Story Time With Bomb Volume 4th Chamber...Bomb Knows Bo
I’ve been thinking about Bo Jackson lately.
That’s probably not a revelation to those who knew me back when “Bo Knows” was an inescapable Nike ad campaign, which for a far-too-brief-but-equally-as-magical moment in time from around 1988/89 to 1990/91 made Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson from Bessemer, Alabama the top marketing priority at Phil Knight’s skyrocketing sneaker company empire in Eugene, Oregon ahead of even Michael “Air” Jordan during perhaps his athletic peak.
Thinking about Bo Jackson is something I’ve been known to do on occasion.
Granted not with anywhere near the level of frequency as in the initial days when a shy, country-strong kid, who grew up with a pronounced stutter but was prone to Paul Bunyan-like mythical feats of strength, speed and agility, first captured the public’s imagination in the late eighties.
Still, this summer a series of snapshots combined, to a few times bring Bo Jackson back into the forefront of my mind:
-My father taking a trip out to see his ailing college friend Louise, shortly after the death of her husband Richard. While on a family trip to Kansas City in the late 80's, those two had taken me to my first and only game at Royals Stadium. This was shortly after Bo was called up to the big leagues in Kansas City from their minor league affiliate, the Memphis Chicks.
-Recently being back in my childhood home, where I ran across some old Bo memorabilia (more on that later).
-Thinking of the people both personal and public that have led to the genesis of The Wudder while also serving as some of its early subjects.
-This week being the week of the MLB All Star Game.
*full disclosure: a contest I initially failed to even realize was on, until a Sixers summer league game got pre-empted for an Adam Silver press conference. Back in 1989, the MLB All-Star Game was the biggest must-see event of the summer outside ‘Batman’ while Bo’s MVP performance generated more buzz in the streets than everything but “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy.
-Today being the anniversary of the only other legitimate dual-sport-superstar of our time's (Deion Sanders) inside-the-park-home-run, ironically after his line drive just missed the glove of a diving Bo Jackson in center field.
Each one of these, or some combination of them all, led to some reflecting on the greatest athlete that I ever had the pleasure of witnessing, bar none and excluding nobody.
For the millennial-and-under generation of readers, it’s one of those things that I feel bad you missed, during the brief tenure that Bo Jackson’s comet scorched the American sports’ earth, because it’s difficult to provide context you would truly understand.
Perhaps that ESPN 30-for-30 “You Don’t Know Bo” will help you out a bit, even if for me it felt a little bit remedial.
I might just be too close to the story, or studied it too deeply at the time, to really be able to enjoy the Cliff Notes version. The Showtime “Iverson” documentary had a similarly disappointing lack of impact, perhaps because in both cases I felt so familiar with the details.
With Bo, much like another Alabama-bred, Auburn University Tigers athletic legend, Charles Barkley, there was a brief but memorable personal connection made here.
However unlike Charles, Bo Jackson’s greatness unfortunately is nearly impossible to quantify or measure by numbers. He also didn’t end up in either of his chosen two professional sports’ Hall of Fame.
Bo didn't play in enough games to have the career counting stats, nor long enough to iron out the kinks in his second-turned-first-sport (baseball). Meanwhile, due to his MLB obligations with the Kansas City Royals, he never played a full NFL season with the Los Angeles Raiders in his first-sport-turned-second-priority (football).
Bo Jackson played essentially half a season at NFL running back, a job for which he came into with no prep time, before promptly balling out on folks.
To the tune of 6.8 yards a carry his rookie year with the Raiders. This after arriving midway through the season, with a grand total of zero NFL training camps to his name, while not having played a football game since Auburn, where he was one of the greatest running backs of his era in the SEC, over two full years earlier.
He was named a Pro Bowl NFL running back, along with being voted the MVP of the Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, in the same season in 1989.
That will never again be seen in our lifetime.
No one before or since Bo Jackson, has ever approached his overall ability, to do the variety of things that he did, as well as he did them.
On a football field playing probably the most physically taxing position in all major sports, he could tiptoe or tap dance around defenders with Fred Astaire levels of dancing grace, blow by them for breakaway runs with Carl Lewis-like track speed, or as Brian Bosworth learned one fateful night in the Kingdome, Bo could simply (as Beast Mode would so brutifully-yes, I just made up that word) "run thru a muthafucka face."
