Bo Jackson: What Could Have Been?

Bryn Swartz@eaglescentralSenior Writer IIIJanuary 17, 2009

I'm an Eagles' fan. I own 19 jerseys—all members of the Philadelphia Eagles. I would never wear a jersey of another team. But if I had to pick one jersey from another team to wear, it would be the jersey of one of the greatest running backs in National Football League history—No. 34 of the Oakland Raiders, Bo Jackson.

Vincent Edward Jackson was born in 1962 in Alabama. As a kid, he was said to be full of energy and was constantly getting in trouble. He was described as a “wild boar” and earned the nickname “Bo.”

Bo had a fairly difficult childhood. Growing up without a father was not easy for him. As he recalls, “We never had enough food. But at least I could beat on other kids and steal their lunch money and buy myself something to eat. But I couldn't steal a father. I couldn't steal a father's hug when I needed one. I couldn't steal a father's whipping when I needed one. Being the eighth out of ten kids, and being the one that stayed in trouble, I sort of became a momma's boy.”

Bo developed a stuttering problem as a child. He grew extremely self-conscious of his problem. His speech therapist helped him realize that saying his own name when speaking about himself reduced the amount of stuttering. To this day, he still talks about himself in third person—even titling his autobiography, “Bo Knows Bo.”

At McAdory High School in Alabama, Bo showed his unbelievable athletic ability in three sports—football, baseball, and track and field. In track, he won two state decathlon championships. In baseball, he slammed 20 home runs in 25 games as a senior. In football, he rushed for for 1,173 yards on 108 carries (10.9 yards per carry) with 17 touchdowns.

The New York Yankees were mesmerized by Bo's baseball talent and drafted the 19-year-old in the second round of the 1982 MLB Draft. But Bo turned down the Yankees' offer. He instead chose to accept a scholarship to play football for the Auburn Tigers.

Bo never regretted his decision to attend college and pursue an education instead of immediately entering into professional baseball. Bo says, “Your education can take you way farther than a football, baseball, track, or basketball will—that's just the bottom line. Don't sell yourself short because without college you can't go far in life because after sports the only thing you know is sports and you can't do anything else with that.”

Bo quickly became a dominant college running back. He rushed for over 4,300 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in his career. He set an SEC record by averaging 6.6 yards per carry—including 7.8 yards per carry as a sophomore.

Bo rushed for almost 1,800 yards in his senior year—including four 200-yard games. He was awarded the Heisman Trophy—defeating University of Iowa quarterback Chuck Long in the closest Heisman race in history.

Bo continued playing baseball in college, batting .401 with 17 home runs and 43 RBI in 1985.

He also excelled in track and field. He briefly considered joining the US Olympic team as a sprinter but decided not to because sprinting would not give pay him like his salary as an NFL player.

In 1986, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Bo Jackson as their first overall pick in the NFL Draft. The Buccaneers didn't want Bo to injure himself playing college baseball and took him on a private plane—costing him his college eligibility. The Bucs also forced Bo to choose between baseball and football.

Rule No. 1: Do not force Bo Jackson to do anything.

Bo chose baseball—turning down a five-year, $7.6 million offer by the Bucs to sign with the defending world champion Kansas City Royals. The Royals, who drafted Bo in the fourth round of the 1986 amateur draft, offered Bo a three-year deal worth $1.066 million.

Many questioned Bo for turning down the largest contract given to a rookie in NFL history, but Bo's decision was simple. He said, “My first love is baseball, and it has always been a dream of mine to be a major-league player.”

Bo spent just 53 games in the minor leagues in 1986 before debuting on Sep. 2, 1986. In his first at-bat in the major leagues, he hit an infield single against future Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton.

Bo's name reappeared in the 1987 NFL Draft because he did not sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the year before. The Los Angeles Raiders selected Jackson in the seventh round of the draft with the 183rd overall pick.

Owner Al Davis supported Bo's decision to play football and baseball and convinced Jackson to sign by offering him a four-year contract with a full-time starting running back's salary and the understanding that Bo would only play part-time because of the conclusion of the baseball season.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals gave Bo lots of playing time in the 1987 season. Jackson played in 116 games—clubbing 22 home runs and driving in 53 runs. He displayed his versatility and speed by also stealing 10 bases and recording nine outfield assists. However, he batted only .235 and ranked fourth in the American League with 158 strikeouts.

Following the end of the baseball season, Bo broke out his shoulder pads and joined the Los Angeles Raiders. He played in seven games that season—five of them as a starting running back.

