Have you ever sat around with a group of collectors and talked about how some players just seem to have countless cards produced during their careers?
We can all think of that promising middle reliever or outfield prospect who get hundreds of cards made but ends up with a short and mediocre career. The same goes for that promising wide receiver who is a bust, or maybe that NBA draft pick who is hyped out of college but never starts a game. Maybe it’s a junior or college hockey stud who just can’t succeed at the next level.
The question is always, ‘why does this guy have so many cards?’
But then you turn the tables.
Who is the greatest athlete of the sports card era to have the fewest cards made during his career?
To me, the answer is easy.
During his pro career in the CFL and NFL, Rodgers had just one card. His rookie card is in the 1978 Topps NFL football set. It came in his second and final year with the Chargers. Five games into that season, he suffered a career-ended freak knee injury in practice.
It’s hard to believe that 50 years have gone by since one of the greatest performances in college football bowl game history. That performance was on January 1, 1973. A year earlier, Johnny the Jet helped lead Nebraska to victory in what was dubbed and then held up as College Football’s Game of the Century as Nebraska beat Oklahoma on Thanksgiving Day in 1971.
Johnny Rodgers is still considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of Nebraska Cornhuskers football. He changed the game at a number of levels, from being a triple threat as a receiver/running back/returner, to popularizing the wing back or H-back or slot position, to the reason that they started keeping all-purpose yardage stats.
He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, but opted to sign with the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL when the Als gave him a lucrative deal and the Chargers said they would offer “fourth or fifth round money.”
To paraphrase the famous quote from the late, great NFL Films narrator John Facenda, if Johnny Rodgers was not in a class by himself, whatever class he was in, the role call was not very long.
Just take a glimpse at his college career at Nebraska.
He led the Cornhuskers to two national champions. He won the 1972 Heisman Trophy and Walter Camp Award. He was a two-time All-Big Eight and two-time All American. He set virtually every offensive record at Nebraska, except for the passing ones, of course. In his three years with the Cornhuskers, he set an NCAA record with 5,586 all-purpose yards. He also had 43 touchdowns in three years.
In the 1971 Thanksgiving Day game against Oklahoma, Rodgers ran a punt back for a touchdown. In the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1973, Rodgers turned in one of the greatest performances in bowl game history. He ran for three touchdowns, caught a 50-yard pass for another touchdown, and threw a 54-yard touchdown pass. He did all of that before leaving the game midway through the third quarter of Nebraska’s 40-6 rout over Notre Dame.
Imagine if Rogers played 20 years later. How many Classic and Signature Rookies cards would there have been of Rodgers.
If he were playing college football today, how many Leaf, Pro Set and various prospect cards would be produced of Rodgers? There would be game-used cards, autographs, signed parallels.
His hobby impact would be unprecedented.
There would also be a multitude of baseball cards made of him.
“One thing that a lot of people don’t know about me,” Rodgers explained in an interview I had with him in 2018, “is that I also had a chance to play baseball. I was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers. I had to make a decision, but being from Nebraska and having the opportunity to go to college and play close to home was not a difficult decision.
But when Johnny Rodgers’ football career ended, he had one card. It was a typical 1970s or early-to-mid 1980s Topps card. It was a boring, candid sideline shot of the player without his helmet. It’s no wonder that the football card industry exploded when Pro Set, Upper Deck and Action Packed arrived on the scene with great action photography..
Bad Hobby Timing
There are some superstars who have had their first cards produced while they played in the CFL. Joe Theismann had two O-Pee-Chee CFL cards made, as he was in the 1971 and 1972 sets. Warren Moon is in the 1981 and 1983 Jogo CFL sets. Rocket Ismail had CFL cards made by AW in the early 1990s. Jeff Garcia was a Calgary Stampeder and had Jogo cards in the 1990s before he joined the San Francisco 49ers. In fact, Garcia’s first NFL card was made by Collector’s Edge of Tennessee, and the card features Garcia in a Stampeders uniform.
However, Rodgers missed out. O-Pee-Chee’s last CFL football card set was produced in 1972. Rodgers joined the CFL in 1973. The CFL did not have any football cards for nearly a decade before Jogo appeared on the scene.
In 1992, Jogo produced a set of cards called The Missing Years. Rodgers appears in the set, which featured black and white photos. Also in the set is his quarterback teammate from Nebraska, as Jerry Tagge followed Rodgers to Canada and played for for the BC Lions. Tagge was a first round draft pick by his hometown Green Bay Packers in 1972, a year ahead of Rodgers in the draft. Tagge played 18 games in the NFL, one more than Rodgers. Tagge, meanwhile, has two NFL cards. His rookie card is in the 1974 Topps set and he was also in the 1975 set. When the Packers gave up on Tagge, he went to the San Antonio Wings of the WFL, and then headed north to become a CFL star with the Lions.
In Canada, “Johnny the Jet” got a new nickname, and it was one that he ultimately gave himself. He immediately became the most exciting player in the CFL, and perhaps the most exciting player the CFL had ever seen. During a media interview, he was explaining how he was just a regular guy and he was just one of the guys on the team.
“I’m just an ordinary superstar,” he said frankly.
And there it was. The nickname that would define his career in Canada. Johnny Rodgers was “The Ordinary Superstar,” known for turning around at the 10 yard line and running into the end zone backwards for touchdowns when he was in the open.
Rodgers was more than a great football player. He was an entertainer. He was Deion Sanders before Deion Sanders was even born.
“Everybody understands entertainment,” Rodgers said. “Now everyone has their own in the end zone, and they even plan them and practice them. Everybody dresses a little different. We were trailblazers. In Montreal, we were the first ones to do those things. We were ahead of our time and we set the standard.”
In his four seasons with Montreal, Rodgers was a superstar, and he was more than ordinary. He was the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 1973, and he was an All-Star in each of his four seasons. He led the Alouettes to the 1974 Grey Cup. He played during the CFL’s golden era. Games were sold when Rodgers was playing. He was also must see TV for Canadian football and sports fans. He was the most popular and talked about non-NHL athlete in the country. In his four CFL seasons, he scored 37 touchdowns.
Rodgers went to the Chargers in 1977. He signed a contract just shy of a million dollars in San Diego. He was limited to 12 games due to hamstring injuries in 1977. In 1978, he suffered his career-ending injury.
All Century Team
While Johnny Rodgers has always been a legend, especially in Nebraska, he had a second wave of fame in 1999 and 2000, a generation after his career was over.
He was named to the Nebraska All-Century team, and Sports Illustrated named him Nebraska’s Player of the Century. He was selected as a starting receiver to the Walter Camp Football Foundation College Football All Century Team. He was ranked #44 on the College Football News All-Time Team. ESPN may have had it a bit closer to reality, as he was ranked #23 on their list of the 25 Greatest Players in College Football History list.
After that, Rodgers began appearing on football cards. He was in the 2002 Fleer Greats of the Game set and signed cards. Since then, there have been more than 200 Johnny Rodgers cards produced, a testimony to his impact decades earlier.
It’s almost as many as he would have if he were a rookie or second year player today.
Rodgers has built a successful career as a marketing executive, and is Vice President of the Rural Media Group, which produces agricultural radio programs in the Midwest.