Some of Johnny Rodgers' friends want him to move out of north Omaha.
"They're afraid I'm going to get killed one day because of all the danger," Rodgers said.
But Rodgers won't budge. He lives near Florence Boulevard, not far from where he grew up, around 27th and Pinkney, where he says he used to walk to school in the middle of the street so he could get a head start on the kids who wanted to chase him and beat him up.
Fifty years later, the dangers and issues in north Omaha haven't changed much. You hear the sounds of gunfire more today. Back then, Johnny said, you fought, but it was mostly with knives and fists. There was crime. People were poor. People were hungry. People were angry.
Rodgers didn't know his father until he was 17. The men in his life were Dick Christie, Don Benning, Charlie Washington, Bob Rose, Eugene Skinner and George Barber. These were teachers, coaches, a journalist, school administrators. Community leaders. Guiding hands.
"I used to go out every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and I'd fight every Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Rodgers said. "We didn't fight with guns. We had rioting, we had problems, things that come up because of poverty. But we had good schools. Gene Skinner was big in those days. He was the guy who guided you through if you wanted to get somewhere in school.
"There was Don Benning, Charlie Washington, Bob Rose. These men were mentors, our mentors, mentors for the entire community. We were raised by these people. We came through some of the best mentors in history."
They would help you deal with life's daily struggles. Lend you a few bucks. Give you a ride. Get you a meal. Help you find your way in school. Keep the peace. Hand out valuable advice on life.
Thursday night, at Anthony's Steakhouse, Rodgers will hand out the first "Jet Award," for the top return specialist in college football. The dinner is sold out, and there will be speeches and a cool trophy depicting Rodgers on his famous punt return in the 1971 Game of the Century.
But behind the lights and cameras, there's another side of Rodgers here. The event is tied to the Johnny Rodgers Youth Foundation, which has been around since 1989. The foundation is set up to help north Omaha kids find their way, the same way Rodgers' mentors helped him back in the day.
"On the night I won the Heisman, I said I wanted to reach back into my community and pull people up," Rodgers said. "It seems like just a few minutes ago."
It's been 40 years. Rodgers has been through a lot in his life. Good, bad, happy, sad. Triumph, trouble. In some ways, his life has been like that punt return: stop, start, change directions, find your way home.
The common thread to it all has been his passion for north Omaha. And it's a passion that still burns.
"Most of our kids attend school in the winter time," Rodgers said. "Mostly because it's warmer at school than it is at home. And for 90 percent of the kids in our community, it's about going to get a meal. It's a traumatic situation when your mother and father are the poorest people in America.
"What we have been doing is get people to try a holistic way of helping. People are sincere in trying to help.
"But when you get people from the outside to come to our neighborhoods to try and help, and they don't look like us, there's a disconnect. There's a feeling of, after you help me, you're going back to your cozy world.
"When they see us, they know we understand. We hook people up to different resources, where they can get money, transportation, mentorship, whatever it is they need. Sometimes we give out money to help you pay your heat bills. Our primary deal is to connect you to the resources rather than just give you something."
Rodgers talks with great reverence about the men in his childhood. Don Benning, a great wrestling coach and administrator, who ran the "Y" at 26th and Grant. Dick Christie, his football coach at Omaha Tech, who rode Rodgers hard toward getting his classwork in shape. Rodgers played baseball for Josh Gibson, a legendary local player and the older brother of Bob Gibson. After one loss in South Omaha, Rodgers said Gibson made the team walk home.
Mostly, Rodgers aspires to have the influence of Charlie Washington, an activist and reporter for the Omaha Star, who has a library named in his honor in north Omaha.
"Charlie operated as a community advocate," Rodgers said. "He lived where Bob Boozer was raised, around 25th and Erskine. His house was the neutral zone. At any point in time, the mayor would be there, or the big shots who wanted to deal with north Omaha. They came to see Charlie.
"In high school, I was drafted by the (Los Angeles) Dodgers. I wanted to play for the Dodgers and play football at USC. But Charlie set up a meeting with me and Bob Devaney. Charlie said, 'You need to see Bob Devaney.' So that's what I did. Charlie was the man."
Rodgers laments that there is no longer a Tech High School, which gave a lot of north Omaha kids an avenue to learn a trade. Bring something like that back, he says, and it would transform the community.
"When I drive down 24th and L Street and Q Street, I see all of that going on over there, that used to be going on in north Omaha," Rodgers said. "It's all stores and shops and entrepreneurs everywhere. Now we have nonprofit organizations in north Omaha. We don't have any entrepreneurs anymore. Things have to change. Otherwise, the kids don't have a future. Now, you get 10 to 15 percent who get out. But 80 to 90 percent don't make it.
"This is my passion. I don't ever have a problem. People look out for me, like they used to look out for Charlie Washington. People like to see me coming through. It gives me more balance.
"When we go into a house for an assessment and we see a kid who hasn't eaten in two or three days, people don't understand what hungry is. You wonder why kids are doing what they are in school, and why they do such crazy things. Well, hunger makes you do crazy things."
Football was Rodgers' "way out of the ghetto." But he never really left. At 60, he's decided to give out awards. But he still wants to give a lot more.
"You know my deal," Rodgers said. "I could have gone to Yale or jail. I got a few breaks in my life, and I'm trying to give a break back."
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