle into the end zone upsetting the opposition and thrilling the Montreal fans.
He had the personal glory but still longed to prove himself in the United States. In 1977, the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder got into tip-top condition and finally became a Charger.
"I did all I could do in the CFL," he said. "So I came back to try because I wanted to see just how good I could be."
Unfortunately, the NFL did not work out for Rodgers. He pulled both hamstrings in the first year and saw limited action. The next year, he suffered a horrendous knee injury when a teammate stepped on his foot during practice. The injury put an end to his football career. Only after several years of operations and rehabilitation did the knee return to normal.
Most outstanding rookie 1973. Described by one coach as a "super superstar", 23 year-old Rogers demurred: "I just want to be an average superstar."
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