IMAGINE AN ATHLETE SO GIFTED THAT THE VERY abundance of his gifts worked to obscure his greatness. "We knew the body was a great talent, but we didn't know he was that great a back in high school," says Auburn coach Pat Dye. And who could tell? At McAdory High in McCalla, Ala., he'd only carry the ball 11 times a game because he was so busy playing every down on defense, returning kicks, kicking off, punting and kicking PATs and field goals. "He didn't pile up the great stats," says McAdory coach Dick Atchison, "because he never came off the field."
In high school Jackson did things like twist his ankle while winning the state title in the triple jump (48' 8") and then come back the same day to set a state record (9.54) in the 100-yard dash; like throw a discus 149 feet without spinning his body because he'd never been taught the proper form; like win the state decathlon crown his junior and senior years without running the mile, the final event, because "distance is the only thing I hate about track."
As a high school senior Jackson hit .493 with 20 home runs and was drafted by the Yankees, who offered him a $250,000 contract. He played centerfield and shortstop for the most part, but pitched on occasion too, showing a 92-mph fastball and throwing two no-hitters during his final season.
Jackson is the Southeastern Conference's first three-sport letterman in 20 years. He has the fastest time in the 40 (4.12) ever turned in by a football player, college or pro, and bench-presses 400 pounds. "Every so often in practice he does things—balance and awareness things—that we've never seen before," says Jack Crowe, Dye's offensive coordinator. "The fact that he wasn't a polished runner in high school has him learning his style as he goes. He started last year trying to knock folks down. By the second half of the season he was giving them the fast track instead of the hard road."
Says Dye, "He's just beginning to realize the impact he can have on a game." So is his coach. Jackson didn't have a great day against Texas in the Tigers' only loss of 1983, mainly because Dye had his quarterback get the ball to Jackson only seven times—"a drastic mistake," the coach admits. In fact, Jackson has a knack for playing well in big games. In a 28-21 defeat of Florida, a game in which he played while suffering from a virus, he went 55 yards on his second run from scrimmage, then 80 on another, to score twice. And, for reasons we'll soon see, he has a showman's way of beating up on 'Bama.
But a legend, even in Alabama, is made from more than regularly rolling the Tide. It comes from refusing the 1984 Sugar Bowl MVP trophy, insisting it go to a teammate, running back Lionel James. Or routinely getting yawny and falling asleep on the locker room floor before games. Or throwing a football that hit the Louisiana Superdome's ceiling replay screen, a first; before Jackson, only punters had reached it. Someone had bet Jackson he couldn't do it. "I like to make 'em look the fool," he says.
The Heisman that quarterback Pat Sullivan won in 1971 sits in a glass case in the lobby of Auburn's Memorial Coliseum. Jackson sees the trophy practically every day. "I don't pay it no mind," he says.
IT ISN'T HARD TO GET "BO" FROM "BOAR HOG," WHICH is what Jackson's eldest brother decided was the only thing as tough as Bo when Bo was only six. Jackson has four brothers and five sisters. His mother, Florence Bond, is a custodian in a Ramada Inn in Hoover, Ala. His father, A.D. Adams, lives in Birmingham. "I was tough like a wild boar," says Jackson.
With all its echoic terseness, "Bo" suits a body-popping running back just fine. It's in a regal enough tradition too: behind Peep, the little one; Lamar, the erstwhile basketball superstar; Belinsky, the pitcher; and Diddley, the bluesman.
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.