Football

The Afterlife Of Forgotten Heisman Trophy Winners

Most Heisman winners don't make it in the pros. What comes next for them is not what you'd expect

Football
Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Apr 27, 2016 at 2:44 PM ET

“I knew I wanted to make $100,000 since I was 10 years old. It was my dream,” Johnny Rodgers said. “I didn’t really know what that was or what that meant, but it was more money than I had ever heard of.”

From 1970 to ’73, Rodgers played running back, wide receiver, and returned kicks for the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team, breaking practically every offensive record at the school. In those three years alone he generated 5,586 all-purpose yards and averaged a 13.8 yards per touch. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1972, was drafted 25th overall in the 1973 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers, and ended up fulfilling his dream by opting to sign with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL.

“I told [Alouettes team owner Stan Berger] $100,000, and he told me ‘Fine,’” Rodgers said. “The only problem was that I had thought about $100,000 for so long, that when I finally got it, it wasn’t that much. So the next year I renegotiated, and they gave me a million dollar contract.

“With the Canadians paying, the NFL had to start paying, so I basically started a revolution!”

After four all-star years in the CFL, Rodgers decided it was time to come back home and signed with the Chargers, the team that drafted him, for a no-pussyfooting million dollar deal. The league was eager; the fans were eager.

But then, almost as quickly as he reappeared, it was over. In his first year with the Chargers, Rodgers tore his hamstring, and the next year a cornerback stepped on his foot in practice, cracking his kneecap and keeping him sidelined for more than half the season. By 1979, only six years after he left Nebraska, Johnny Rodgers was retired. He caught only 17 passes in the entirety of his NFL career.

This is where the public story ends for Heisman Trophy winners who never make it in the NFL. It makes a certain kind of sense since every man who’s ever won a Heisman is, at best, remembered as a football player and not much else.

However, the lives of those in the fraternity of forgotten Heisman winners have a way of opening up once they step off the field one last time.

Johnny Rodgers is doing just fine. After football he started a weekly TV Guide-like magazine called Tuned in San Diego, which offered both network- and cable-TV listings, and, according to Rodgers, became the largest magazine in the history of the city.

It was in San Diego that he learned the ins and outs of media, subsequently motivating him to return to Nebraska where he earned a degree in advertising. Today he’s the vice president of new business development for the Rural Media Group, the company behind the Rural TV channel, which produces content about agriculture, rodeos, and lots and lots of country music. It wasn’t future he envisioned, but it’s a good job in the present.

“It was very disappointing to me,” Rodgers said of leaving football, “but I was able to make a transition. It wasn’t so much that I was smart in that area; my timing was good. San Diego didn’t have a magazine for cable TV, and at that time everybody in the area had learned how to steal cable, but they didn’t have the schedule. My product was what they needed after they pirated.”

Winning the Heisman Trophy before going on to become a local media baron thanks to cable piracy sure is one way to ride off into the sunset.

While it’s weird to imagine Heisman winners like Oklahoma’s Jason White opening a merchandise store or Florida’s Danny Wuerffel drumming up a ministry, the highest honor in college football makes no long-term promises.

Eric Crouch, who won the Heisman Trophy for Nebraska in 2001, seems at peace with that truth despite how his football career played out. He was the sort of burly, country-strong college quarterback capable of lowering his shoulder and knocking over a safety.

Unfortunately for him, he also stood an eighth of an inch under six feet and lacked the arm strength of a top-flight QB prospect, which caused him to drop to the 95th overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. The St. Louis Rams looked at Crouch’s skill set as a project, and intended to convert him into a wide receiver.

“I interviewed with 22 NFL teams at the combine,” Crouch said. “I was given a fair shake, and made some decisions that put me in the position to not succeed.

“If I could do it all over again, I would not have agreed to play receiver or anything besides quarterback. I may have then had to go to the CFL right out of college. That would have been fun!”

Crouch was never involved in a real NFL play. He bounced around the practice squads of the St. Louis Rams and Green Bay Packers, and eventually spent some time in the now-defunct NFL Europe. He realized he wasn’t going to be a career football player early on, and today he’s the owner of a sports equipment and infrastructure company called Crouch Recreation, a business he bought at the age of 24.

