(You may have seen this on Up All Night in April but I wanted to bring it back for my exclusive Dose of Buffa Readers)
As Avengers Assemble week starts up here at Up All Night, I wanted to take a look at the one true Avenger that played sports. That man was Bo Jackson. His professional sports career was bittersweet and exists in memory as an otherworldy event when thought about these days.
I had an idea about Jackson’s story. I knew what he did and the reputation he had. The bat snapping. The long home run at the All Star Game. The miraculous feats accomplished in both football and baseball. The Nike campaign that coined the catchphrase “Bo Knows”. He was Thor on a baseball field and a muscle bound Quicksilver on a football field. I didn’t know about all the little details of his rise and fall, and that is where ESPN’s 30 for 30 comes into play. Via a Netflix suggestion(and the fact I have the first box set in my entertainment center gathering dust), I took on Christian Laettner’s Duke Hate phenomenon and then ran into Reggie Miller’s triumphant conquering of Madison Square Garden.
Afterwards, the Bo Jackson 77 minute documentary was suggested. I couldn’t resist. I love sports history mixed with filmmaking, interviews, and some of the best musical scores you’ll find on television. The only thing missing is the sultry cool voice of HBO’s narrating maestro Liev Schreiber telling the story but thankfully, the stories are strong enough to carry the weight. Jackson’s story is unique because of how unique he was as an athletic specimen.
When he broke onto the scene in his hometown of Bessemer, Alabama and dominated the located sports scene only to have Alabama and Auburn college reps come see him for a possible recruitment, nobody had seen this kind of talent before. A given human can step onto a football field and throw a ball 50 yards and continuously hit 3 point shots from across the arc but Jackson did many things well. He could walk onto a football field and bounce a football off the scoreboard high above like he flicked it up there. He could run down the 100 yard field with ease. He could hit a baseball not just out of the park but WAY out of the park. He shocked people while he slowly astounded them. It was like King Kong dropped on top of the Empire State Building and had a football helmet and a bat in his hands. People didn’t know how to react but they wanted more.
Due to the ability to play as a freshman, Auburn won Jackson’s services and that was after he turned George Steinbrenner and his 250,000 dollars down out of high school. He made a promise to his mom that he was going to college and he did. Jackson, for all the physical strengths he had, was smart, humble and loyal. He didn’t do drugs or drink, and kept a low profile off the field. He was a dream child for a football program. Listening to the college baseball coach from 1985 talk, he chuckles when he talks about Bo taking his first swings and planting balls over the fence with ease. Nobody had ever seen a man do that so easily. Bo Jackson was a freak of nature.
His college football coach put it best, “He was a game changer”.
Bo’s only trouble early on was learning who to trust. He got a call from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and they told him it was cleared with NCAA that he could come visit them in his senior year while he was playing baseball. He got a call later on saying it wasn’t cleared and he was suspended for the final half of the season. This hurt him and he took it out on Tampa by declining to play football for them when they drafted him. He instead got drafted late by the Kansas City Royals and the rest is history. The first thing he said when asked what he was going to do after getting drafted was “I’m going to go take swings in the cage”. He blasted 22 home runs in his first full season and went on to slug close to .500 every year from 1987-1990 and made the All Star Team in 1989, where he smoked the 500 foot home run and even made Ronald Reagan stop his visit in the booth and promptly proclaim to the National audience, “Oh!”.
Now most baseball players partake in fishing or hunting in the offseason, maybe a trip or two. When Jackson got done terrorizing pitchers, he joined the Los Angeles Raiders in California and tormented opposing defensive tackles and linebackers. Jackson returned kickoffs and punts, and seized the running back job, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 16 total touchdowns over parts of four seasons.
You may be asking yourself why I am using the 1987-90 block and stopping there? Well, a seemingly clean tackle from behind in a game against Cincinnati at home put an end to Jackson’s football career. As he tells it, he moved at such a quick pace and generated so much force that when the Bengals tackler grabbed him from behind, it locked his legs in place and caused his hip to dislocate. He missed the rest of the season and got a brand new hip. He was starting to truly dominate in the NFL and it all came crashing down like one his high flying home runs.
