Johnny Rodgers smiled as he tapped former Washington returner Dante Pettis’ gray sport coat.
“This is the baddest man alive,” said Rodgers, joined by a chorus of laughs of friends surrounding him.
“When you take a return back every single game, the first punt return of every game for three years in a row and you have more punt returns for touchdowns than anybody else in history, then you gotta get an award,” Rodgers said.
That award was the Jet Award, which Husker legend Rodgers gave to Pettis on Thursday night at the Omaha Design Center downtown.
“This is awesome,” said Pettis, who returned 21 punts for 428 yards and four touchdowns his senior season at Washington. He averaged 20.4 yards per return.
“Being with all these legends that have played before me, it’s an honor.”
But hanging over the gala honoring returners are the new proposed rule changes about kick returns. The NCAA recently added a rule that gives players the option to call for a fair catch on kick returns and advance the ball to the 25-yard line.
Pettis and Rodgers are not fans of the rule.
“You fly down there and smack somebody and set the tone for a game or you return it, it changes the game,” Pettis said. “I don’t know, we’ll have to see how that plays out, but I know a lot of players will be a little upset with that.”
Rodgers added that fans go to games for entertainment. Kickoffs are entertaining. Why hinder that play?
“Us kick return and punt return guys, we’re here for the risk,” Rodgers said. “I mean, we’re daredevils. We’re not gonna fair- catch it, we’re gonna run it on in there as far as we can for the thrill of it. So we hope that they don’t — I’m sure all of us — hope they don’t take it out because we made a living off of it. And people remember us for those daredevil moves, for taking it to the house, for the possibility of dropping it, or not really making it all, or being the hero.”
A few other notes from the Jet gala Thursday evening:
» Rodgers shared a stat that was relayed to him by Tom Osborne decades ago. When Nebraska returned a punt past its own 40-yard line, it scored 75 percent of the time. When the ball was returned, or not returned, and spotted at the 25-yard line or behind, Nebraska scored 25 percent of the time. That’s why, Rodgers said, returns were so important under Osborne.
» Rodgers has not made it to a spring practice this year. He will be at the spring game.
» When Stanley Morgan broke his single-season receiving yards record, Rodgers was thrilled.
“Records are made to be broken,” Rodgers said.
» A little-known fact that Rodgers likes to bring up now: The last person to wear No. 20 before him was Larry Frost, Scott’s father.
That bond of No. 20 created a friendship between Rodgers and the Frost family that holds strong today.
It could be part of the reason Frost spoke at the gala Thursday night and why Rodgers flew down to Orlando to visit with Frost while Frost was at Central Florida.
Now that Frost is back at Nebraska, Rodgers is over the moon.
“We’re struggling here,” Rodgers said. “I think it was just a great choice to get a hometown guy. Part of our problem has always been we left having a hometown guy actually be part of our program. So we kinda strained away from that over the years until we got totally away from it.”
Added Rodgers: “To have an opportunity to have Scott back, who was a big part of the program — I think everybody in the state is really hopeful that we’re taking the program in the right direction.”