WHAT MATTERS TO JOHNNY RODGERS IS NOT JUST DOING IT, BUT DOING IT WELL, NOT SO MUCH WHETHER HE WINS OR LOSES, BUT HOW HE PLAYS THE GAME
Slippery. He is slippery and elusive. A game film flickers through the mind. The field goal attempt arcs up out over the Montreal end zone and he comes in under it, takes it up in his long slender fingers and starts the run. Up, up, out along the sidelines, slipping, sliding, bobbing, weaving, this way, that. They lunge at him from every side, hurling their 250pound padded hulks that have been honed to an exquisite homicidal edge at his small steel wisp of a frame, charge him with the butt of helmets glistening in the sun, grab and claw after him with taped hunks of hamshank that pass for nands. But they keep coming up with fistfuls of air. He slips through their fingers, darts past the killer shoulder pads, leaps over the cleated slabs of flesh littering the field, fancy-dancing, flying fast. Past the 50. Now the 40. The 30. At the five-yardline, he looks around and roars into the end zone for a touchdown, backwards. Yes, backwards! A 101-yard run with a little reverse-gear flourish at the end! A little something for the people. And the people go wild. Even opposition fans who’ve lusted for his blood all through the first quarter are on their feet screaming for him. John R. Superstar has done it again. Another tour de force. A smash hit in the stadium. Another opening, another show.
Next time he promises forward flips and back flips, flips over flying bodies and cartwheels, and that is only the half of it: “I got a whole lot of surprises for them,” he says. Indeed, in the three years since Montreal Alouettes wooed him up across the border as the most outstanding player in all of U.S. college football, the receiver who scored four touchdowns alone in the 1972 Orange Bowl, Johnny Rodgers has been so full of surprises that he has packed as many as 10,000 extra fans a game into Montreal’s Autostade, pulled another 4,000 into whatever alien park he plays when Alouettes hit the road. Wherever he roams across the country, ads sprout: COME SEE JOHNNY RODGERSI Bare mention of the team. This is a one-man show. Sportswriters catalogue not only the remarkable passes caught, punts returned and yards rushed, but the outrageous Pimpmobile rabbit hats he sports and the price he commands per performance. The most exciting player in the history of the game, they call him. But with an adman’s canny instinct, he turns their clichés into an instant empire. Just an Ordinary Superstar, he calls himself. There are Ordinary Superstar T-shirts on sale at every game, a line of Ordinary Superstar football equipment is due out any day, and now Johnny Rodgers is cutting a rock single entitled ... Ordinary Superstar\
In a time when sport has become bigtime showbiz, he is the country’s consummate showman. The Entertainer, par excellence. The Bobbies Orr and Hull may have more millions tucked into their contracts, but who can imagine a Parry Sound kid, permanently encased in an image that has all the down-hominess of a bran muffin, hiring an answering service to coo, “John R. Superstar” into his phone? He flaunts the zeros in his contract, which he has just re-renegotiated to make him, he says, “we// in excess of three million dollars”; a guaranteed $40,000 a year for life. He intends to hold a press conference on the subject as soon as the Grey Cup is over. He has more than 60 suits in his closets, more than 30 pairs of handmade boots with two-inch platforms on the bottom and his initials in big bold letters on top. When they asked Johnny Rodgers to come pick up his Rookie of the Year award at the Grey Cup two years ago, he showed up in a specially made full-length silver fox coat with matching peaked cap. “I dress for the occasion,” he says. “All the world’s a stage and each man has his role to play. I play mine to the hilt.”
'NO WAY I’M DOIN’ IT FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME ... AFTER IT’S ALL OVER, THE GAME DON’T LOVE YOU
But like one of his own end runs, the persona behind the personality remains just out of reach. Always slipping and sliding on up ahead. Sportswriters scramble over their superlatives to pin him down, but he leaves them framing questions in the air. Is he Superdude or Sobersided Responsible Citizen? Egomaniac or just a poor boy in pursuit of that insurance salesman’s Nirvana, security? What, after all, makes Johnny Rodgers run?
