The night before Saturday's Heisman Trophy announcement, Johnny Rodgers of Omaha will host some past Heisman recipients and others at a private cocktail party — at the Princeton Club of New York.
It's becoming a tradition. For the past four years, Rodgers has welcomed his personal invitees to the Princeton Club, a 52-room boutique hotel near 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan that caters to faculty and alumni of Princeton University.
"Most of us don't see each other but once or twice a year, if that," said Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman winner at Nebraska. "We just socialize, eat hors d'oeuvres, raise toasts, take photos — and lie to each other."
He chuckles at his own quip about old friends exaggerating their feats of days gone by. But there's no denying that Johnny the Jet was always good on his feet, though he may have cooled his jets and lost a step or two. After all, old No. 20 has turned 60.
Rodgers didn't attend Princeton, an Ivy League school in New Jersey, but an Omaha friend did. Businessman Larry Myers, a 1962 graduate, arranges for and sponsors Johnny's annual Heisman soiree.
"I suggested it to him, just throwing the idea out there," said Myers, who doesn't attend. "It's really for him and his Heisman pals, just to talk quietly and not be bothered by the press."
Rodgers said he appreciates Larry's friendship and his willingness to throw the party.
"He's a great guy," Johnny said. "This is good for Nebraska, good for me, good for a lot of people. And Larry loves doing it."
Rodgers has attended the Heisman weekend for many years and watched it grow into live TV coverage of the Saturday announcement. A banquet is held Monday night.
Besides honoring the best college player of 2011, the Heisman committee now singles out past winners on certain anniversary years. Eric Crouch of Omaha, who won 10 years ago as a Husker quarterback, will be feted this year.
"This time of year," Crouch said, "I always get excited about the new winner and anticipating the award. It's nice to form a bond with everybody, to get to know the other Heisman winners and to build new friendships."
Has Johnny, with his annual Friday-night event, become a kind of elder statesman in the Heisman brotherhood?
Eric said he doesn't know if everyone views him that way, "but I can see how people would see him as that kind of godfather. He's the Jet. He always has a smile on his face, having fun and enjoying himself."
Crouch said he talks to Rodgers regularly and has learned from him — including how to handle the permanent status of being a Heisman Trophy recipient.
"He's met a lot of people and knows the ins and outs of the business," Eric said Wednesday. "He's definitely a great sounding board for me as I venture through this 10-year anniversary."
Crouch said he can relate to Rodgers, among other ways, because both suffered injuries that curtailed their pro careers. He said he likes just being around Rodgers.
"He goes way above and beyond the call of duty," Eric said, "to give back to charities and youth in this state."
Rodgers himself has spoken on behalf of young people in trouble, mentioning his own time as "a wayward youth" and the second chance he received after being involved in a robbery.
He operates the Johnny Rodgers Youth Foundation and has a website, www.jr20.com. He also owns a sports-marketing company in Omaha and gives speeches. In September, he received a standing ovation at a Montreal Alouettes game in honor of his four years playing there.
Besides Crouch, among those attending his Friday night event in Manhattan will be Mike Rozier, the 1983 Heisman winner from Nebraska, who lives in New Jersey. Also, Rich Glover, an All-America teammate at Nebraska, and a number of other friends and past Heisman winners, such as Billy Sims of Oklahoma.
Larry Myers, Johnny's Omaha-Princeton connection, graduated from Omaha Westside High in 1958 and earned a law degree from the University of Nebraska.
He said his father, Lawrence H. Myers, built about 1,000 homes in Omaha from the late 1940s into the '60s. Larry today runs the Countryside Village shopping center.
He met Johnny Rodgers seven years ago when Myers was working on a book about Husker football. He later helped Rodgers with his own book, "An Era of Greatness."
"Johnny is a prince of a guy," Myers said. "He has a loyalty to people, and they have a loyalty to Johnny."
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