Bo Jackson: An oral history of the legend, from Auburn to Bo Knows

Bo Jackson: An oral history of the legend, from Auburn to Bo Knows


In 1982, his 1-yard plunge as a freshman propelled Auburn to its first victory over Alabama in nine years. In 1991, a hip injury in an NFL playoff game led to the end of his two-sport career. Between the two milestones, Bo Jackson was one of America’s highest-profile athletes and a cross-over star. A class of Auburn journalism students talked to those who observed his career most closely — as teammates, journalists, coaches and fans. Their memories and insights provide an oral history of Jackson’s career at Auburn and beyond. 

In search of a running back who would rival the famed Herschel Walker, Auburn head coach Pat Dye and assistant coach Bobby Wallace recruited Jackson. The recruitment created speculation and drama, but ultimately Jackson chose Auburn. 

Bobby Wallace, assistant Auburn football coach 1981-85. Currently director of athletics at the University of West Alabama: Obviously, his talent just jumped out at you. So the spring of Bo’s junior year of high school, we invited him to the spring game and got a jump on everybody in recruiting him. His mom came, and they liked it. The real big thrill of recruitment was being able to watch him in all the different sports that he played: track, baseball and football in high school, and watch him do the miraculous things that he could do. It was unbelievable. 

Paul Finebaum, SEC Network: I remember it very well. A running back named Alan Evans was considered the No. 1 player in the state and he also went to Auburn. Bo was getting a lot of attention because he was a great baseball player as well. He was really great at everything. I was a writer for the Birmingham Post Herald, and I did write a big article focused on the tug-of-war between Alabama and Auburn and how it seemed to be affecting Bear Bryant. I even had a chance to interview Bo’s mom. She did not like the idea of him going to Alabama, because a coach had told Bo he would not start until his junior year and that really upset them. That helped Coach Dye get the advantage, and when he went to Auburn it was a death blow to Alabama. There was still some skepticism about how good he would be, but when he showed up for camp everyone was whispering about Bo. You thought he would be good, but then by the first or second game he exploded, and it was no longer a myth. 

Phillip Marshall, 247 Network (longtime Auburn football reporter): He was at the state high school indoor track meet at the coliseum in Montgomery and I was sports editor of the Montgomery Advertiser. I went out there to talk to Bo, if I could. In between his events he was sitting in the stands with his high school coach. The recruiting rules at the time were that recruiting coaches could be there but they couldn’t talk to him. Bobby Wallace was there and sitting right behind him, but he couldn’t talk to him. But he could talk to me. He was saying stuff to me meant for Bo. So, I said to Bo, “Have you made up your mind where you are going to go?” He said no. And he has always been an Alabama fan — that was well known — so I said, “Are you seriously considering Alabama?” At the time Alabama had had some well-publicized off-field incidents and even had a player bring a gun in Bryant Hall, the athletic dorm. He told me, “If I went to Alabama my mama would never get a good night’s sleep.” I said, “OK, is it Tennessee?” He said, “Yeah, I’m considering Tennessee.” I said, “Have you visited?” He said no. I said, “Are you gonna visit?” He said no. After that day I was pretty convinced he was gonna side with Auburn, which he did.

Stuart Blackwell, sports editor at the Auburn Plainsman, 1982-83: What’s different is back then, we really didn’t know much about recruiting. Nowadays it’s front and center, you’ve got all these websites. Then, it was like, “OK, we got this new player coming.” We had just come off two 5-6 seasons, it was Pat Dye’s second year, so we were eager for something good to happen. We all knew that Bo was supposed to be something special. None of us got to really see anything until his first game. He didn’t start. I guess they were waiting to bring it on, and they were playing Wake Forest. Of course, he came in and got like 125 yards or so on 10 or 12 carries. At that point, we knew we had something.