He rushed for 554 yards and four touchdowns on just 81 carries for a ridiculous 6.8 yards per carry. He also caught 16 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns.

The signature game of Bo Jackson's career as a professional football player occurred on Monday Night Football against the Seattle Seahawks—29 days after his NFL debut. Seahawks' linebacker Brian Bosworth, who had just signed the largest contract by a rookie in NFL history in April of 1987, insulted Bo and promised to contain Jackson during the game.

Rule No. 2: Do not insult Bo Jackson.

Bo Jackson rushed for 221 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 carries. He also caught a touchdown pass while providing the football world with two of the most memorable runs of all time—a two-yard touchdown run in which he literally ran through Bosworth at the goal line and a 91-yard sprint untouched down the sideline in which he ran past the end zone and into the tunnel leading to the locker room.

His 221 yards rushing is still a Monday Night Football record.

Bo had two months following the season to rest before it was time to report for spring training. This would be his routine for the next three seasons. In between, there were highlights...many highlights.

In the 1988 baseball season, Jackson smacked 25 home runs, drove in 68 runs, and stole 27 bases. His combination of power and speed ranked him third in the American League.

He joined the Raiders after the season ended but posted the worst statistics of his career—averaging only 4.3 yards per carry and scoring just three touchdowns. The Raiders finished 7-9 and missed the postseason for the second straight year.

1989 was the greatest season of Bo's baseball career. Although he led the American League in strikeouts, he smacked 32 home runs, drove in 105 runs, and stole 26 bases.

His combination of power and speed ranked first in the American League. He finished 10th in the MVP voting and was selected to his first All-Star Game as the starting left fielder.

In the All-Star Game, Jackson smacked a 448-foot home run off starting pitcher Rick Reuschel in his first All-Star at-bat. He also beat out an infield single for the game-winning RBI, and he stole a base—joining Willie Mays as the only player in All-Star Game history to hit a home run and steal a base in the same game.

On June 5, 1989, Jackson made one of the most memorable fielding plays of his career— throwing out the speedy Harold Reynolds at the plate on a line drive off the left field wall. This play is probably the trademark play of Bo Jackson's baseball career.

With the Royals again missing the postseason, Bo joined the Raiders in October of 1989. For the first time in his career, he was listed as a running back and not a fullback.

Five-time Pro Bowl running back Marcus Allen missed the majority of the season with a knee injury—meaning Bo would be the go-to-guy at running back for the first (and only) time in his NFL career.

He played in 11 games and started nine of them—carrying the ball 173 times for 950 yards and four touchdowns. He set a career-high in carries and yards and his 5.5 yards per carry ranked third in the National Football League. He also became the first player in NFL history to rush for a 90-yard touchdown twice in a career.

The Raiders failed to make the postseason for the third straight season, just like the Royals. Little did Bo know that he would have only one more year left as a multi-sport athlete.

Bo performed his biggest baseball highlight reel play in June of 1990, when he caught a ball several feet from the fence and literally ran up the outfield wall in a successful attempt to avoid injury upon impact of the fence. This play has been shown on numerous baseball highlight reels over the past two decades.

In 1990, Bo helped the Raiders win 12 games—enough to win the AFC West title. Bo was selected to the Pro Bowl after rushing for 698 yards and five touchdowns on 125 carries (5.6 yards per carry).

Jackson ran for an 88-yard touchdown during the regular season, the third time in his four years that he posted the longest rush in the NFL during the regular season.

The Raiders won their first playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in which Bo Jackson suffered the most serious injury of his professional career. After being tackled by linebacker Kevin Walker, Jackson lay on the ground in extreme pain. Bo reportedly popped his hip back into his socket while waiting for the trainer to come out onto the field.

Jackson's football career ended on January 13, 1991. The Raiders would go on to lose the AFC championship game to the Buffalo Bills, 51-3.

Jackson's hip did not respond well to treatment, and the Kansas City Royals were forced to release the 29-year-old left fielder.

He attempted to play baseball in 1991 as a member of the Chicago White Sox but could only play in 23 games—batting .225 with just three home runs and zero stolen bases.

Jackson's hip injury required surgery and rehabilitation. Doctors discovered that Bo had avascular necrosis resulting from decreased blood supply to his left femur. This literally caused Bo's hip to deteriorate. Eventually, Bo's hip was replaced.

