Bo Jackson was human clickbait. He was appointment television because you couldn’t risk missing the next unbelievable exploit. He did it in a time when catching something live was of paramount importance because the next highlight show could be far off in the future or entirely inaccessible. Especially if you grew up as I did, an unwitting cord-cutter, living a pioneer existence without a television in the house.
This wasn’t always the case. I think my parents caved and got one – and even allowed a cable package – by 1991. But for the first several years of life, formative sports memories were formed three ways: through the pages of discarded Sports Illustrated issues, new issues of SI For Kids, and through the kindness of neighbors.
The grownups would invite my dad and myself over to watch the big games. The kids would invite me to play video games and bask in the miracle of ESPN. As a result, my introduction to sports was less narrative-based and more parachuting in on an event.
Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run. The Bay Area earthquake. Cecil Fielder’s 50th.Desmond Howard’s catch against Notre Dame. The things that worked the best – that made the most impact to an impressionable kid – were the things that required the least explanation and understanding. The things that needed no introduction and were plainly thrilling or spellbinding on their face.
That was Bo Jackson. His greatness was painfully obvious and his feats larger-than-life. Even a child could realize they were viewing something different. And his essence spoke loudly to the sensibilities of wonder. He did things no other man could do, both in baseball and football.
He was out of the pages of a Matt Christopher book. I remember one summer morning, over sugary cereal, a friend’s dad putting a tape in the VCR. He diligently recorded highlight shows so he could watch them later. It used to be so much harder to be entertained. You had to work for it.
He showed us video of Jackson running up a wall in Baltimore – a completely unnecessary and breathtaking display of athletic excellence. In that moment, he was a superhero literally doing superhero things. The picture may have been fuzzy and required some tracking, but the act was perfect.
Twenty-nine years ago yesterday, Jackson strode to the plate as the first batter for the American League in the 1989 All-Star Game. He was not a leadoff hitter. It was a bit of a gimmick. Jackson delivered, blasting a tape-measure home run off Rick Reuschel.
I almost missed it because our next-door neighbor couldn’t figure out how to switch off his kid’s Atari. He was frazzled and ornery but managed to make it work just in time for a moment frozen forever in my mind’s eye. Vin Scully. Ronald Reagan. World-class small talk completely extinguished by the mighty crack of a bat and silence. The faces around the room were easy-to-read, even for a kindergartner. Stunned disbelief.
He just did that. And for me: “I just saw that.”
If the real Jackson was hard to believe without witnessing it with one’s own eyes, the 8-bit version was on a whole other plane. My generation has hit a nostalgia saturation point writing on the Tecmo Bowl Jackson but, to be fair, it is this unspoken fiber binding so many together.
Our neighborhood was no different from the next. We’d huddle in damp and dingy basements – some smelling stronger of cat litter than others – wasting sunny days and rain-soaked ones alike playing game after game. Using Jackson was basically cheating, but oddly, there was no sense of shame or fury when getting circled by the unstoppable Raiders running back.
December 10, 1990 was a school night but just this one time my parents made a major exception, allowing me to spend the night down the street. Jackson was matching wits and runs with Barry Sanders in a Monday Night Football game. My two favorite athletes under one dome on national television.
They did not disappoint. Sanders won the rushing battle, 176 yards to 155, but Jackson’s Raiders won the game. I called my father on a rotary phone with a halftime update. In the time that it took to dial, I could have walked over and told him in person.
Jackson’s complexity is this: he blurred the lines. He was a baseball and football player. It seemed he could play anything better than anyone. He was tough to label because he seemed to be of a different species, if not genus. His video game likeness obscured those lines even more. That version became intertwined into his legend. And the memories blend together over time.
He was perfectly suited for the three avenues of entry I had into sports. SI writers could go long on his greatness, drawing from thousands of unbelievable anecdotes and splashing it with photographs of Jackson’s machine-like body. SI For Kids could turn him into that machine, and make him seem like a creation molded from the best parts of others. They could paint him as futuristic and fun. And television, specifically other people’s televisions, could show proof that all the words were not hyperbole.
These memories seem so long ago and yet Jackson remains such a relevant force. There has not been one like him since and we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting. He was the perfect athlete at the perfect time, delivered the perfect way to make the maximum impact.
He was a communal experience. An athletic campfire the old neighborhood gathered around to watch, wondering how it burned so bright. Eventually these neighbors would move away. There were no more Bo Jackson watch parties. He’d flame out quicker than most hoped.
I’ve been chasing that high ever since but have never found it. Nothing has compared to the magic of watching a one-of-a-kind athlete transcend reality and inspire so much wonder. The HD and 4K televisions can’t seem to match the charm of a 19-inch Zenith with rabbit years. There was perfection in that imperfection.