From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, September 5, 1984
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. 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 said. "I go quicker if I'm nervous."
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," says 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. 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'd hit a cousin, a girl, with a baseball bat when she tried to take away a Ping-Pong paddle; or how he'd 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, this season's favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
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. 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.
Take women. He knows he could have more than he could ever handle on the Auburn campus. But he's not sure it's worth it. "There are good women around here," he said. "And some that won't stop at nothing to get you, just for your name or your popularity. I don't fool with 'em."
Take drugs. Jackson was 15 when he found a joint in a paper bag at school. He brought it home, locked himself in the bathroom with the window open and smoked it. "After that I ate out the whole refrigerator, fell asleep and got sick," he recalls. "Now I get high off of nature, sports and being around kids."