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Alexander Wolff
September 05, 1984
The straw that stirs the drink at Auburn, Bo Jackson is a legend in Alabama and this season's hottest Heisman candidate
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September 05, 1984

Bo On The Go

The straw that stirs the drink at Auburn, Bo Jackson is a legend in Alabama and this season's hottest Heisman candidate

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With all its echoic terseness, "Bo" suits a body-popping running back just fine. It's in a regal enough tradition, too: behind Derek, the decafox; Buchanan, the soapstud; Peep, the little one; Lamar, the erstwhile basketball superstar; Diaz, the catcher (who's really Beaudilio); Belinsky, the pitcher; Gray, Mary Cunningham's ex; and Diddley, the bluesman. And a lot of dogs. People with hounds named Bo are always mailing Jackson their dogs' papers.

Then there's Bo Schembechler, the Michigan coach, whose defense, according to Jackson, "hit like yellow jackets" in last season's Sugar Bowl. Nonetheless, Jackson gained 130 yards and MVP honors as the Tigers won 9-7. And there's Beau Brown, the former Auburn linebacker who in 1982, while the Tigers were in Orlando preparing for the Tangerine Bowl, got involved in a tiff in a topless bar. No matter how you spell it, not a Bo to emulate. "When my mom heard someone named Bo'd been sent home," says Jackson, "she nearly had a heart attack."

But the namesake with whom Jackson is most frequently compared is Walker, whose family calls him Bo. Both Bo's have a small-town Southern upbringing, and both have sprinter's speed and claim to prefer track to football. Neither sleeps more than a few hours a night. Jackson's insomnia is a vestige of the punitive reveilles of his childhood, when his mother would punish him for some mischief by rousing him before dawn to take out the garbage or mow the grass by floodlight. Jackson's and Walker's dimensions are uncannily similar (6'1", about 220 pounds), they wear the same number (34) and both had startling freshman debuts.

Still, the question remains: Who's better? Says Dye, "I don't think Bo's any stronger or faster, but I do think he has a little better ability to make you miss, and a little better balance." Jackson is conceded to be a better blocker than Walker, and the better athlete, and to be more willing to turn upfield, if for no other reason than that Jackson has fewer carries per game and doesn't have to worry about pacing himself by heading out of bounds to avoid constant punishment.

Then again, as the deep back in the Georgia I, Walker was called upon more frequently and predictably than Jackson is in Auburn's wishbone, in which he's just one of several options. Thus the discrepancy between Walker's career average yards per carry (5.3) and Jackson's (7.2). "Every time you run the wishbone you're dividing the defense into four parts," Dye says. "But with the I, you've got 11 guys chasing one ballcarrier." Adds Crowe, "We call them quality runs. We're giving Bo fewer chances, but better ones to break the big play."

Dye figures on providing Jackson with perhaps 10 more carries a game this season than last, when he averaged 15. If Jackson can somehow maintain the same yards per crack average, he ought to turn in 175 yards a game. "When I came here I was a vertical runner," he says. "Now I run tilted at the shoulders, with authority. My freshman year I was running scared. But after I got hit in the 'Bama game and fumbled I said, 'No more. I'm not gonna take no more licks.' You can't be a good back if guys dog you out every time you got the ball. And that's what happened. Guys dogged me out."

Jackson tried dismissing the Walker parallels his freshman season, as soon as they were drawn. "Nobody can be Herschel Walker but Herschel Walker," he said. "And I can't be nobody but myself. So it stands at that."

If Jackson really were a Walker clone, he'd have effortlessly captivated the state the way Walker held all Georgia in his thrall. Athletes from Auburn, the perennial stepchild, don't just "take" the state of Alabama. A Spartan would have an easier time ascending the steps of the Parthenon. That's what best distinguishes Jackson from Walker. Herschel cast his spell by galvanizing ready partisanship. For the most part, Jackson has generated sober respect.

"I grew up 'Roll Tide,' " he says. "I had my mind set on going to Alabama. Two weeks before the signing date Auburn wasn't in the picture, but it wasn't out of the picture, either. I wanted to stay in state. And an Alabama coach said, 'There's no place else to go. We want you, but I don't think you'll see any playing time till the last of your sophomore or the beginning of your junior year.' I said I wasn't gonna waste two years of my life. When I told the recruiter, he tried to change his story vice versa. I said, 'No, you're out of the picture.' "

Some schools that wanted Bo—Florida, Southern Cal, Tennessee, Hawaii—never really entered his picture. "Hawaii wanted me to visit," says Jackson. "I didn't. Dumb me. But those are party schools. At Hawaii you're chasing those grass-skirted women. If I'd gone to Florida, I'da flunked out my first term." And while the Alabama recruiter told him that going to Auburn would mean losing to 'Bama for four years, Jackson's mother was more worried about some of the things—drugs, guns—a few players had gotten into in Tuscaloosa. "Me also," he says. "If I'da gone there, they'da put so much pressure on me, I'd be smoking, too." Besides, Auburn needed backs.

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