"I wasn't scared," Bo says. "I wasn't scared because I knew I could outrun my white buddy. You've got to think about these things, man."
The way Bo tells it, he waited as long as he could, then he fired a slug into that bear's skull. The bear kept coming. His buddy yelled, "Shoot him again!" and Bo shot him again, firing another bullet directly into the bear's noggin. Bo 2, Bear 0. And then Bo skinned that bear on the spot and dragged the 70-pound hide the half-mile back to camp. Of course he did.
"Bring yo' little ass on," Bo is saying. He is no longer speaking of the bear, nor to the reporter cowering in the passenger's seat, nor to the photographer in the backseat who is endeavoring not to vomit, but to a small vehicle of foreign descent that has mustered the nerve to pass him on the right on a four-lane road in suburban Chicago. Bo lives not far from here, in a pristine house in a gated community, with a long driveway where he sometimes unpacks his bow and arrows, sits in a metal folding chair and fires at a deer-shaped target set under a tree in his yard.
At the moment, Bo is on his way to a store called DGY Motorsports, where he is going to pay the balance on a four-wheeled recreational vehicle he plans to use exclusively to plow the snow from his driveway. Ever since a snowplow broke the lights that surround his driveway, Bo prefers to plow his own snow. It is one of those little things that, as he approaches his 45th birthday Friday, give him a disproportionate amount of pleasure. The others include (not necessarily in order) golfing, cooking, hunting, motorcycle riding, and doting on his wife and three children: two sons who are already in college, and a daughter who will graduate from high school in the spring.
It is a modest life, but in many ways Bo Jackson is a modest man, one who was never particularly impressed by his own achievements. He is still intimidating, thick all over, his head shaved, his stare so pointed at times that it seems as if it could melt glass. But he is also shockingly normal, considering that two decades ago, he was the most famous athlete in America.
Yet there are times when Bo Jackson does not come across as the least bit modest. Some who are familiar with him say Bo himself has been known to embellish his past. In fact, his entire public persona was built upon a perception of omnipotence, upon a polyglottal athletic knowledge that became the basis for the most overused sports marketing catchphrase in history: Bo Knows. That even Bo Jackson has often referred to himself as "Bo Jackson," in the third person, as if his body were inhabited by some otherworldly force that took over when he donned a uniform, has led many to assume that both Bo Jackson and "Bo Jackson" were raving egomaniacs.
"That's what the marketing world [wanted] you to believe," Bo says. He speaks slowly and deliberately, a cadence he adopted to neutralize perhaps the most well-documented childhood stutter in athletic history, a stutter that actually becomes more prominent in one-on-one situations than when he is speaking to groups.
Bo is perceptive enough to see through his own mythology; the true reason he referred to himself in the third person, according to those who knew him as a young man, is that his stutter made it difficult for him to say "I." And yet it also became a convenient device. That "Bo Jackson" was manufactured for public consumption, and a young man in his mid-20s who grew up in rural Alabama needed some way to separate himself from his own celebrity. (Soon, other athletes would emulate his example.) That "Bo Jackson" vanishes when he is at home, whether he's with his wife (the only human in the world who refers to him as "Vince") or his children (who refer to him as "Dad") or his childhood friends back in Bessemer, Ala. (who, Bo jokes, often refer to him as "a--hole"). Back home, many used to mock him for his stutter until Bo -- who grew up with an iron-fisted mother and an absentee father -- discovered all he needed to erase that dark place he came from was to find some way to run hard and fast.
These days, the real-life Bo Jackson, the Bo Jackson who cooks spaghetti and washes his own dishes and watches reality TV, doesn't even see a need to run around the block anymore. Why bother when a man can play golf instead? Why bother when there is nothing left to prove to anyone?
"But I also know, if I was healthy, with good hips right now, I'd be the fastest 45-year-old in the country, or in the world," Bo says. "That much I know. That much ... I know."
And those are just the ones we actually have on videotape.
