LINCOLN — Husker football legend Johnny Rodgers stood Thursday in the State Capitol, savoring victory in the bright lights of news crews and photographers.
This time it wasn't for the Heisman Trophy, a national title or any other athletic achievement. This time, a 62-year-old Rodgers talked about how it feels to win forgiveness.
The Nebraska Board of Pardons granted Rodgers' request for a full pardon for his 1970 felony theft from a Lincoln gas station when he was an 18-year-old college freshman. The board's three members — Gov. Dave Heineman, Secretary of State John Gale and Attorney General Jon Bruning — all voted in favor of the pardon after a roughly 10-minute hearing.
“I'm just glad it's over,” a smiling Rodgers said afterward. “Just like a punt return, you never know where it's going to go.”
The board's action restores his civil rights, which include the right to hold office, serve on a jury or obtain a liquor license. The board also specifically restored Rodgers' right to own firearms.
One thing the board didn't ask Rodgers was whether he used a gun on May 20, 1970, which recently emerged as a disputed point.
Rodgers insists that he was unarmed when he stole $91.50 from the former Derby gas station in Lincoln. Where his pardons application asked if a gun was used in the crime, Rodgers checked “no.”
In the original police reports, however, the 64-year-old gas station attendant said Rodgers brandished a gun during the robbery. One of the two men also convicted of the theft recently told The World-Herald that he saw Rodgers remove a pistol from a glove compartment before walking into the gas station.
Four people spoke in support of the pardon, and the board received at least six letters from supporters. While no one spoke against the pardon Thursday, the board did receive 15 letters of opposition.
Gale said opponents mostly were involved in civil legal disputes with Rodgers, which do not factor into a pardon for a criminal offense.
Gale did point out three Rodgers convictions that occurred after the gas station theft. One was for driving under suspension in 1972 while he was serving probation, another was for being a felon in possession of a handgun in 1987 and the third involved a first-offense driving under the influence in 1997.
In 1987, while living in the San Diego area, Rodgers was convicted of assault and being a felon in possession of a gun after confronting a cable television technician who was disconnecting his service. An appeals court vacated the assault conviction but allowed the firearm conviction to stand.
Bruning pointed out that all of the convictions are more than 10 years old, the minimum period the board requires applicants to maintain a clean record.
“Mr. Rodgers has done what we ask of any applicant,” Bruning said.
While serving two years' probation for the 1970 theft, Rodgers became one of the greatest players in college football, helping the Huskers earn national titles in 1970 and 1971 and winning the Heisman Trophy in 1972. He went on to play in the Canadian Football League and the National Football League before retiring from the sport in 1979.
The attorney general praised Rodgers, who now lives in Omaha, for his charity work and the time he volunteers for youth. Letters of support also were submitted by former Husker coach Tom Osborne, as well as Hal Daub, a former Omaha mayor and current member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.
The board granted 32 other pardon requests Thursday before they took up Rodgers' application. Gale said at least nine of those pardons involved some type of robbery or armed robbery.
“It's not a crime that is anything extraordinary,” Gale said.
A 1972 profile of Rodgers published in the Philadelphia Inquirer described the crime as a robbery and contains the line: “Rodgers did the talking and held the gun, which, he says, did not work.”
The article was written by former World-Herald reporter Tom Ash, who said he interviewed Rodgers for the story. But Ash also says he can't recall after 40 years whether he got the information about the gun from police reports, other media reports or Rodgers.
After the pardons hearing, Rodgers once again denied that he ever told Ash he used a gun.
Heineman said that if not for the news media attention on Rodgers' application, the board probably would have granted the pardon without asking questions. The board routinely grants approval when applicants fulfill the requirements.
The governor was the last to speak to Rodgers on Thursday before the pardon was granted. Heineman asked Rodgers to respond to those who think he has received special treatment because of his achievements as an All-American football player.
“I meet your standards,” Rodgers replied. “I don't think there's anything special.”
Rodgers said he has tried to be an example for others by trying to make amends for past mistakes.
“I haven't had a perfect life, but I think I've definitely showed I learned my lesson back in the early '70s,” he said.