Episode 9 - Elk in Omaha

Secret Golf's Steve Elkington heads to Omaha, Nebraska to visit 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers and Coach William Reed.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] NARRATOR: On this episode of The Rural Golfer.

-Show us how to do it.

-I was the first Heisman trophy winner from Nebraska, and the first to win the trophy as a-- as a receiver.

NARRATOR: Elkington touches down with the legendary Heisman winner, Johnny Rodgers.

-Lots of guys got national championship rings, but hardly anyone's got one of these, right?

-77 winners.

NARRATOR: Fearless on the field, maybe. But Rodgers has still got some haunts to overcome on the course.

-Sometimes it takes three or four times to get out of here.

-No, no. That's just-- no more of that.

NARRATOR: Plus, we learn of the obstacles Rogers' friend, Coach Reed, had to face.

-We don't have a golf course we could go to play at. So I carved out two holes in my front yard, and we hit the clubs back and forth. The Rural Golfer rolls your way next.

THEME SONG: One, two, three, fore! We got the Big Show revvin', our eyes are on the map. Where we're goin' next we just can't say. So grab your clubs, let's hit some ball, we're makin' friends and playin' golf. The Rural Golfer's comin' your way.

-Now today you're bringing us back to your old high school right here. This is where it all started for Johnny the jet right here.

-Well this is. In this high school, I was a four sport letter man. And right now they have a rule out called the Johnny Rodgers rule, where you're not allowed to play four sports in one season.

-So you did football, baseball--

-Basketball and track.


-All four.

-How were your-- how were your grades that year?


-That was for three years.

-All three years?

-Tell me what it looked like in '67.

-Well, in '67 we had a track there where some of the fastest guys in the world used to come through here. And I remember a lot about my-- my coaches, you know? I was fortunate enough to have good mentors and coaches and understand that success sometimes is not really about whether you're brilliant or brightest. It's maybe about surrounding yourself with the right people.


NARRATOR: Omaha, Nebraska is a city of many faces. Bordered by the Missouri and the Platte rivers, Omaha has a long and rich history as a farming community. One of the most unique things about Omaha is that not only is it home to many of sport's most recognizable names, but that those names resonate today as revolutionary, groundbreaking pioneers.

-We have the first black Olympian to play basketball for Chicago Bulls, Bob Boozer. He's from Nebraska. Bob Gibson, the first black hall of fame pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. Marlin Briscoe, the first black quarterback to play in the NFL. Ron Boone, they call him the iron man, he played more games without injury than anybody else in history. He's from Omaha. You know, Omaha is basically named Oma-ha. That's from the Jamul Indians. It's called against the current. And a lot of these people just came up against that current and started right here in this little park.

-You grew up in a little house over here and you had-- you didn't have any electricity or air conditioning, you didn't even have a toilet.

-I used to go out and get water from the well, and my grandmother used to read me stories at night from candlelight. And to go to bathroom, was about 50 yards from the house was the outhouse. And I remember some of my biggest fears in life was standing up against the screen door looking out the door, wondering-- should I run or should I-- should I go back? Or should I hold it? Gotta-- I gotta go to the bathroom. I'm afraid of a rooster. I got a big, rig rooster out there that's bigger than I am, faster than I am, and he's waiting out there for me.


But after I was able to conquer the fear of the rooster, I noticed later on in my life that a lot of my running style was because of the rooster and runnin' from [INAUDIBLE]--

-You had to put the zigzag on the rooster.

-I had to put the zigzag on him. And once I got over that fear of the rooster, I never had fear of guys a--anymore.


Now we used to live right on the other side of this railroad track here. All this was nothing but just little houses and a whole community down here called the bombs. It was from here all the way to downtown. This is over here where I used to live over there, where you see that there's still pretty desolate stuff here right now.

-Looks like a sand-- sands or something.


-Hey, there's a golf course right there.

-Oh, this is Shoreline, and this is where I play at right here now.

-This is your-- this is your course.

-This is my-- like my home course here, yeah.

-Only natural you gotta golf because it's the only sport you haven't conquered, mate.



---hardest one?

-That is the hardest one.

-When you were young, though, when you were a kid, you-- no one down here played golf.

-No, n-- not that I [INAUDIBLE].

-Y'all think were sissies back then?

-Only golfers.

