The decision not to charge Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with sexual assault sent a wave of relief through a portion of the college football world last week. More than a few fans and pundits were worried what would happen if the Heisman Trophy was awarded to a student-athlete charged with a felony.
What many have forgotten, or didn't even know, is that it's happened before.
In 1970, Nebraska running back Johnny Rodgers was part of a group that robbed a gas station of $91. "It was 10 minutes of insanity," Rodgers told Yahoo Sports last week by phone. "A prank, just to see what we could do on the last day of school."
Rodgers was investigated for an armed robbery but pleaded guilty to felony larceny. To this day he insists he didn't have a weapon. He got two years of probation, and in a decision that would be skewered today, he was allowed to remain on the football team.
"To deprive him of the opportunity to play football," Nebraska coach Bob Devaney told the press, "would work against the aims of probation."
The next season, after an incredible punt return in the "Game of the Century" against Oklahoma, the mistake Rodgers made as a freshman suddenly became national news right along with his exploits on the field. "I was so embarrassed and hurt," he said last week. "I let down my team and state and family."
Nebraska won the national title in Rodgers' sophomore season of 1971, but the knowledge that an entire country knew about the incident drove "The Jet" to a dark place of despair on the brink of what would be a long Heisman campaign in 1972.
"I figured it was over," Rodgers said. "I might as well kill myself. I might have done something crazy if it wasn't for my kids."
This was long before the era of social media (or ESPN, for that matter), and yet there were more than a few members of the press who took issue with Rodgers and his background. "Somewhere along the line," Jim Murray of the Lakeland Ledger wrote, "I had gotten the idea the Heisman Trophy was for more than athletic excellence, that a candidate had to be something more than 'Mr. Touchdown USA.' " Rodgers himself understood the tension. "The fans dig me for getting them off their seats," he said at the time. "They don't dig me as a person. They know me either as a crook or as No. 20."
The debate presaged what would happen generations later, when questions about Winston's off-field behavior as a true freshman began to overshadow his emerging sports stardom and a run toward the national title. (Rodgers, like Winston, was a standout baseball player.)
"I had a campaign running against me," Rodgers said, "and I didn't know whether they were going to judge me for my performance on the field or for what happened off the field."
Rodgers lost a lot of his motivation, and stopped coming to practice. Devaney came to his dorm and told him to get out a piece of paper and a pencil and write "H-E-I-S-M-A-N" down the left side. Devaney then turned the word into an acronym: "Higher standard. Expect to win. Integrity. Mental toughness. Ask for help. Never give up." Devaney also asked Rodgers to give up baseball, which he reluctantly did, and the coach promised to back him for the trophy.
Rodgers was the first wide receiver or wing back to win the Heisman and did so by a wide margin. In that 1972 season, he gained 1,361 all-purpose yards and scored 19 touchdowns. In the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame, he ran for three touchdowns, caught another and passed for a fifth. It was vindication in some ways, but not in others. Rodgers' conviction hung over him well into adulthood. He was arrested in 1987 for waving a gun at a cable repairman. "For telling the cable guy to get off my roof," Rodgers said. "He didn't have a truck, a uniform. He came down and he showed me. I was taking care of my grandmother at the time." Rodgers, with a prior conviction, was sentenced to jail until he got the decision overturned. Even in 2007, when Rodgers applied for a real estate license, his 1970 conviction was broached.
This November, more than 40 years after winning the Heisman, Rodgers was pardoned for his freshman year crime by the State of Nebraska. He had help from legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who wrote a letter on his behalf touting Rodgers' extensive work in the Omaha community. "The Jet" now spends a great deal of his time speaking to at-risk youths in Nebraska, hoping to educate by example. He was the first member of his family to attend college, and he became a successful businessman. "I believe in second chances," he said. "We're dealing with young men and young people. You can't scrutinize them really hard."
Now Winston's name is on Rodgers' Heisman ballot. The two situations are not to be compared too closely, as rape is among the most serious of crimes and Winston was not charged. Rodgers said even before Winston was cleared that he had no plans to leave the freshman's name off.
"I can't say with a good conscience that the boy hasn't earned it," Rodgers said. "He's earned it. If I'm wrong, it won't be the first time I've been wrong. I have three votes and he's gonna get one of them."
After being cleared last week, Winston was asked about moving on and putting the allegation in the past. But being accused of a crime is never really in the past – not even for a Heisman Trophy winner. Rodgers anticipated the pardon this year far more than he awaited the Heisman in 1972. "It was like a big weight off my back," he said. "You never know until you know."
The statue lasts forever, but sometimes so does the stigma.