The tragedy of Bo Jackson, such as it is, fits entirely within the realm of sport. This superhuman physical talent — the strongest man in baseball, the most elusive man in football, the fastest man in either — rose and fell in such a short span. Bo played in just 38 NFL games between 1987, when he announced he’d play after the Royals’ season finished, and 1990, when he suffered a freak hip injury during a tackle. He didn’t die. There was no great social cause that suffered. All we were deprived of was getting to see what he did next, and if you’re into watching amazing things happen, that deprivation was plenty grave in itself.
It’s easy to forget just how brief Bo’s football career was, considering his outsized legend. He made one Pro Bowl, in 1990. During the four years he played for the Raiders, he never played more than 11 games — yet in three of those seasons, he broke off the longest run in the league. At the NFL Combine, the 6’1”, 225-pound back clocked a 4.12 40-yard dash, the fastest ever recorded there. He ran for just 2,782 yards in the pros, scoring 18 touchdowns. He also got 2,393 at-bats in the Major Leagues, many of those post-injury, striking out 800 times and bashing 141 homers. We hardly knew him.
In the opening minutes of director Mike Bonfiglio’s 30 For 30 documentary “You Don’t Know Bo: The Legend of Bo Jackson,” which ESPN will air tonight after the Heisman Trophy presentation, you’ll hear a couple of different observers compare Bo to the folk hero Paul Bunyan, a giant who physically altered the landscape of America. And you’ll see a several highlights along the way (from a pure fan’s standpoint, I dare say they could’ve included more). But where the documentary resonates is in the odd sadness that permeates it. For all the joy in coaches’ and teammates’ and journalists’ voices about having been there, having seen what Bo was in his prime of about 1983 to 1990, they all carry notes of grief and regret — grief that he was felled so early, and regret that they’ll never see the likes of him again.
Hal Baird, his college baseball coach, recalled: “I saw him, myself, jump over a Volkswagen.” His high school baseball coach, Terry Brasseale, told of the day a Yankees scout showed up to practice. Brasseale got into the batting cage with Bo, who slapped the first pitch to the corner of the cage and caved the cage in. The opening of the film has a disembodied quote among several; it sounds like it’s coming from George Brett, a Royals teammate. “Every two or three days he would do something to make you just kind of scratch your head and say, Man, I don’t know if I saw that right,” he says. And that seems about right.
The filmmakers got great Bo access. No one speaks more in the film; this is Bo in his own words, softly, without any marketing bullshit clouding the frame, pensive and willing to appear vulnerable. He opens up about stuttering as a boy, and being made fun of, which “took that shy, quiet person, and made him very angry.” You didn’t want to piss Bo off. When you were 9, it meant he was going to sling a crabapple through your screen door during neighborhood apple battles. When you were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and you want to draft Bo, and then you fly him to Florida in a flight that makes him ineligible for the rest of his college baseball season (thus hamstringing his baseball prospects) then he may just blow off your first-pick money and go to the Major Leagues instead.
Bless the Royals for having the moxie. Bo’s first at-bat was against Steve Carlton; he grounded to second base and beat the throw to first. His first home run was the longest ball hit in the history of the Royals’ park. When Al Davis cajoled him into playing football, allowing Bo to finish baseball seasons to do so, Bo announced: “Whatever comes after baseball season is a hobby for Bo Jackson. Just like fishing and hunting, I may pick up another hobby after baseball season.” Bo’s hobbies included, in that first season, averaging 6.8 yards per carry for the Raiders.
“You can’t coach it,” says Pat Dye, the old Auburn football coach. “That’s the ‘it’ thing that everybody talks about.” That’s the recurring point in “You Don’t Know Bo”: No one could really explain what the hell was happening with Bo. The men interviewed (and they’re all men, I believe) grasp at phrases like “God-given” and “natural talent” and still, everyone was left gaping.
Bo’s leg blew up 22 years ago. About a week ago, Bo turned 50. If he could’ve stayed in one piece, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t still be playing.