-Knew it. You knew it


-Something was wrong with them.

-Something's wrong with them playin' that golf. We never even stopped, and you didn't-- you didn't really have but golf on TV, really. So--

-No. Well, you know-- uh,

-We only had three TV stations.

-Yeah, in the 70s, though, golf was pretty popular, John.

-Is that right?



NARRATOR: It was early in his life when Nebraskan Johnny Rodgers realized he had a gift.

JOHNNY: When I was in the third grade over here at Lothrop. I was the star of the tumbling team. That was my first deal with athletics. And I won awards and things as I went on, and it just never stopped.

NARRATOR: And neither did the drive for the young man from humble beginnings. He was being groomed for greatness.

JOHNNY: I just kept building on that until I got to high school and I was athlete of the year and I had lettered in all-city and all four sports that I actually played in. So I knew that things were pretty special, that I would-- had a gift.

NARRATOR: Not one to rest on his laurels, Rodgers never relented with his work ethic.

-There's always pressure at early age to win, but I really wanted it bad enough, I wanted to work hard. So I worked hard all the time at it.

NARRATOR: Over time, Rodgers' unrelenting hard work paid off. In 1970, the all-city and all-state high school champ began his college career as a Husker. Fans clung to his every move, anticipating what play the Jet would pull off next.

COACH WILLIAM REED: It was magical to me, because I knew at the time what he was doing for the University of Nebraska. He was bringing them into a world of excitement. I mean, they were playing great football here in Nebraska, but they were missing the excitement element.

ANNOUNCER: Rodgers takes the ball at the 30. He's hit and got away.

COACH WILLIAM REED: That excitement element is that element that takes you to the next level to where people can't wait to see that one player that could do anything at any time.

ANNOUNCER: 20, to the 10-- he's all the way home!

COACH WILLIAM REED: And so he became that for the University of Nebraska, and it changed the whole scope of the way people thought about football.

JOHNNY RODGERS: To be able to play your best in big games when it matters the most and to be able to be the guy they're going to go to and you're figuring that you really-- y-- you want it. See, I never had a time I didn't want the ball. I always wanted to get the ball to be able to do it. And I always was confident in my teammates that if I did get the ball they were going to help me.


NARRATOR: Johnny Rodgers' legacy reached true fruition in 1972 when he became Nebraska's first Heisman Trophy winner, the highest honor ever bestowed to a Cornhusker.

ANNOUNCER: Have you ever seen anything like that? That kid is just outta sight.

JOHNNY RODGERS: You don't win Heismans by yourself, you don't win national championships by yourself. It's always a conjunction with others that you make your great accomplishments. And teamwork makes your dreams work.


JOHNNY RODGERS: The sand just brings fear to me immediately, uh, just hard just to get it right, you know? So I just try to stay out the sand. But when I get in the sand, it's drama.

STEVE ELKINGTON: Most people that finish up getting into real trouble in the bunker is they swing the bunker shot like their golf swing. You know, the swing comes in, hit it, and then it goes in again. I put him in the bunker. I said OK, just set up to it like you would be in the grass. So he did. And the I said OK, now move that way half an inch. If I scooted back a half inch, do you feel like you're going to hit it fat? Yeah, I'm going to fat because I would have been here. When we swing a normal swing, our swing shape of our swing goes in an arc, this way. I had to teach him that the idea of the swing action in the bunker was opposite to what it would be in the grass.

We're going to change our swing shape the opposite of our regular swing. Because that's a sort of an action-reaction, we go out and we present the underside of the club, frying pan if you will, and go the other way. And that's what-- that's what gives that splash effect. So on the way back, instead of the club going that way, we're going to take the butt of the club and we're going to point it towards our toes up that way. And that's what-- that's what's going to get it up out of there. I want you to make a couple of normal practice swings first. This'll be your arc of your normal swing. So now we're going to try to feel like our swing arc the other way a little bit. And that's different for you, isn't it?

-Yep. Oh, definitely. I don't know how to even do that.

-We've got to make a swing action this way. Well, uh, I can't do that. My h-- my wrist won't bend that way. OK, so I put a tee in the-- in the butt of the club. I said point the tee at your toes, and then bang. Butt of the club at the shoes there, yep. Nice, not bad. I thought you said you couldn't play bunker?