This is a man who upon arrival sent future Hall of Famer Marcus Allen, arguably the tailback of the mid-1980’s era along with Eric Dickerson, into a reserve role.
On a baseball field, in addition to being a five-tool-player with Gold Glove outfield defense, canon for an arm, 500-foot-ticker-tape-measure-home-run-power, elite base running speed/quickness…Bo Jackson would also do things outside of the parameters of a game that kept you enthralled.
He had a habit of breaking bats in a myriad of ways: sometimes over his shoulder, sometimes snapping them while holding it over his helmet, a couple times cracking them in half like twigs with his hands and at least one time actually breaking with his backswing in between his own shoulder blades after forcefully whiffing on a pitch.
In the outfield he could scale all the way up a stadium fence and come back down again in one fell swoop, like a sped-up, human version of a Wacky Wall Walker.
In the previously mentioned only game to date I’ve seen live at Royal Stadium, the original version with the waterfall in center, I watched with my own eyes Bo attempt something that I’ve never seen anyone else even try before, or since, let alone successfully accomplish.
He tagged up from third base to score on a pop fly ball out to the second baseman still on the edge inside the infield.
Wouldn’t have believed it if Louise, Richard, my little sister and I hadn’t been sitting in the stands, a section above the field level seats, just past the first base line, when it happened.
Meanwhile, even with Bo Jackson track speed, I still don’t think it would have worked if the second baseman fielding the fly hadn’t seemed so frozen with shock at Bo’s brazenness, that it took him a fraction of time longer to get the ball out of his glove, before throwing home to the catcher in just enough time for Bo to slide under the tag.
My own fascination with the man/myth that was Bo had some early precursors in 1986 with his Heisman Trophy win, then a few months later the Sports Illustrated cover in a Memphis Chicks uniform, following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers failed attempt at signing him in the first round of the ’86 NFL Draft that following spring of 1987.
But it really began in earnest on a Monday night in Fall of 1987 in Seattle, in Bo's 4th career NFL game, the Raiders’ 11th of an ’87 season marred by the owner’s lockout of its players.
His performance that night was an instant-classic before the term was invented. He busted out a 91-yard TD run, that was then the longest run from scrimmage, in the history of what was at that time television’s highest-rated program.
And then he kept going……..past the end zone, through the cameras and cheerleaders, into the Seattle Kingdome tunnel behind the field, where he had to be retrieved by teammates.
It was almost as if once he deployed the afterburners over the course of that run, like a race car traveling at absurd levels of speed, or a 747 jet coming in for a landing on a long runway, they needed a longer stretch of land to speed down to a pace suitably slow enough to begin the process of actually stopping.
Bo chose rather than simply go around The Boz, the much-ballyhooed former Oklahoma Sooner linebacker whose own hype train would soon begin careening of the track, to instead test his manhood by running him over, leaving Boz flat on his back, looking up at the inside of his team's domed roof counting the lights as Bo & Co. celebrated another TD.
By the time the dust had settled, the Raiders had won handily, Bo had broken a franchise record for yards with 221, America had met its newest national athletic superstar and Young Bambino had seen his new favorite athlete, via the hazy bunny-eared TV he sat directly in front of with the volume on low, hand on the dial to potentially shut off if any noise was heard, so it couldn’t be discovered he’s up past bedtime.
The start of school that Tuesday morning arrived much quicker than usual but there were minimal effects from the lack of sleep, mostly due to the adrenaline rush this new sensation had created via his performance.
It was shortly after the morning homeroom pledge-and-cattle-call when Mrs. Rodan, the 6th grade Language Arts/Social Studies teacher, announced that there would be an assignment. We needed to make a five-minute oral report on any person, living or dead, in the history of human civilization with the presentations to begin in two weeks.
Some chose Presidents like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Lincoln.
Others took human-rights icons like Mahatma Gandhi, Gloria Steinem and Martin Luther King Jr.
More still selected legendary composers and artists such as Ludwig Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Van Gough and William Shakespeare.
You guessed it.
Vincent Edward Jackson.