He missed the entire 1992 baseball season. Many sports' experts told Bo that he would never again be able to play baseball at the professional level. Even Bo knew that his football career had ended. Everyone figured that the days of Jackson the athlete had ended.

Rule No. 3: Don't ever tell Bo Jackson what he can't do...ever.

Jackson briefly tried his hand as a semi-professional basketball player for a team out in Los Angeles despite never having played basketball in his life. Ironically, Bo also admitted that he didn't like basketball.

Bo hated rehabbing. He hated working out in the gym—something he admitted that he never done before in his entire life. “I was always active—I went from baseball to football to baseball. I didn't have time to work out. Before I injured my hip, I thought going to the gym was for wimps,” he said.

It took over a year, but Bo eventually worked himself and his prosthetic hip back into shape. He had promised his mother that upon his return to professional baseball, he would hit a home run for her. During the time that Bo was rehabbing, his mother died.

In 1993, Bo Jackson returned to the Chicago White Sox. In his first at-bat, on his first swing, he hit a pinch-hit home run to right field. It is considered by many to be the greatest moment of Bo Jackson's career as an athlete—college or pro, baseball or football. Bo had the baseball engraved in his mother's tombstone.

Bo played in 85 games that season—splitting time as a designated hitter and an outfielder. He smacked 16 home runs and drove in 45 runs but batted only .232. His blazing speed was gone, and he was forced to rely on his power to win games.

The White Sox finished first in the American League Western Division—meaning Bo Jackson was about to receive his first taste of postseason action. Unfortunately, it was a disaster. Bo batted ten times without a hit, and the Sox lost the American League Championship Series to the eventual world champion Toronto Blue Jays.

After the season, Jackson was named the American League Comeback Player of the Year. He was also awarded the Tony Conigliaro Award—given to “a player who best overcomes an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage.” For Bo, it was overcoming hip replacement surgery.

However, the White Sox released Jackson after the season and many thought his future in baseball was done.

Bo managed to sign with the California Angels—batting a career-high .279 in 1994. He hit 13 home runs and drove in 43 runs. After the season, Bo Jackson retired from the game of baseball—ending his eight-year career with 141 home runs, 415 runs batted in, and a .250 career batting average.

Jackson had one more goal to accomplish—he had to fulfill a promise he made to his mother when he was in college, to complete his degree. In December of 1995, Bo Jackson graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelor of Science degree in family and child development.

Family has always been the most important thing in the world to Bo Jackson. Many athletes say that, but the difference is that Bo means it. When asked about his greatest achievement in life, he responded not with the tale of a game—a winning home run or a long touchdown run. Instead, he answered, “I would say my greatest achievement in life right now—and I'm still trying to achieve it—is to be a wonderful father to my kids.”

Bo Jackson has one of the most unusual trophy cases of all time—MVP in the 1983 Sugar Bowl, MVP in the 1984 Liberty Bowl, Walter Camp Award in 1985, Heisman Trophy in 1985, All-Star Game MVP in 1989, Pro Bowl selection in 1990, Tony Conigliaro Award in 1993, AL Comeback Player of the Year in 1993, and Election to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

If there's one thing I could change about Bo Jackson's professional sports career, it would be for him to completely ignore professional baseball. He was a good baseball player who was overhyped because of his tendency to produce highlight reel moments.

I wish Bo Jackson would have focused on football and only on football. Football was his true calling.

Bo had more talent than maybe any player that ever lived. He might be the greatest combination of power and speed in NFL history.

He almost rushed for 1,000 yards on 172 carries. He averaged an insane 6.8 yards per carry as a rookie running back. There's no telling what he would have done if he had been a full-time starting running back.

I believe Bo Jackson would have been a Hall of Fame running back. I think that Bo might have been the greatest running back in NFL history. He would have recorded some of the most insane rushing totals of all time.

It wouldn't surprise me if Bo would have rushed for 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in a season. I think he would hold virtually every rushing record imaginable—yards in a season, touchdowns in a season, career rushing yards, career rushing touchdowns, and most rushing yards in a game. The list goes on and on.

The average career of a running back in the National Football League is four years.  Jackson played from 1987-1990. Exactly four years.

He might have been the single most athletic human being to ever walk the planet. There was nothing he couldn't do on a football field. Many consider him to be the greatest athlete who ever lived.

Yet, I remember him not for his accomplishments as a football player or a baseball player. Instead, I remember him in probably the most unfortunate way to remember someone—what could have been?


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