"We had an outdoor party at a lake after we won the county championship," says Terry Brasseale, Bo's baseball coach at McAdory High School. "Bo's just out there in water up to his waist. All of a sudden, he jumps up, does a backflip out of the water, and lands on his feet. I said to my girlfriend, 'Did you see that?' "
For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, watching Bo take on both professional baseball and professional football at the same time, the myth and the man long ago became tangled. Bo hits a 600-foot home run! Bo tramples Ronnie Lott! Bo snaps a Louisville Slugger over his knee! Bo snaps a Louisville Slugger over his head! Bo hits a batting-practice home run left-handed! Bo parts a major body of water! Bo cures lymphoma!
There have always been stories like this, passed on in a telephone game from one generation to the next -- about Babe Ruth, about Josh Gibson, about Red Grange, about Marion Motley and Jim Brown and Mickey Mantle -- and they seemed apocryphal, almost silly, in their exaggeration. The difference, of course, was that we actually saw Bo part the Red Sea on our televisions. We saw it with our own eyes; even those moments that weren't televised were documented and sometimes photographed. In 1986, in a minor-league ballpark in Charlotte, N.C., a young journalist named Joe Posnanski watched Jackson hit his first professional home run, and then realized Jackson had broken his bat. "Bo's destiny," Posnanski would write in The Kansas City Star, more than 20 years later, "was to become a comic-book hero."
And so it was: Within the span of a decade, his superpowers bloomed and wilted. He won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn, chose to play baseball instead of football, then decided he would play both football and baseball, even as every sports columnist in the country and most opposing players (and some of his own teammates) declared him an egomaniac with a death wish. He was just beginning to blossom as a baseball player, and the scouts called him the greatest raw prospect since Mantle and Mays, an almost unfathomable combination of speed and power and arm strength; although he struck out in prolific numbers, he also hit some colossal home runs and made some extraordinary plays in the outfield.
His myth fully crystallized on a Monday night, on the last day of November 1987, when Bo was a rookie running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, a two-sport athlete sharing time in the backfield with a Hall of Famer named Marcus Allen. Bo took a handoff and Bo parted the entire Seattle defense and then Bo -- How does one even describe this method of propulsion? Glided? Propelled? Teleported? -- 91 yards down the sideline, and then Bo kept on running until he disappeared into a tunnel in the bowels of Seattle's Kingdome. The sound of Bo running past him, former Seahawks receiver Steve Largent said, was like nothing he had ever heard before.
For a moment, Bo was gone, out of the picture entirely, prompting ABC analyst Dan Dierdorf to proclaim to a TV audience that Bo "might not stop until Tacoma." When Bo emerged from that tunnel, and when he lowered his shoulder and toppled a cocky young linebacker named Brian Bosworth on a short touchdown run later that evening, and finished the night with 221 yards, nothing was ever the same. Bo was on his way to becoming an icon, both physically and commercially, a man who could do anything he wanted on any field of play, a man who made a fortune for embodying that Nike catchphrase concocted by a copywriter in Portland, Ore.: Bo Knows.
With those two words, Bo Jackson helped usher sports into the modern age.
Jordan was already on his way to becoming an icon in 1987 when Bo Jackson plowed over Brian Bosworth on that Monday night in Seattle. At the same time, Nike was looking to market its new shoe, called a cross-trainer. The company's first choice, Riswold says, was Howie Long. Riswold suggested there was a far better candidate on the same Raiders roster.
"I'm always surprised by how big something as inconsequential as an advertisement can become," Riswold says. "People like their sports heroes, and Bo was something new. A new shiny toy. That was the best example of how big these things can become."
The year before, in 1986, Bo had been picked first in the NFL draft by Tampa Bay. For reasons that are still not entirely clear -- a perception of racism within the Buccaneers organization, a sense of loyalty to Kansas City scout Ken Gonzales, Bo's utter abhorrence for the conventions of football practice, Bo's determination to accomplish what others said he couldn't -- he chose to sign with the Royals instead. Already, he was a maverick, and once he came back to football in 1987, on his own terms, Riswold and his colleagues began toying with Bo's image. Bo willingly played along. This was the '80s, after all, a decade suffused with vanity and objectivism, and this was a nation presided over by Ronald Reagan, a man of relentless optimism, damn the long-term consequences. The country was "in a mood for the resurrection of old myths," historian Haynes Johnson once wrote. So why not, in keeping with the times, shape Bo as a modern-day Paul Bunyan?