Or as we all now knew him, from his otherworldly exploits in a couple different fields already, coalescing on that watershed moment of the prior evening, simply: "BO."
I’m certain Mrs. Rodan had absolutely no idea who he was, but must have sensed my enthusiasm, or been in a more forgiving mood than usual, because without any objection she rubber-stamped her approval for my chosen subject.
The next couple of her classes found us as a collective meeting in the library, while being tasked to do some research.
I then realized that I'd already put myself at a disadvantage with my topic choice, when it came to available research at a school library. This was 1987, nearly a full decade before the internet was a thing. Which means back when research material was typically culled from a shelf of alphabetically ordered encyclopedias, or books found via the Dewey Decimal System, or maybe some newfangled thing that contains old news articles called microfiche.
Internet or no internet, there was still a treasure trove of information available on figures like Julius Cesar or Johan Bach.
Not so much on the boy from Bessemer.
No worries, I still had two weeks.
Plus, our Reading teacher had just recently provided our classroom with what then looked like a gold mind list, containing the professional P.O. Box addresses of many famous athletes and entertainers, who we could then write.
I quickly hand-wrote a list to Bo Jackson's PO Box, with a letter containing approximately 25 different questions, containing such probing inquiries as “where did you grow up?” and “how many brothers and sisters do you have?”.
Mailed the letter off, with a regular stamp and 12 days to go.
10 days later……
Think we may need to figure some of these answers out without Bo’s help.
And whaddya know....turns out he was in the encyclopedia after all.
Plus the new SI article on him had just come.
The Bo must go on.
Oral Report day came and went without a hitch.
Mrs. Rodan nodded approvingly in the back of the classroom, as I regaled my fellow students with tales of Mr. Jackson’s athletic feats.
As it turned out, my letter sent in hopes that Bo Jackson would provide my research?
That letter had actually been set to the Kansas City Royals P.O. box offices, during their off-season.
Meanwhile, Bo was busy making history in Los Angeles on Al Davis’ Raiders.
No harm, no foul.
Or so I thought.
Until one day, late in that spring of ’88.
Shortly after having turned the tender age of 12, I received the first handwritten note of apology of my life up to that point.
It was from Bo Jackson.
Its message, along with an additional autographed picture tossed into the manila envelope for good measure, were written on customized “BO” KC 16/LA 34 stationary to signify his split-desk sport duties. Then in Bo’s own handwriting, it simply read:
Sorry for the delay.
My mail has a hard time catching up with me.
I’m sorry you couldn’t make your report.
By the time his mail had caught up to Bo, he was well on his busy way to becoming one of the biggest superstars in sport.
He was on his way to a Dick Schaap-assisted autobiography, a laundry list of A-List endorsements (Nike, PepsiCo, AT&T), plus contracts to play professionally in two different sports, spanning nearly the full year, with a bit of time off in February and March.
Yet he not only bothered to read, but even more so respond, and actually apologize to a kid whose breath he'd taken away one Monday Night in late Fall, who'd already done the report anyway and got an ‘A’.
That is a gesture a kid doesn’t ever forget.
A few years later, a Cincinnati Bengals defender had somehow caught Bo along the sideline from behind, in a January ’91 playoff game. Bo had tried to run through it but instead ran his right hip right out of its socket, before popping it back in after rising from the ground to attempt to play through it. His ability to keep moving while being tackled had actually been the catalyst. If he'd went down on contact, he would have been fine.
Due to the surgery requiring an artificial hip installation, Bo would never play another down in football.
Fearing a similar fate, the Kansas City Royals cut him before spring training was set to begin.
In between that winter and the following fall, Bo’s new artificial hip finally got to see a baseball field again, while his ailing mother passed away.
Bo had promised her at her bedside that he would recover from the surgery, well enough to step back in the batter’s box and hit a home run in her honor.
Which he did.
In his first at-bat back.
See, sometimes not even comic-book superheroes are a match for actual fact.
And long before Bo had become a Saturday morning cartoon, he was that cat.
So I suppose by telling this story, Bo now knows this kid thanks him for writing back.
Meanwhile, if any of you new-school fools wanna try to tell me there's been a better overall athlete ever, I’m gonna tell you to run along with all that.
Because Bomb Knows Bo.
And You Don’t Know Diddley.