-I can't? [LAUGHS]

-What was that? Could you get a zoom in on his face? I use a little simple thing to make-- to get the swing action that I wanted and the angle of attack that I wanted. And he doesn't-- he doesn't need any more than that.

-That went right at it.

-That one went in.

-That one went in? [LAUGHS]

-Let's go find something harder to do that.

-OK, coach.

-Johnny, what do you think? What do you think here? Coach Reed?


-RFDTV owner, and his brother, Mickey, and we're standing on their original family plot. It's pretty close to where the, uh, house was.


NARRATOR: On what was once the Gottsch family farm now sits the Indian Creek Golf Course, Omaha's finest 27-hole public golf course. The transformation is credited to Bill Gottsch and his brother, Brett.

-When my uncle was farming this property, he had corn and beans. Up on top the hill where the clubhouse is was where his actual feed yard operation was.

STEVE ELKINGTON: I think what's unreal about Nebraska is this little hill-- rolly hills. And the opportunity to build these courses that-- up and down these hills. For me, it's so interesting.

-We went with more of an old-style bunker, um, grass-faced bunkers instead of the flashed sand face. We shipped sand in from Arkansas, crushed quartz product that we really, really love.

-It's a great layout. The fairways are probably average length. The rough can get a little hairy times, thick, depends on the time of the year. And the greens have some movement in 'em. There's some undulation and make them a challenge.

BILL GOTTSCH:We wanted to have a golf course that wasn't just a municipal, but a nice golf course for people to play. Anybody could play. All's they have to do is call up and make a tee time.


COACH WILLIAM REED: Oh, he is killing it, man. He is killin' it, I'm telling you.

STEVE ELKINGTON: Must have been the sweet corn. Good shot.

COACH WILLIAM REED: I am telling you, man.

-132 make it.


STEVE ELKINGTON: Nice swing. Yeah. Oh, winds? Is that a wind? Wow, that wind's there, isn't it?

JOHNNY RODGERS: So how far did they say, Steve?



-Oh, god, wind got that. I'm gonna have to read that myself. 131, are you kidding me? 131.

COACH WILLIAM REED: That was sweet, by the way. [LAUGHS]

-Could you see the wear spot in the middle?

-Oh yeah.

-Right in the kisser.



NARRATOR: William Reed grew up in Louisiana during difficult times. As a means to avoid falling victim to the area's mean streets, Reed turned to sports at a young age.


COACH WILLIAM REED: I'm from Louisiana, and I'm from a time when truly blacks were not encouraged to be a part of golf. So I hit my golf club in the woods and we'd go out and I'd get them out, and we'd go to the back edge of the woods and we'd hit to make sure that no one was able to see us doing it. I loved the sport from the very first time I ever saw it. Was 12 years old, and without it, the country club where we got to caddy, and that was our only chance to get to black hold clubs and couldn't hit balls, but I could hold clubs. And was caddying for a guy who was playing the best round of his life and ended up, uh, ended up losing at the end.

He poured lighter fluid on his bag, set his bag on fire, and threw his clubs in the woods. So I went out in the woods and-- and hustled up the golf club that he had thrown, took his burnt bag, and that was my start into golf. So I took those home to the projects where I lived. And we don't have a golf course we could go and play it, so I carved out two holes in my front yard, put pork and bean cans down in the holes, put some holes at the bottom of those. And just like doing horseshoes, we came over and we hit the clubs back and forth in my front yard. And that was my start into golf.


NARRATOR: As a football coach for Omaha Central High, Coach Reed did more than teach his kids to chase a ball. Instead, he brought out of them a self-confidence to chase their dreams. And a byproduct of that lesson resulted in the 1984 state championship.

-I coached for 11 years in Omaha Central. We had 108 scholarship athletes. We had 36 division one. Seven high school All-Americans. I had 13 kids that tried out for the pros and six that made it. And that's not too bad for Omaha, Nebraska.

-When I stepped out of football after a very successful career, I wanted to still do some coaching. I loved it, and I just decided to be golf and still do coach, and I-- so I created a golf school. Wow. [LAUGHS] That was blastin'.

-I would call him more of a life coach. And I think that's kind of the experience that I go through when you have lessons together. It's much more than just teaching me to hit a golf ball. Sometimes in golf you just gotta let it go and just trust yourself. And that's something he's really taught me that I think I apply to both on the golf course, but then also in my everyday life.