Beau Brummell. Bo Derek. Bo Schembechler. Bo Diddley. What an unusual name Bo has, Riswold thought, and he began brainstorming ideas with Nike executives until that pronoun-verb combination came to him in his sleep that night.
"His career was pretty short, and it was injury-plagued, but by the time all those things changed, he was a marketing star," sports marketing executive Nova Lanktree says. "People were just very fond of him. He overcame his stuttering problem. Everything about his profile was suited to [his becoming a cultural phenomenon]."
That first iconic television ad, culminating with Bo playing a horrific guitar riff and Diddley delivering the line, "Bo, you don't know Diddley," aired during the All-Star Game in 1989, the game that Jackson led off with a home run (he was later named MVP). Riswold was watching in a bar in Portland, with several Nike colleagues. When the spot came on, the entire bar fell silent.
"I think God is a Nike fan," Riswold muttered.
It was absurd what happened next, the way the catchphrase caught fire, the way Bo's profile grew and mutated, until, for a short period, he was the most culturally recognizable athlete in the world, above even Jordan himself. The ads grew more self-referential as Bo got bigger and bigger. The '80s ended, and the '90s commenced, and Bo injured his hip, but Nike was invested in Bo by then, and America was invested in Bo as the manifestation of its outsized dreams. Riswold began writing subversive ads that pierced the myth of Bo, and the myth of Nike (these days, Riswold says, Nike would never permit such self-effacement), not to mention the commercialism and the hype and the excess of the nation itself. In one of the last great ads, from the summer of 1991, Bo cuts off a song-and-dance routine, declaring, "I'm an athlete, not an actor." Then, in the midst of a workout, as the music cues once more, Bo breaks through the fourth wall, crying out to the Nike logo, "You know I don't have time for this," before George Foreman, huckster and infomercial pitchman, takes his place.
By then, of course, it was too late. The monster Riswold had helped to create -- sports as cult of personality -- was slouching out of its cage, to be reborn over and over again.
"All the athletes today grew up with these commercials, and they want them," Riswold says. "But the world is more cynical, and with good reason. It has been done before. And the Michaels and Bos of the world don't come around that often."
Bo has never quite accepted the phenomenon of celebrity. His private time is his private time, and he does not always take kindly to those who intrude. Approach him at a restaurant while he is eating dinner with his family, and Bo might rebuff you with prejudice. He has worked hard to achieve normalcy. He has lived in the same house for 16 years, ever since he signed with the White Sox after a hip injury derailed his football career in a 1991 playoff game against Cincinnati, and the neighbors have gotten accustomed to him, even if most of them, northerners through and through, don't comprehend his hunting fetish. The people in the community know his family; unlike Michael Jordan, Bo's old colleague at Nike, whose star ascended long after Bo's commercial potential was tapped, he is not compelled to live a life apart from the remainder of society. This extended even to his family. Bo's daughter, Morgan, was a high school track phenomenon until she decided to quit to focus on academics (and cheerleading) her senior year. Neither of his sons played college sports. His wife, Linda, is a counseling psychologist at a local hospital, the name of which she does not want revealed here, in part, Bo says, because some of her colleagues do not know she is Bo Jackson's spouse.
There are many people, strangers and idolaters, who have no idea Bo Jackson lives in this part of the country. Part of him would prefer to keep it that way. He does not hide -- if you want to find Bo, you can find Bo, and he makes occasional public appearances, such as last weekend at the Iron Bowl game between Alabama and Auburn -- but he does not keep himself on display, either. He says he has cut off associates who have given out his cell-phone number without permission. He was perfectly willing to allow a photographer into his house, but refused to allow the photographer to shoot any photos of his family, or even to shoot photos of the photos of his family. His wife, Bo says, has not granted an interview for as long as he can remember. He was invited at one point to be on "Dancing With the Stars," he says, but he declined.
Bo is part owner of a food company called N'Genuity, which provides food -- mostly meat, all products Bo has approved personally, some of which bear his name, such as the Bo Burger -- to the military and to casinos, and has provided him with a strong post-retirement income. Recently, he partnered with another former baseball player, John Cangelosi, to break ground for a sports dome that will provide a place for young ballplayers to practice during Chicago's frigid winters, and he has a financial interest in a local bank, as well.
