For how many years of his life did the seasons blend seamlessly, one into another, baseball into football into spring training? As far as he knew, autumn foliage was simply Mother Nature's way of signaling a new and only slightly different round of room-service menus. Turns out these damn leaves, after they turn orange and fall, get blown about your yard and gather in your garage, crowding up on your Harley, your Viper, your Mercedes. For how long has this been going on?
Bo Jackson, one surprised and concerned civilian, stands in his driveway, armed and dangerous as ever, contemptuous as ever, looking exactly as we left him, strong and menacing. His new leaf blower, bought on one of his almost daily trips to Sears and Home Depot, is at his famous hip. "I blew these out yesterday," he says of the skittering garage invaders, "which was fun. But they got back in." They will be blown out again, and blown out forever. He has just bought a leaf mulcher.
The whine of lawn and garden machinery in suburban Chicago is all that announces his retirement. The profile of America's once busiest sportsman is now so reduced that he might be mistaken for a one-man yard crew in the gated Burr Ridge community. Hard to believe that he was, for most of the last 10 years, one of the most famous athletes in our midst, appearing on football fields, baseball diamonds and hunting shows, and of course, in athletic shoe commercials. He was the first genuine two-sport, all-star pro athlete and, apologies to Deion Sanders, maybe the last. Even in his failures he was more galvanizing than some hip-hop, gold-entwined, punt-returning pipsqueak. He would strike out, break a bat over his knee—just like that—and, well, that's entertainment, folks. Then, to top it all off, this shy and stuttering Alabaman reworked his odd charisma into a commercial bonanza—Bo Knows This and That—in one of the most famous campaigns in advertising history.
Now, as the seasons blend into each other, with the World Series commingling with the heart of the NFL schedule—Bo's time, the way we remember it—here he is, leaves gone, splitting open bags of grass seed. His leaf blower has revealed a bare spot on his lawn. "This is what I do," he tells a visiting photographer, daring him to find something heroic in Bo's chores. He almost sneers. "This is my life." Change of seasons.
The retirement actually came more with a whimper than with a bang. Football was taken away from him rather abruptly in 1991 when his hip was dislocated, severing a blood vessel. But baseball just seemed to peter out. He was never the same after his football injury, though in his impossible baseball comeback after the hip was replaced, he was still capable of the spectacular. George Brett, like a lot of other players and fans, used to say the one at bat he would never miss was Bo's. But finally, at the age of 32, after average production in the strike-shortened 1994 season, Bo decided he'd had it. The announcement came in April, when nobody was paying much attention to either baseball or him. In the confusion over the resumption of the national pastime, he just disappeared into suburban life with his wife, Linda, and their three kids, Garrett, 9; Nicholas, 7; and Morgan, 5.
Does it seem like only yesterday that he was blasting one into the upper deck of Anaheim Stadium in the All-Star Game? Racing a bottle of tea down a skyscraper in a TV commercial? Bowling over Brian Bosworth in one of most satisfying collisions of all time? Bo plods along behind his seed spreader. "Guy asked me at the gym last night who was going to win the World Series," he says. "I asked, 'Who's in it?' "
Perhaps history will not be kind to Bo, and his two careers will be remembered as a sort of novelty act, a contrived marketing phenomenon. He had Hall of Fame-level seasons, to be sure. In 1989, while playing for the Kansas City Royals, he hit 32 home runs, drove in 105 runs and was named MVP of the All-Star Game. Ten days after that baseball season ended he joined the Los Angeles Raiders and in just 11 games rushed for 950 yards. The next season he was picked for the Pro Bowl. But because of his hip injury he couldn't turn those seasons into Hall of Fame careers. There were events—a mammoth home run in Fenway Park; a throw in the Kingdome in Seattle (a flat-footed peg from deep leftfield that cut down a runner at home); any of a number of rushes that combined his sprinter's speed with 230 pounds of smashing muscle (how about his 91-yard run in Seattle, right into the stadium tunnel?)—that will long be remembered. But they don't add up to anything very satisfying. His potential was revealed, but there is no residual beyond his endorsement fame. Strangely, that fame outlasts all others; even though his contract with Nike lapsed in June of '94, and even though there has not been a Bo Knows ad for nearly two years, he came in seventh in a recent survey on the recognizability and credibility of athlete endorsers. A catch-phrase may be his most lasting legacy.
But as his ignorance of this year's World Series suggests, Bo couldn't care less. He goes about his day, surprised by the ebb and flow of nature, indifferent to the supposed demands of destiny. He has a part interest in a restaurant in Alabama with his old Auburn schoolmate Charles Barkley, he is doing a speaking tour on behalf of a hospital chain and he is intent upon an acting career. And next month he plans to open a shop in Chicago where he and his partner will customize Harley-Davidsons. Bored? "No. No. No," he says, softly, in rebuke.
He gathers two bows (from his collection of perhaps two dozen) and a quiver of arrows and, having done his chores, gives an impromptu archery demonstration. As a kid he made his own bows, made arrows with bent bottle caps for arrowheads, and ventilated much of the poultry in little Raimond, Ala. Now he zeroes in on Styrofoam targets that have been erected 30 yards deep into the woods beyond his deck. "Sometimes a 13-year-old boy comes around, and we shoot at targets," he says, even though the boy's presence infuriates the oldest of Bo's children. "Doesn't he have a dad of his own?" asks Garrett.
Bo releases the arrow and it travels 300 feet per second into the heart of a gray foam pig that his visitor can't quite see. Bo peers at the visitor over his small round glasses. His look mixes resignation and arrogance: He can't help it, he's so good. "Being able to participate in sports, to be successful at them, that's just one of the accessories that came with the package," he says.