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The cyclone of a late spring storm had already caused five deaths in Montgomery, and a twister had just touched down in Talladega, where Vincent (Bo) Jackson was headed. Nonetheless, Jackson had put his fate in the hands of his 1983 Olds Cutlass and the Lord, and he was driving the two hours north from Auburn to the Helen Keller School, on the campus of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. The students had invited him to speak at their annual sports banquet.
"If I'm not constantly keepin' myself busy, I know I'll get in trouble," Jackson was saying. "Trouble's been haunting me ever since I can remember. Coming up, I'd just do things for the hell of it. So I play sports, work out, do studying, cooking or visit people like I'm doing now." Not 30 minutes out of Auburn, in Dadeville, Jackson swung the car into the lot of a Crispy Chick, ordered a box of the bird and an iced tea and took three straws. Back in the car, he unwrapped one and stuck it in his mouth.
Jackson is forever gnawing on straws. He says straws are better than "dip," or snuff, which is what most of his Auburn football teammates prefer. "I tried dip in high school," he says. "Makes you sick as a dog. I swallowed some first day of summer practice, and coaches be talking, 'Bo's outta shape.'"
So straws it is--purloined from the Auburn training table, where the dietician, Ann Graves, says, "I don't dare run out." Or taken from his personal cache, a plastic bag from McDonald's that originally held a couple of thousand striped straws but is now down to perhaps 50. It takes about a quarter of an hour for Jackson to do a straw. "Every two or three minutes I fold it over once," he says. "I go quicker if I'm nervous. Like yesterday, I walked into health class and found out we had a test. It had slipped my mind. I went through one in two minutes. Straws help me relax. A few guys tried to pick up on my habit, and people in the cafeteria gave 'em hell. 'Y'all tryin' to be like Bo, chewin' a straw.'"
One tornado had hewed tightly to Highway 21, and as Jackson negotiated the last stretch of road from Sylacauga, the landscape looked more and more ravaged: cracked-back trees, clotheslined street signs, a family of four, bewildered, stooping to pick through the wreckage of their home. "And this wasn't even a bad twister," said Jackson, removing the straw from his mouth. Its tubing had been masticated into something vaguely resembling the head of a spur.
Talladega was without power. Jackson slipped behind the podium at the Keller School and addressed the kids in his even tone, with a trace of a speech impediment--he stammers--that's gradually disappearing. Those who could hear listened above the wheezing of an emergency generator. Those who could only watch focused on a woman named Erminel Love, who interpreted his speech in sign language.
"I can think of only one thing when I look at all of you," said Jackson. "It's a TV show I watch all the time, That's Incredible." He paused and went on. "I'd like to share my past with you. Coming up, I was known as the little nappy-headed kid on the corner. In third grade I was so bad, I'd bully the sixth-graders."
And on Jackson went. To be sure, he didn't go into everything--how he'd take lunch money off schoolmates in Bessemer, Ala., and lend it back to them, with interest; how he'd pay one kid to beat up on another; how he hit a cousin, a girl, with a baseball bat when she tried to take away a Ping-Pong paddle; or how he helped stone to death a local minister's pig. But he told them of the windows he'd broken and the candy bars he'd stolen, and how removed all that is from what he is now, an All-America halfback, near world-class sprinter, baseball prodigy and, though just a junior, favored to win the 1984 Heisman Trophy.
"That's what I'm gonna say to you," said Jackson. "Don't run life too fast. You only have one. You'll either be somewhere serving time or pushing up daisies. In my life there've been three roads: a high road, a low road and, in between, a just road. Right now I'm on that just road. With God's help, I'm just about to get to the top, to the high road."
Jackson is so obsessed with trouble that he's warning off a roomful of youngsters who wouldn't know trouble if they saw or heard it, kids who couldn't begin to cross their parents if they wanted to. But trouble is Jackson's bugaboo, his Beelzebub. He's always aware of it, always sizing it up. Sometimes he'll deal it a lick. And sometimes he'll steer clear.