"People around here, they know me," Bo says. "People that live here see me all the time. I'm quiet. I lay low. I think a lot of people get caught up in this celebrity world to where they have to be treated in a certain way, spoken to in a certain way, and they have to carry themselves in a certain way. And if they don't get their way, their world turns upside down. With me, I'll stop and help somebody change a car tire."
And then Bo makes one of several statements that might be a joke. Or, perhaps, a warning.
"If you're my enemy," he says, "and you're by the side of the road with a flat tire, and it's 20 below zero, I'm going to stop and throw a gallon of water on you and keep going."
Bo -- his nickname is a truncation of the term, "Bo'Hog," for a wild boar -- gained a reputation for throwing rocks with uncanny accuracy, mostly at other human beings. He pummeled his classmates on a regular basis. When he was a teenager, in the summer of 1976, he and his friends began throwing rocks at pigs on their way to a local swimming hole, killing several of them. They got caught in the act by a farmer who had hired the local barber to keep watch, and Florence Bond told the barber who caught them that she was ready to send her son to reform school.
The barber asked Bo for the names of his co-conspirators. The way Bo tells it in his autobiography, "Bo Knows Bo," he suddenly saw where his life was headed, and he spilled his guts. In truth, the transformation was probably more gradual, but it seems to have begun here. He worked all summer mowing lawns to pay back the money, and then, scared straight, he began playing organized sports, endeavoring to find his niche. In baseball, he volunteered to be a catcher. He wrestled at heavyweight ("slippery as a wet catfish," one of his coaches called him), and he ran track. Later, though his mom didn't want him playing football, Bo joined the football team. When she found out he'd done it anyway, she locked him out of the house, and left him out there all night long; Bo curled up in a parked car and went to sleep.
Somewhere, possibly lost by Bo's co-author on "Bo Knows Bo," Dick Schaap, there is a videotape of Bo's greatest hits, a videotape that includes a sequence of Bo playing lead blocker for McAdory's other halfback: He knocks down a defensive lineman, knocks down a linebacker, waves for his teammate to follow him, knocks down a cornerback, and escorts his teammate into the end zone.
All that was a long time ago, and most of the people of Bessemer remember Bo fondly, as people often do when one of their own crosses the threshold of celebrity. Some of them have been known to embellish stories about Bo, stories that don't even need embellishing. Given time, of course, even with the video evidence, it seems likely it will become increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction, and those who remember a healthy Bo will remember the equivalent of his Nintendo Tecmo Super Bowl replicant, the most potent video-game running back in history, utterly unstoppable to the point of being ridiculous.
Sometimes Brasseale tells the story of when Bo hit two towering homers in his first two at-bats in the county championship game, and then in his third at-bat, with the left fielder backed up to the fence, he hit a high fly ball to shallow left. If he hustles, Brasseale thought, he could get a double out of this. Soon enough, the ball dropped, and Bo was rounding third.
He scored standing up.
"I tell that to other coaches," Brasseale says, "and they say there ain't no way."
"Most of the guys I hung out with are still there," Bo says. "I call them institutionalized country. That's all they know. I'm not saying I'm better than I am, but it's not for me."
It is not easy to let go of everything. Bo's entire athletic career was based upon channeling that seething childhood anger into a purpose; his high school teammates, he wrote in "Bo Knows Bo," didn't make it in college athletics because "they had better lives at home than I did. It was as simple as that." He played games because that was his gift, because he liked to run -- he once called himself "half-human, half-deer" -- but he also hated to work at it. Imagine if Bo had actually worked at it. Imagine if he had actually cared about something like making the Hall of Fame, in either sport. "Worst practice player I've seen in my life," Brasseale says. "He just got bored real easily."
Mostly, Bo strived to fashion an existence for himself, and for his own family, out of his gift. He used sports, he says, to become a businessman, which might be a little bit of Bo rationalizing the sudden end to his career. But there is truth to it, as well. Bo's primary goal as an adult was to exist in direct opposition to his own father. It is nothing Bo hasn't thought out before; his wife is a psychologist, after all.
That anger remains, buried beneath the surface. Mostly, he takes it out on the deer he kills and butchers, on the golf balls he hacks at day after day. Brasseale says Bo told him he would like to make a run at the senior tour when he turns 50. "You doubt me?" Bo said, when Brasseale laughed.
