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Bo Knows the Heisman

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Posted: Saturday November 04, 2000 4:06 PM

  Bo Jackson Bo Jackson finished the 1985 season with a school-record 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns en route to the Heisman Trophy. Damian StrohmeyerAllsport

From the 1985 Heisman Trophy at Auburn to an all-star career in two professional sports, Bo Jackson’s versatility was stunning.

The 6'1", 222-pound tailback/outfielder "was so superior to anybody I’ve seen before or since," says Pat Dye, Jackson’s college football coach. "He’d do things that would defy human logic."

Though Jackson’s stardom lasted less than a decade, everyone knew who he was— because everyone wanted to see what he would do next.

Vincent Jackson got his nickname when his brothers shortened the word "boar" —- as in "wild boar." This aptly described the unruly eighth of 10 children growing up in their Bessemer, Ala., household. He exuded physical toughness in part to combat classmates who teased him because he stuttered. "I was the John Gotti of my neighborhood," he says.

But he wasn’t as tough as his mother, who threatened him with reform school after he and friends stoned several pigs to death at a nearby farm. By junior high school, however, Jackson had decided to channel his energy into athletics. At McAdory High, he lettered in three sports and won two state decathlon titles.

An Alabama football assistant coach unwittingly steered Jackson to Auburn by telling him, "If you go there, you’ll never beat Alabama." This, plus the promise of immediate playing time, sold him on the Tigers. As a freshman in 1982, he scored the winning touchdown against the Crimson Tide to snap a decade- long losing streak.

That win began Auburn’s renaissance, as the Tigers went 11-1 behind Jackson’s 1,213 yards rushing in 1983. A separated shoulder sidelined him for six games the next fall, but Jackson recovered ahead of schedule to help Auburn finish 9- 4. In the spring, he played centerfield for the baseball team, batting .401 with 17 homers and 55 runs.

He bolted from the gate his senior year as the clear Heisman favorite and collected 495 yards and six touchdowns in two games. Auburn hit No. 1 in the polls, but losses to Tennessee in September and Florida in November knocked the Tigers from SEC contention. In both games, Jackson left early with leg injuries, but he steeled himself for the season’s stretch run. He played his final regular-season game with two cracked ribs—an injury he tried to hide from Dye— and still bulled his way to 142 yards and two scores against Alabama. "Bo ran as tough as any back you’ll ever see," recalls Dye, who found out about the ribs two days before the game and outfitted his star in a flak jacket.

Jackson finished the fall with a school-record 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns, and a career average of 6.6 yards per carry. That dominance won over Heisman voters—barely. He edged Iowa quarterback Chuck Long by 45 points, the smallest margin ever. "It’s like being in an elite fraternity," he says of the trophy, which he keeps in his suburban Chicago home. "I was chosen out of thousands of athletes to get in that club. It’s an honor."

The award appeared to be his gridiron swan song when he signed with baseball’s Kansas City Royals the following June. But after his rookie big-league season in 1987, he made football his off-season "hobby" with the Los Angeles Raiders. In his fifth game, he sprinted into NFL lore with a 221-yard, three-touchdown Monday Night Football game against Seattle, including a breathtaking 91-yard TD run.

From there he became an icon: the 1989 baseball All-Star Game MVP (he homered and stole a base), a football Pro Bowler the next year, a pitchman whose "Bo Knows" Nike commercials were pop-culture classics. But a January 1991 hip injury in an NFL playoff game ended his days with the Raiders and Royals. After undergoing hip replacement surgery, he played a few more baseball seasons with the White Sox and Angels, but his extraordinary speed and power were gone. He retired in 1995.

Now Jackson, 37, enjoys a peaceful life with wife Linda and their three children. He has a stake in two businesses: Gamer Enterprises, a nutritional foods distributor, and Jackson Pro Management, a financial services company.

For a man accustomed to fame, his absence from the public eye might seem surprising. But he learned early in life never to take the predictable path. These days Bo knows contentment.

-- Alec Morrison

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