The big, gleaming navy Rolls-Royce slips noiselessly though the rain-slicked streets of Montreal where night is falling, dodging lesser vehicles, darting in, out and around the heavy-witted wheels of not so nimble men. Inside, the color-coordinated car phone with the big JR on top is temporarily at rest, a rare occurrence considering the $l,000-a-month phone bills. The hot rhythm and blues of Willie Hutch rocks out over the stereo. Enthroned in the lush folds of navy leather, the man up front behind the wheel is waxing philosophical. “I only have one real weakness,” says Johnny Rodgers. “It’s pretty girls. You can’t attract me with money, cars . . .”
Well, maybe not some money and some cars. But Sam Berger, the Alouettes’ 75-year-old patriarch, might be surprised to hear it after coughing up this $40,000 hunk of hand-tooled steel as a signing bonus for the seven-year record contract renegotiation the superstar sprang on him right in the middle of last Grey Cup season. This is the Rolls he demanded knowing only that it was the biggest, the best, the most expensive there was. “Before I got this, I’d never even seen a Rolls,” he says. “As a matter of fact when I saw it, I wasn’t that impressed.” Still, he made the best of it, strolled right into the showroom in his jeans and matching hat, pointed at it and when the salesman smirked, got downright rude in fact and inquired just how he planned to finance it, Johnny Rodgers paused only a moment before replying, “Well, I think I’ll pay cash.”
“Tripped them right out,” he says. “Those Rolls people, they didn’t really want me to have this car. It’s because of my age and my color. Sure, it is.”
It is hard sometimes to keep in mind that Johnny Rodgers has just turned 24. There is something sure and seasoned about the small, tight, coiled spring of a frame which measures in at a mere fivefoot-nine and 170 pounds, something ageless about the strong, handsome black head. He has all the moves. The fingers on the wheel flash gold and diamonds like a kid caught out with confetti. But behind the gold-rimmed granny glasses he wears off the field because he can’t see distances, the eyes that stare out have the knowing gaze of an old, old man. “Those eyes have seen a lot,” says a friend.
They have seen his great-grandmother’s withered body lying stabbed 75 times on a Nebraska morgue slab where he had to go one day after school and identify her, seen the tense festering Friday nights of Omaha’s black north side. At 14 he remembers opening the door into the darkness to face the street gangs coming for him. At 15, he fathered his first illegitimate son, Terry, who with a six-year-old brother Daryl and a foster son, John Jr., moved to Montreal last February to live with him. His own family was a tangled mosaic. There never really was a Mr. Rodgers in his life. That just happened to be the name of his grandmother’s current husband when she gave birth to his mother, who passed it on when she had him at 16. He tells reporters that he never knew his father—a halftruth. The man named Benny King, who sometimes writes now from Los Angeles for clippings on his son, was “a player, a ladies’ man,” he says. “I never held that against him. Fact is, he mighta done me a favor for not being there. I hadda look to depend on the only person I could—myself.”
He was always a loner. A skinny, slinky-toy of a little kid who learned early running balls down the concrete jungle that he was the quickest, the foxiest, a star even in third grade who forced the hated shyness out of himself. When the 40 football scholarships poured in during his final year of high school, he turned down all the flashy California campuses to stay home at University of Nebraska for the purest of reasons. “I didn’t want to have to start all over again to establish myself,” he says. At Nebraska, where college ball was practically a basic industry, he was a star right from the first. He had his own three-storey house, nonstop good times in the thirdfloor party room and a girl friend who once bet him that he couldn’t score a touchdown backwards.Next game out, he turned around with 15 yards to go against Minnesota and showed her. He can remember the screaming in the stands. He watched them every game out of the corner of his contact lenses, “75,000 of them, all dressed in red, up on their feet yellin’ like they do for Ali, ‘Johnny! Johnny! Run, Johnny, run!’ ” Then one day the police knocked at the door and said a couple of white guys had been bragging about the gas-station holdup they’d pulled with him one night after a freshman party the year before, drunk on vodka, orange juice and craziness; and there was no place left to run.
