25 Years ago today: Bo over the top!

November 27th, 2007

It was 25 years ago today that Vincent ‘Bo’ Jackson took a handoff from quarterback Randy Campbell and dove over the Alabama defensive line to score the game-winning touchdown and end nine years of misery.

By coincidence, ESPN.com is now running a nice long article by Michael Weinreb about Bo — what he’s doing now, and the genesis of his legend.

For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, watching Bo take on both professional baseball and professional football at the same time, the myth and the man long ago became tangled. Bo hits a 600-foot home run! Bo tramples Ronnie Lott! Bo snaps a Louisville Slugger over his knee! Bo snaps a Louisville Slugger over his head! Bo hits a batting-practice home run left-handed! Bo parts a major body of water! Bo cures lymphoma!

There have always been stories like this, passed on in a telephone game from one generation to the next — about Babe Ruth, about Josh Gibson, about Red Grange, about Marion Motley and Jim Brown and Mickey Mantle — and they seemed apocryphal, almost silly, in their exaggeration. The difference, of course, was that we actually saw Bo part the Red Sea on our televisions. We saw it with our own eyes; even those moments that weren’t televised were documented and sometimes photographed. In 1986, in a minor-league ballpark in Charlotte, N.C., a young journalist named Joe Posnanski watched Jackson hit his first professional home run, and then realized Jackson had broken his bat. “Bo’s destiny,” Posnanski would write in The Kansas City Star, more than 20 years later, “was to become a comic-book hero.”

The story includes a description of one of the most memorable evenings of Monday Night Football ever, a game I watched then and remember to this day:

His myth fully crystallized on a Monday night, on the last day of November 1987, when Bo was a rookie running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, a two-sport athlete sharing time in the backfield with a Hall of Famer named Marcus Allen. Bo took a handoff and Bo parted the entire Seattle defense and then Bo — How does one even describe this method of propulsion? Glided? Propelled? Teleported? — 91 yards down the sideline, and then Bo kept on running until he disappeared into a tunnel in the bowels of Seattle’s Kingdome. The sound of Bo running past him, former Seahawks receiver Steve Largent said, was like nothing he had ever heard before.

For a moment, Bo was gone, out of the picture entirely, prompting ABC analyst Dan Dierdorf to proclaim to a TV audience that Bo “might not stop until Tacoma.” When Bo emerged from that tunnel, and when he lowered his shoulder and toppled a cocky young linebacker named Brian Bosworth on a short touchdown run later that evening, and finished the night with 221 yards, nothing was ever the same. Bo was on his way to becoming an icon, both physically and commercially, a man who could do anything he wanted on any field of play, a man who made a fortune for embodying that Nike catchphrase concocted by a copywriter in Portland, Ore.: Bo Knows.

While Googling for a particular quote about Bo, I ran across another article published this year, this one by Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star. It begins with a story of a game the Kansas City Royals played at Yankee Stadium:

First time up, Bo hit a 412-foot homer to center field.

Second time up, Bo smashed a 464-foot opposite-field home run. Longtime Yankees fans said that ball landed in a far-off place where only home runs by Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle from the left side ever reached.

“Colossal,” teammate George Brett would say. “I had to stop and watch.”

Third time up, Yankees manager Stump Merrill walked out to the mound to ask pitcher Andy Hawkins how he intended to get Bo out this time.

“I’ll pitch it outside,” Hawkins said.

“It better be way outside,” Merrill replied.

Hawkins threw it way outside. Jackson poked the ball over the right-field fence for his third homer. The New York crowd went bananas.

Bo never got a fourth time up that day. Instead, he hurt his shoulder while diving and almost making one of the great catches in baseball history. New Yorkers stood and cheered as he walked off the field.

“You know what?” Royals Hall of Famer Frank White said almost 20 years later. “I really did play baseball with Superman.”

Like Weinreb, Posnanski invokes the superhero metaphor. These articles have some striking similarities. I guess it’s hard for different sportswriters to look back on Bo’s career without noticing the same kinds of things. Here’s another one: Bo’s amazing feats were televised…

So what makes Bo different? Well, for one thing, it’s all on video. Bo really did break a baseball bat over his thigh after striking out. Bo really did throw a ball from left field all the way to first base on a fly to double up Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk. Bo really did, in his spare time, transform into the most sensational running back the NFL has ever seen. He really did … well, he really did a lot of stuff.

TV isn’t as kind to Bo any more. I saw him before an Auburn game last year and, well, he’s definitely a little soft around the edges. That’s quite a change from his playing days. I have an old Sports Illustrated article upstairs somewhere; it dates back to the late 1980s and includes a description of George Brett marveling at Bo’s physique. I found one of the quotes online in a NY Times article: ”I’ve never even seen him do a sit-up,” said George Brett. ”I say to myself all the time, ‘I wish I could be in that body for just one day.’ ”

Bo was a special athlete, that’s for sure, and he was a lot of fun to watch. I’ve written before about watching Bo score two long touchdowns to beat Alabama in 1983, and I wish now that I had seen him play baseball. Here’s to you, Bo, thanks for the memories!

(OK, so I posted this on the 29th, but backdated it to the 27th so the “25 years ago today” will be accurate. Things have been amazingly busy for me at work this week, and I couldn’t get to the blog as soon as I would have liked.)

Comments are closed.