You want to see that anger bubble and boil? Go up to Bo and put your arm around him. He hates that -- strangers touching him, strangers who want to arm-wrestle, strangers who think they know him because they saw an advertisement 20 years ago. At one point, to demonstrate, he took my wrist in his hand and twisted, ever so gently.
It was enough.
"You've really got to get under my skin to get me to snap," he says. "But if I snap, God help you."
But Bo has a fanciful sense of humor, and so he tells me he's building a time machine down here, because he would like to go back and win the lottery jackpot, ignoring the fact he has great gobs of cash on hand, and ignoring the obvious conclusion that would leap into most people's minds -- the fact that if he built a time machine, he could go back to Jan. 13, 1991, to that divisional playoff game against the Bengals, when Bo took a pitch and ran right and then, instead of cutting out of bounds, cut back one last time before he was taken down from behind by a linebacker named Kevin Walker, fighting like hell all the way. In the midst of the push and pull, Bo's hip was yanked out of its socket. Bo's doctors told him if it were anyone else, his leg would have snapped like a dry twig -- the irony being that a broken leg would have healed within months. Even after surgery, the hip would never be the same (though it is perfectly functional today, since Bo no longer runs).
"... the gods of sports decided to punish Bo because he came too close to them, had reached the brink of being a god himself," Schaap speculated in a postscript to "Bo Knows Bo."
Bo has always said, and maintains today, he didn't realize the severity of his injury at the time. Perhaps he just assumed, with the body he'd been given, that no mortal could rend it. But there is something horrible and wrenching in Bo's expression in the aftermath of that game, captured in a series of photos of Bo sitting on the bench afterward with his two young sons -- photos he keeps, unframed, on the floor behind a filing cabinet in his office, near an autographed picture of Chuck Yeager, the uber-test pilot who is Bo's only hero. Bo's expression in the pictures reflects an emotion he is either unwilling or unable to recognize.
"Sports has never been the main focus in my life," Bo insists, staring at those photos. "Dreams of the Hall of Fame never entered my mind when I was playing. The thoughts I had in my mind were of being a businessman. When I did those Nike commercials, I was broadening my horizon, so when the day came, I could get my foot in a lot of doors that you probably couldn't."
Maybe Bo could have avoided this hit, and maybe he could have avoided all of these What if? questions, if he'd listened to the skeptics and made up his mind and chosen one path or the other. As the myth grew, as Nike depended upon Bo to be ambidextrous, that choice came with more weight; still, Jackson says he had all but decided that 1991 would be his last season playing football. By then, he was an athlete and an actor -- he would later play a prison guard in "The Chamber," a surprisingly strong performance in an otherwise mediocre John Grisham adaptation (he caught some of it on cable this morning, in fact).
Safe within his kitchen, Bo has just prepared lunch for his guests, and now he is washing the dishes. He does them by hand. He didn't have a dishwasher when he was a kid; he doesn't see the need for it now. He lives on his own terms: He has been obsessed with flying since watching the planes take off and land from the community airport near his home in Bessemer. The bird feeder in his backyard is almost always filled to the top, so the birds will never think Bo has abandoned them.
"I know how to feed guys like you with a long-handled spoon," Bo says, before driving me back to my hotel. "I never let you get too close. I tell you what I want you to know, and I tell you what you want to hear."
In the obscenely muscled pickup, with the hunting equipment and a nauseated photographer squeezed into the backseat, Bo flips a wave at the guard, passes through the gates and then pokes his nose out into the world. He has been telling stories about his past for several hours now, and although he doesn't seem to mind -- he appears to relish the way he has been able to condense his experiences into parables -- he ran away from that Bo Jackson long ago, ran unwittingly out of a sour childhood and into a peculiar life as a demigod, as a myth, as the last comic-book hero we will ever see. And then he didn't stop running until he found himself a place behind those gates.
When his wife calls, Bo tells her he'll be home soon enough. He's not staying out here any longer than he has to.
Michael Weinreb's book "Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team" will be released in paperback next month by Gotham Books. He is currently working on a book about sports in the 1980s. He can be reached at http://www.michaelweinreb.com.
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