“It was a lark,” he says. “It wasn’t for the money. Hell, it was only $90-odd. Why, that was peanuts to me. I used to buy up all the tickets to a game, sell ’em for $50, party all weekend, pick up the whole tab and still have $1,000 left over. I made a nice livin’, plus I used to gamble—played cards, dice and stuff. And I always won. Once me and my cousin, we made ourselves a couple of grand. And that was only $90. I didn’t really feel it was wrong. But you know, that garage thing has haunted me. It was very cold-blooded. Before then, I had 100,000 friends on that campus. After that I had maybe six. I ceased to exist. Zip. Everything I had built up in my whole life from the third grade they wanted to take away from me. It’s something that will be with me a long time.”
In a way, it still is. Despite the two years’ probation he got, “even here,” he says, “The Man watches me. Because of then and my affiliation with my friends. See, you could tell me a guy here or a girl I know is a pimp or a prostitute and it might be news to me. They were talkin’ about me sellin’ dope here a year ago. Now what do I need to sell dope for? I went to them and I said, ‘Look, I’m straight. Don’t get on me.’ But I’ve taken quite a lot of good from a bad thing. It made me look up and be careful. They made me be sharp. They made me grow up fast.”
He is wheeling the car along when the reporter beside him suddenly notices a small color photograph in a gold frame squatting on the upholstered dashboard. The moonface of the self-proclaimed teen god, Guru Maharaj Ji, is staring out. The superintendent in Johnny Rodgers’ apartment building turned him onto the guru, then a lady whom he calls a saint “gave him knowledge” in a Quebec City ashram. Now he meditates when he can fit it in, sometimes right in the Rolls, and he has found the results nothing short of miraculous. “With me and Guru Maharaj Ji, I can’t go wrong,” he says. “Ever since I got this knowledge, all these good things have been happening—all these deals.” Suddenly in the split frame of a second, he flips the wheel and veers the Rolls down the oncoming lane of traffic into a hotel driveway, thereby saving himself a bothersome detour around the block. He is, above all, a pragmatist. “You know, a lotta people, they’re down on Maharaj Ji because he has all these things like I have,” he says. “There are people waitin’ for him to come back on a white donkey. But this ain’t 2000 B.C. This is 1975. He’s supposed to have a Rolls.”
Deep in the discreet smoky shadows of a French restaurant called LesHalles, elegant couples are murmuring over the imponderables of canard aux poires or lapin sauté, but out at the doorway the superstar is going temporarily unrecognized. Michele, the blond beside him, hastens to soothe the lapse. She introduces him to the maitre d’ who does not follow football. But the maitre d’ brightens instantly. “Mais, oui! The one with the fur hat!” he cries.
On this particular evening, however, the rabbit has been left at home. Johnny Rodgers is toned-down and spiffied up in a tailored powder blue cord suit, black shirt and shell necklace—hatless and oozing machismo—the influence of the chic Michele Sirois. She is petite, beautiful and 30-ish, once-divorced and muchtraveled and very, very French. For nearly two years now, she has served as secretary, power of attorney, and not incidentally girl friend to the Ordinary Superstar. There are other girls, including a 19-year-old black nurse named Nola, she knows. Sometimes he doesn’t slide home to the ruffled blue and white pillows of her apartment bedroom till 7 a.m. But when he does there is always freshsqueezed orange juice waiting, satin sheets and fresh lobster or escargots served up with a fresh flower on a gold bed tray should he desire them. No remonstrances. “It was always my dream to be the woman behind a great man,” she says. “He came as a gift to me.” In return, she tries to give him a few things herself. A solid gold JR pinky ring to replace the monster diamond horseshoe he once favored, a haven in the storm, and now, having persuaded him that vin rouge can taste just as good without an ice cube, a gentle nudge toward the Chablis on the wine list. “I appreciate the best,” he says. “Whatever’s the best, French, English, black or white. If it’s the best, the hippest, you just show me. I’ll do it. I want to be hip.”
