We're not celebrating a nice round anniversary of anything Bo Jackson did. We're celebrating him simply because he's the greatest athlete we've ever seen.
Vincent Edward "Bo" Jackson was a childhood hero of millions, including Jon Bois and Bomani Jones. Here, they discuss what they loved, and still love, about the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
You know what's really fun? Asking Google how much Bo Jackson was able to bench press. An L.A. Times article from 1985 quotes an Auburn beat writer as saying Jackson could bench 400 pounds, despite not lifting on a regular basis. And then you start rooting through message boards, and you start seeing claims of 500 pounds, 550 pounds. I feel like I could go and post on some bodybuilding forum that Bo Jackson benched the space shuttle, and people would be like, "well, yeah, space shuttles were a big deal back then, makes sense."
This same man's 40 time at the NFL Combine was clocked at 4.12. Twenty-six years later, that still remains the Combine record for any player at any position. But that's a matter of debate too, since 40-yard dashes were timed by hand back then.
Four-hundred pounds and 4.12 seconds. Do you buy these numbers? Do they matter to you? And before we even get to discussing his precision, skill, and understanding of the sports he played: might he have been the most well-rounded, physically able human being we know about?
Here's the thing about the 4.12 or anything else -- it only matters to those who didn't see him. The only believable reading a stopwatch could have for Bo would have been "get the f*** outta here." Because, quite honestly, that's all you could say half the time when he played. But having numbers like "4.12" help people our age, because there's no way we can come up with the words to explain how mind-blowing he was. Joe Posnanski did a great job of doing so about his baseball career. Someone could pull this story from a time capsule and think it's a Bunyanesque tall tale ... except it's real as steel. I'm sure the same could be done for football. But there has to be some way, objectively, for us to share with the next generation that we may have seen the greatest physical specimen of the 20th century.
But here's why that stuff doesn't matter quite as much -- that Bo synthesized all that ability into on-field production is possibly the most impressive part of all this. Seriously, who turns down the NFL as the No. 1 pick, shows up in the minor leagues as raw as any player, and becomes an All-Star game starter just three years later? It's like all sports, put together, was The Eliminator, and Bo Jackson was the greatest American Gladiator we've ever seen.
Alright, I just caught this image of Bo Jackson announcing his retirement from baseball and football in 1989, explaining that "American Gladiators looks awesome, I'm gonna go do that." He dominates it like Wilt Chamberlain dominated basketball, but he also lends legitimacy to the event, and 20 years later, American Gladiators is far more UFC than it is "Double Dare for grown-ups." Thanks for that.
There were times when Bo was able to rely purely on his raw athleticism. There are tons of incredible moments in this video, but the one I can't stop watching comes at 0:58.
That isn't what an infield hit looks like. Infield hits are to the left side, where the shortstop is playing deep, and they're slow rollers. This was a chopper to the right side. The second baseman knows it's Bo, so he's hauling ass to charge it and chuck it to first, but then the camera pans over and we see that Bo has already beaten him by half a mile. I have never, ever seen that since.
But you're absolutely right. His raw physical abilities were one miracle, and then he multiplied that with the second miracle of world-class mastery of sporting disciplines. It's a miracle squared, I guess.
And yes, there is definitely some sort of tall-tale phenomenon going on. Especially, I think, for us, because we were kids when Bo was playing (I was 8 years old when he broke his hip). He was my hero, and I know he was yours, but what did you think of him at that age? Do you remember the first time you watched him play?
The only player I can think of, besides Bo, who beat out a ball hit to second base was vaunted speedster Otis Nixon. For context, Nixon hit 11 home runs over 17 seasons. That's right -- Bo did something only replicated, in my memory, by a guy whose only job in life was to be fast.
I don't remember the first time I saw him play. I do have a very clear recollection of the game at the Kingdome, where he ran into the tunnel and trucked Brian Bosworth (whom Bo later said was "standing in the way of progress"). It's difficult to explain how big a performance that was for those who weren't there for that era. You can only hope they remembered Randy Moss at Lambeau on Monday night in 1998, and then explain it was like that ... except accompanied by superhuman strength. In fact, that might be the thing that sticks out in my mind, that I saw that Moss game and thought, "man, this still has nothing on Bo at the Kingdome."
What did I think of him at that age? For one, I thought he had a pretty cool name. Perhaps that's obvious, but there's something to be said for going to school in the country with an African name that many people thought was fodder for humor ... then suddenly having the same name as one of the coolest guys in our 8 year-old world. I wanted to be like Bo Jackson because, in myriad arenas, I was fascinated by the idea of doing everything. And he, literally, could do everything. At least everything that mattered to me then.