STEVE ELKINGTON: Coach Reed is wonderful man. He's dedicated his life to primarily, you know, helping others.

COACH WILLIAM REED: I was getting practice on life, I thought, when I was doing golf. I mean, you go out, y-- you want to hit the ball straight down the middle. But sometimes you end up in the rough. When you end up in the rough, you have to try to get out and survive. I would say that athletics probably more than anything, probably-- probably saved my life.

-Yeah, that's right. Now just lean it, and I just-- lock it in right there at about, you know, 15 degrees or something. Yeah, see? Bingo.


COACH WILLIAM REED: Oh, don't make it. Please don't let him make it. [INAUDIBLE]

STEVE ELKINGTON: That's not a bad-- that's not a bad option to have, though.

NARRATOR: Oh, vintage vault.

-So there's no cocking of the left wrist in chipping. That's why it's called chipping. Left foot has to nail that line right there. Put the right foot wherever you want. And we have-- we have that-- we load that club into the bag and drag it, OK? And we have three hi-- three-- three possibilities of hinges. We're going to have the forefinger-- right forefinger is all the way over, corkscrew over. That's an option. Clubface is turned over. We have a no-roll option. More of a block right there. We see that a lot. And we have an under feel. Not so much applicable from this shot, because it's more of a-- 8-iron running shot, but we're going to-- under feel. Under. That ball would have more check. Went in. Oh, get there.


NARRATOR: On the football field, Rogers exceeded all expectations. But more significantly, by overcoming socioeconomic barriers and adversity during his upbringing, he proved himself to be a man without limitations.

-I was the first person in my family to ever finish high school. So we really didn't have people that were pushing me. We didn't have people the knew-- knew to push. There's no doubt that there was limits. Kids and people don't do what you say. They do what they see you doing. Well, we didn't see anybody that was doing that. We didn't have TV. You don't necessarily have to have people pushing you. If you could just see it, people that are participating on different things [INAUDIBLE], than you can dream that maybe you could be there one day doing that.

NARRATOR: And doing that they did to the shock of some, but enthusiasm to many more. America watched as Nebraska's coach broke down barriers and integrated the game.

COACH WILLIAM REED: Sports just ha-- has a way of just bringing people together. And I think Nebraska was part of the integration of the South for football.


NARRATOR: Johnny the Jet Rodgers' track record paints a portrait of much more than a football player. He's a proven mentor to his family. He's become a pillar of society, and a man who never stops looking ahead.

JOHNNY RODGERS: Everybody fails at first at everything-- your first shot out the gate, or whatever it is. You just don't have good stats. [LAUGHS] You just got to know yourself better and to keep pushing out there until you get better. I think we went a little far to the right. You don't worry about what you've done. They like to say that we all remember the good old days? I believe that my good old days are still ahead of me. I don't look back. We lookin' forward.

STEVE ELKINGTON: Oh, here we go. He's going to be the first Heisman. Johnny, you're last.

-I'm your last?

STEVE ELKINGTON: Your second last. I'm last. You're second last.


STEVE ELKINGTON: All right, give it to me.

-[LAUGHS] Ha, ha, ha, ha.


-I hope you hit it short again.

-[GROANS] Oh, that would have got there.


-That woulda gotten there.

-Any Heisman? Oh, pretty good.


-Pretty good. Show us how to do it. Hey, there, yeah.

-Looks good.

-No, it's low, it's low, it's low.

-Looks good, looks good, looks good.


-I was gonna do-- I was gonna do the--


-Ah, I can't do it.


-[INAUDIBLE] stop breakin'.


-Stop breakin', huh?


-Thank you, man. I really enjoy--


NARRATOR: On the next episode of The Rural Golfer--

STEVE ELKINGTON: Lots of people have problem putting.

-It isn't hard. This is a [INAUDIBLE].

NARRATOR: Jackie Burke shares his philosophy on putting--

-You can't say I hope my putting's good today. You have to know how to put.

NARRATOR: --and reminds Elk of the basics.

-You cannot energize a golf swing or a put. You that the weight of the putter do that. You just need to take the blade and just let the blade swing at the ball.

-You haven't-- you haven't missed one today.

-I don't miss 'em.

-I'm sorry. I forgot that bit.