Still, there are those who keep asking why Johnny Rodgers didn’t take his coveted Heisman trophy as the best U.S. college football player and do the hippest thing of all: join the National Football League. “Money,” he says, with a wave of his fish knife. “My friends, they’re into status. But it’s a bigger thing for me to have security.” He was first-round draft choice of the San Diego Chargers when Montreal went after him. But the Chargers miscalculated. “When they came negotiatin’ with me at first I was in city jail for 30 days for drivin’ without a license,” he says. “And they thought they had my back up against the wall. They offered me $100,000 over three years. And I was askin’ for $100,000 a year. They were real cool to me. It was like they were doin’ me a favor. Well, I was doin’ them a favor.” Instead, he came up and did Montreal the favor in return for $100,000 for each of three years—at the time the fattest-cat contract in the history of the CFL.
When he showed up sporting the rabbit and the hog’s share of publicity, just 21. there was a lot of tension on the team. Some of it lingers still, not helped any by the fact that he refuses to join the Players’ Association and thumbed his nose at the all-star game. “Why should I go out there and get my body punished for $200?” he says. “They say it’s for the pension fund, but I did a little research and an American player up here on an average lasts a year. How the hell is he gonna collect a pension? I consider I’m my own pension plan. They’re rippin’ us, and I resist us bein’ prostituted for this. If I go along—and I’m the best, the highest paid—then the others, they have to go along too. They don’t understand I’m tryin’ to do them a favor.”
In particular, his leadership has been lost on the Alouettes’ white quarterback from the South, Sonny Wade, who, it is no secret, scarcely ever throws Johnny Rodgers the ball. His plays always seem to come when black Jimmy Jones is in the game. “I know Sonny Wade doesn’t pass to me,” he says. “I know what’s in his mind. But me and Jimmy, we do alright. We like to be very flamboyant. We like to throw deep, be very cold-blooded, open up the game. This is how you add more excitement. That’s what I keep tellin’ ’em. We’re entertainers. Professional entertainers. What else is it but a show? I’m a dancer, like—I’m a little different than the run-up-the-middle shit. I have something to offer. I’m sellin’ myself and my services to you and I want securities in all aspects. I’m not doin’ this for the love of the game. There’s no sense bullshittin’ about it. No way I’m doin’ it for the love of the game.”
He feels for the tape patch under the skintight silk shirt where his ninth rib is still cracked from the week before. “You think it’s fun to go out there and get beat up, get messed up? I know they’re cornin’ to hurt me, they’re cornin’ to kill me every game. This is gladiator shit. And I’m a good gladiator. But there’s nothing to love about it. One game I was so bad, I was about to pass out. They had to shoot me up at half-time to keep me goin’. There’s guys that get messed up for the rest of their lives out there, can’t barely walk again. A lotta guys who played well, played for the love of the game and at the end you see ’em standin’ on a corner with nothin’, broke down, winos, forgotten. You can love the game but after it’s all over, the game don’t love you.”
His voice is rising, intense with the bitterness, and in the genteel shadows, other diners are turning to stare. He steers the talk to the bungalow he bought his mother and half-sister in Omaha, and the big two-storey suburban house he bought here where his grandmother presides over the seven others who are totally dependent on him. He likes to tell how, when he retires at 30, he is set financially for life. “I’m gonna party all the time,” he says. “My plan has always been I’m gonna sacrifice my twenties so I can lay and play in my thirties. Just lay and piay.”
As a matter of fact, he is in the mood for a little laying and playing now. We push off across the street to a subterranean discotheque where he darts through the lineup waiting outside, whips back the gate chain and bounds down the stairs, past the restraining hand of the doorman. “I’m Johnny Rodgers, man,” he says. Objections fall away. Awe circles thick in the air. Pale girls flutter around the flame. He is in his element here, boogeying along with a Seven-Up or a cognac in his hand. But when a drunk fawns around his neck and begins to nuzzle, you can feel the lurking menace. “I’m a mean mother,” he warns. “I’m bigger and I’m badder. So you give me my space. Don’t crowd me.” The superstar brushes the drunk off his suit like a stray thread. “I could fight,” he confides. “I used to like to fight. I had to fight to survive. But I only had one fight since I was here. This guy started pushin’ me and when I demanded an apology he didn’t give one. We went out back and I slipped an ashtray into my hand on the way. He turned around, did a fancy karate kick at me, hit the door. I smacked him right between the eyes with the ashtray. I just picked him up and ran him toward the wall. I kicked his ass. Why, he’d tore up my suit, my brand new red and black suit that I’d bought in Toronto.”