“I was playing golf with a friend at the time and he mentioned someone he knew was selling their business,” Crouch said. “I ended up making the phone call, shadowed for 3 months and purchased it.”

If Crouch has any regrets, he’s good at keeping them hidden. He’s got a wife, some kids, a successful, fully paid-off business, and even finds time to do some coaching and commentating on the side. He keeps his Heisman in his house, locked up in its original case. Nothing tragic, nothing unconsummated, just an old relic from a happy fairy tale.

“I feel that God had a plan and this is what he wanted for me and my family,” Crouch said.

There’s cheap poetry in the idea that Eric Crouch still agonizes over football, but he looks back on his career the same way you and I might remember our college years—just a time and a place in a much bigger life.

However, the peace Crouch and Rodgers enjoy as forgotten Heisman winners is hardly the rule.

Just ask Ron Dayne, arguably the greatest Heisman winner of all-time. In his four years at Wisconsin he generated 6,397 yards, which remains the all-time NCAA record. A bruising but surprisingly nimble running back at 5’10”, 288 lbs, he was drafted 11th overall in the 2000 NFL Draft. Nothing much went right for him after that.

Dayne would get fewer carries and earn less yards in the entire course of his seven-year NFL career than in his time in college. He quickly fell out of favor with Giants coach Jim Fassel due to his ongoing weight issues, and by his third season he was more or less a backup. It’s one of the most confounding failures in the history of football.

“If I had Coach Alvarez [Barry Alvarez, head coach of the Badgers from 1990 to 2005] in the NFL, I think we could’ve won a Super Bowl,” Dayne said. “I never got too tight with coaches, so when Alvarez put the team on me I appreciated it. It was on me.

“I never got a fair shot in the NFL; I never got to really run a team. I still remember all my linemen I had in Wisconsin, but I can only name three or four from the pros.”

Dayne lives back in Madison, WI now. He works with the university, attends Heisman events, and plays with his kids. His oldest, Jada, accepted a full-ride soccer scholarship to Michigan. Life is good for Dayne, but you can still sense some bitterness.

“I was hoping to go to Pittsburgh, but I went to the Giants where I was sharing carries with Tiki Barber,” continues Dayne. “They didn’t like my style of running, they always wanted me to be more like Tiki. Then they tried to make me a short-yardage back and I was never a short-yardage back.

“I was just frustrated. I could’ve done it,” Dayne said. “But I would have a good game and the next week I wouldn’t even dress.”

There’s a chance that Dayne is right, and the wrong team and a couple of bad internal decisions squandered his potential. There’s also the chance he just wasn’t good enough to cut it in the NFL. That’s a hard reality to accept.

On paper, college football is an amateur scrimmage. A way to drum up school spirit and recognize tradition for a few months in winter. In reality, it’s one of the biggest industries in sports—a world where coaches make more than the most esteemed professors and the NCAA is sponsored by Coca-Cola, Capital One, All-State, and 13 other major corporations. Heisman winners in particular experience the most surreal version of that world.

You watch your jersey fly off store shelves, you’re interviewed by Erin Andrews, your highlight reels are all over YouTube. It must feel like the start of something without end. Until it ends. From there, it’s a hard drop into the real world occupied by the anonymous. Which is why Johnny Rodgers wants to help.

“I feel blessed all the time. There are a lot of guys who haven’t done as well as I have, or been able to make that transition,” Rodgers said. “I’d like to help athletes transition from professional sports to public speaking, I think it’s a career that we’re suited for […] people want to hear the stories.

“I feel very fortunate that I haven’t run into the problems that other guys have, and I owe that all to what I’ve learned from other people.”

His moral is clear. Sometimes adjusting is hard, and sometimes it’s easy. You can think of yourself as a failed prospect, or you can be the guy who gets to show off his Heisman Trophy when you have company over. For Rodgers, the latter has left him happier than that $100,000 dream ever did.