And even as a child, I noticed the most surprising thing about Bo Jackson -- that, somehow, none of this stuff that's still got us in a tizzy over 20 years later impresses him in the least.
I lived in Kansas City during Bo's years as a Royal. In what I think was the first baseball game I ever attended in person, I saw him steal second base. I didn't know you could do that, and I remember reasoning that they just let him do it because he was Bo Jackson.
For a while -- until I was 6 or 7, I think -- that's all I understood of Bo Jackson: that he was a baseball player. I had no idea he even played football. And then ... I don't know if you remember those Panini sticker albums, but basically you bought these player stickers in packs like you would buy sports cards, and you would fill your album with them. I had one album for baseball and one for football, and I blew all my allowance money on these things.
I swear, I couldn't find a Bo Jackson Royals sticker to save my life. And then one day I rip open a pack of football stickers ... and there's Bo Jackson. In a football uniform. I ran up to my mom and said, "look, they messed up!" And she said, "no, he plays football too."
HOLY. SHIT. I suppose this is a testament to my inability to process this fact: I put football Bo in my baseball album, next to all the other Royals.
Now, to be honest, I haven't really kept up with Bo Jackson's doings post-retirement. I know he went back and earned his degree at Auburn to fulfill a promise to his late mother, and I know he goes out in the woods with a pistol and hunts bears. But what's your impression of how he carries himself, how he looks back on his career?
I always thought of him as a baseball player first. Baseball was the first game I fell in love with. I don't even really know when I actually started to care about football. But the Bo Jackson that comes to my mind first wears a Royals uniform. The next one is pixelated and exists on a ditty I like to call "Tecmo Bowl."
Post-career Bo is just as impressive to me as the athletic superhero. The reason? He seems perfectly fine with not being the athletic superhero. We just got an all-too-real reminder of how difficult it can be for former football players to transition into being regular people. For athletes, in general, this is very hard to do. I would imagine it would be brutal for someone who was as big a star as Bo Jackson. After being, essentially, a journeyman with an artificial hip for years in baseball, he moved into being a regular dude in Alabama.
But every time you'd see an interview with him after his career, he sounded like he couldn't be more comfortable. Imagine being so confident in yourself, as a man, that you could have so much ripped from you in a single moment, yet grow and become someone who seems just as happy without it. That is Bo's most underrated feat: he moved on.
The other thing that impresses me about Bo that gets forgotten is the work he put in to improve his speech and overcome his stuttering problem. I'm lucky enough that I can roll out of bed and rattle off on something for 45 minutes. Some people, through no fault of their own, struggle to coherently express the intelligent thoughts in their heads. I cannot imagine how difficult that must be for someone to live with, and I certainly can't imagine what it would be like to have to improve upon that while so many people listened to every word I said.
But there are probably some people who had no idea Bo had that problem until they read it here. You can still hear him gather himself at times when he talks, but he is a capable spokesman for his interests, when he chooses to share them with the public. Based on the conversations I've had with friends who stutter, hearing them talk about the frustration caused by not always being able to display their intelligence when it's appropriate, I have a colossal respect for Bo's ability to live as he does now.
That's the coolest thing about looking back at Bo Jackson. As incredible as he was, nothing has happened as either of us has gotten older to make me think any less of him. I don't know him, but the real things we know are worthy of salute.
That really is something, because he moved on more gracefully than a lot of us have, myself included. I was devastated when the Royals let him go, in part because it was the first time I had ever seen a favorite athlete walk away from my team. Eight-year-old me was angry at the Royals, and even though I understand the nature of the business now, I still occasionally find myself looking at his stats, and wondering what would have been. Statistically speaking, he was middle-of-the-road his first two seasons, but then he really began to pick it up. In his last season with his first hip, his OPS+ was 142. And he was only 27 ...
... and see, that's what I'm talking about. Sometimes I just can't let that shit go, even though the man himself -- the man who endured the excruciating injury, the surgery, the career derailment, everything -- has let it go.
But when I can, I'm better for it, because 1987-1990 Bo Jackson offers plenty of treasures. That a man averaged 5.5 yards per carry and hit 32 home runs in the same year is pretty astounding.
I've always been fascinated by people who excel in multiple disciplines that are very different. Like Hall of Fame hitter/fighter pilot Ted Williams, or inventor/Founding Father/100 other things Ben Franklin. Finding an opening through the line of scrimmage and evading an army of tacklers isn't very much at all like swinging at a 93-mph pitch. They're both sporting endeavors that require extraordinary skill, yes, but that's about where it ends. It's not like he was able to parlay the former skill set into the latter. He had to develop those independently. And he did, to a world-class degree in both respects, and that will never, ever cease to amaze me.