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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.