A brand new hip usually spells the end of an athlete’s career. Not Bo. He returned to baseball with the White Sox in 1991 after a deadly rehab brought him to the best shape in his life. He was no longer the phenom that he was in 1990 but he still collected a combined 32 home runs, 102 RBI and slugged around .465 from a small batch of games in 1991 to a final stretch of games in 1993 and 1994, where he finished with the California Angels. After the 1994 season, which got cut short due to the strike, Bo called it quits for good. He was done.
In my opinion, Bo wasn’t fit for this world. His talents spoke to a higher calling or planet. I am not sure where that is but it’s out there somewhere. The most entertaining things about Bo are the myths. When he was kid, he supposedly jumped a large ditch in one leap. He had a 30 foot high jump. He once fired four stones at four hogs and killed them. He caught fly balls in the outfield and climbed the wall like he was Spider Man. He once gobbled up a ball from the warning track and turned and threw a bullet to home plate to nail Harold Reynolds that caused Reynolds to watch it over and over after the game. Only Colorado Rockies players could relate to that having see Rick Ankiel do it twice in a game.
Jackson’s talents outstretched the normal limits of a human being. Deion Sanders is the closest example to possibly rival Jackson, and Sanders broke in around the same time as Bo and played for 14 years in the NFL and 9 years in MLB. However, there’s something signature and unique about Jackson. The way he rose so fast to national fame and the way he captivated a world. His story is special because it was so short and sweet. It took a freak accident and injury to stop such a freak nature.
Jackson is always going to be that comic book legend that came to life. There’s film of it. I wouldn’t be shocked for evidence to come to light that he caused the San Francisco Earthquake with one of his vicious runs or the shock of his sneakers shook the floor. He had that kind of power, to have people build bigger legends around Jackson’s story.
In the end, he was a humble kid from Alabama who was a gift from the Gods and like the brutal reality of life can teach us all, not all fairy tales last forever and no mountains can avoid a few cracks. Watching Jackson go down and lose that superhuman power was like watching Superman die in a comic book. It was sad, unreal and too hard to swallow.
It’s been nearly 25 years since Bo went down with the hip injury when he was just 28 years old. He remains the only player who participate in the MLB All Star Game and the NFL Pro Bowl. He remains a unique specimen and story to this day, as he has become a successful business man and lives well in the country and carries a number of hobbies, especially one that would impress Hawkeye. Jackson is quite the marksman and the hunter these days so there is that extra Avenger connection.
He swung a bat like Thor. He ran through Brian Bosworth like he was the Hulk. He can shoot an arrow like Hawkeye. He also jumped and climbed like a certain Captain and Webslinger. We will never know for sure, but Bo Jackson could be an Avenger hiding out. If you ever see him in your travels, go out of your way to say hello. Shake his hand. You’ll be shaking the hand of an athlete who captivated more people inside 4 years than most athletes can inside 20.
Bo Jackson is special. While we may never really know just how special, it’s fair to say we may never see another like him for quite some time.
Take the time and watch “You Don’t Know Bo” on Netflix or find it on Itunes or Amazon. It’s a very entertaining and easy going 77 minutes. 30 for 30 is incredible because it allows someone to either relive this tale or see it in full detail for the first time.
I was asked why I was live tweeting the doc on my Twitter page and my honest reaction wanted to be, “Why Not? Good stories never get old and die. They gain reverence as the years pass, gathering energy like a force of nature.”
I didn’t say that but that is the reason. Have some fun with Bo’s tale right now. Many kids grow up wanting to be a baseball player or a football player. Jackson got to do both and do them extremely well for a short period of time. The bittersweet finish doesn’t deter from the storybook tale.
“What if I told you he could do anything, and did?”