In the parking lot later, history looks as if it may repeat itself when a guy in a little nothing of a car pulls out and cuts off the Rolls. Johnny Rodgers does a slow bum to the stoplight, where he pulls up parallel, zips down his window and issues a bulletin. “You tell your guy if that happens one more time, he’s got trouble,” he shouts at the terrorized girl passenger. “You tell him he’s a no-good punk.”
The next day Johnny Rodgers makes a charity appearance, shaking hands with folks laid out in a shopping centre, bleeding for the good of humanity into little plastic bags. He is relaxed, affable, gracious. There aren’t many people bleeding on this particular afternoon, however. Finally an organizer suggests a handwriting analysis to divert him. Johnny Rodgers is required to write in five lines what he’d do with $500,000. “That’s easy,” he says. “Donate it to charity. ’Cause you get publicity for that, plus you can get the deductions.” As Michele notes, the superstar stayed in school just long enough to learn to add. He never did graduate, though, after winning the Heisman—shrugged off his 22 credits to go, hit the road with the trophy and a little basketball entourage called the Johnny Rodgers All-Stars and cleaned up his $20,000 worth of debts instead. Now he struggles over the scrap of paper for the longest time. “I can’t spell,” he shakes his head. Still, nobody seems to mind. Kids crowd around to ask him about the chances of winning the next game. “You just watch,” he waves.
Two days later, the Alouettes go down dismally to Winnipeg, 26 to 21, and he stalks furious off the field. He has had the ball only twice, once on a Winnipeg punt return and even then he makes a magnificent run, darting and weaving up the sidelines for 70 yards. Still, Michele senses trouble as she waits outside the red dressing-room door, and not just from Nola and another girl who are also lurking there. “He’s a terrible loser,” she warns. When he emerges in plaid pants and vest, velvet blazer and the infamous rabbit upon his head, he is steely quiet as a time bomb. He packs his own family in the Rolls, then climbs in the front of Michele’s battered red Vega with the shattered windshield, the non-conquering hero, and rides in silence.
Back at the apartment, Michele has readied a small party, but Johnny Rodgers stays in the kitchen, sipping white wine and coming to a boil. “They want to show they can do without me,” he simmers into a tirade. “They don’t want me to get all the glory, when they don’t understand I already got all the glory and Fm just gonna be bringin’ ’em along with me. They don’t want anybody to be a standout star. Statistically it shows that when I do well, the team does well. Why they don’t give me the ball? They advertise me and then they hold me back so I don’t get as much publicity as I should be gettin’. But the people, they don’t understand I’m bein’ froze out. They just say, ‘Oh, he’s not standin’ out.’ I want to earn my money. I want to build up my statistics for the Schenley. I want to deserve my superstar status. Hell, maybe I just sold ’em my name.”
There is loud funky rock on the stereo and one of the team’s running backs is rubbing pelvises with his imported girl friend in the living room. A dude of indeterminate employment named Lawrence arrives flashing a three-piece sporting suit, gold rings and a fedora with a fourinch brim that he keeps on at all times.
‘ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE AND EACH MAN HAS HIS ROLE TO PLAY-1 PLAY MINE TO THE HILT
He pulls a white peaked cap low over the host’s eyes. Johnny Rodgers is winding down into the mood and starts boogeying to the music, when suddenly somebody asks a reporter in the corner if she has figured out yet what makes Johnny Rodgers run. She has no answer. Only the scrap of paper she has seen lying on Michele’s dressing table where an Ordinary Superstar, who calls himself the best, the greatest, never a self-doubt, has scrawled in an awkward and pained hand, “When I find the answer to who I am myself, I do promise me to you.