David Housel, former sports information director and director of athletics at Auburn: The night before he signed, it was about 12:30-1 a.m. and I got a phone call at home from Bobby Wallace. One of the agreements that Auburn had with Bo was that they would not tell anybody that he was committed and coming to Auburn. Once Bo said, “I’m coming to Auburn,” he said, “Don’t bother me about it. I told you I’m coming to Auburn and I’m coming to Auburn.” Coach Dye said he never asked him about it again after that. The night before signing day, there was a guy in Birmingham, I think at Channel 6, his name was Ron Grillo, and he went on the air that night and said, “We have it on good authority that Vincent Jackson from McCalla is going to be signing with Auburn tomorrow.” Bo was upset, because he felt that Auburn had reneged on its promise to keep it quiet, but Auburn had not. So, Wallace called me and asked me if I had Grillo’s phone number so he could get Ron to talk to Bo and tell Bo that the leak did not come from Auburn, which it had not. I asked Bobby if it was really important because it was 1 a.m. and I would have to go to my office to get it, and Bobby said “David, it’s really important. This guy is going to win the Heisman Trophy, he’s that good.” So I said, “Well, if he’s that good and he can help us beat Alabama I’ll go to the office.”

It didn’t take long for Bo to make an impact. In his first Iron Bowl against Alabama, his half-yard plunge on fourth and goal late in the game led Auburn to a 23-22 victory, literally turning the tide in a rivalry that had been going all Alabama’s way. The significance of that play has fueled player, fan and media discussion since.

Hal Baird, Auburn baseball coach, 1985-2000: I’ve heard such luminaries as David Housel and Billy Hitchcock say that in the pantheon of Auburn athletic history it may be one of, if not the most important, play in the history of the series. I felt for a long time that Auburn students, graduates from that period, until the present, for the very first time felt that they were the athletic equal of Alabama. 

Cole Cubelic, former Auburn football player and SEC Network football analyst: Bo Over the Top is probably a top five play for most Auburn fans, historically. It was a game that was needed from an Auburn perspective and that was an opportunity to say, “You’re our guy, go out there and prove it and make this victory for us,” and it’s just another reason he has the iconic Auburn status that he does. 

Marshall: When he first jumped in the air he didn’t get there. He was up in the air and got hit by Alabama players but he gave it one last surge and got the ball into the end zone. That changed everything and that verified Coach Dye. That was his second season and his first season had gone 5-6 but the way they played the game you just knew they were going to get a lot better. The next season they went on to win the SEC championship and he went on to win four. And it all started with Bo going over the top.

Housel: There is no way that anybody in this day and time can understand what that play meant. Since Coach Bear Bryant came, Auburn had beaten Alabama about five times in 22 years. Auburn had to beat Alabama if it was to control the destiny of getting the Iron Bowl to Auburn. Coach Dye said when Bo signed, it gave people the greatest thing you could give anybody, which was hope. The Auburn-Alabama game would not have come to Auburn in 1989 if Auburn didn’t beat Alabama, and when Auburn beat them Coach Bryant retired and it turned that whole series around. Somewhere the drought had to be broken, somewhere the road had to turn, and it turned on that day and on that play.

Finebaum: I was standing on the field, and you were really wondering, “Is this going to happen?” because Auburn had not beaten Alabama in nine years and there were already rumors that would be Coach Bryant’s last Iron Bowl. When he went over the top, I did not know then that we would be talking about it 40 years later, but it was one of the most iconic and unbelievable scenes I have ever seen. The crowd poured onto the field and I really feared for my life. It was insane. You had to scramble to get away because fans were everywhere. Bo was already good, but that was the day Bo Jackson, the legend, was born. Ending that streak was so important for the psyche of the Auburn people, who really had felt that they were second-class citizens, and that game helped shatter that myth.

That one play ended up being the game-winner and set the stage for Auburn to win four SEC championships in the decade.

Randy Campbell, Auburn quarterback, 1982-83: Of course, I was the quarterback who handed him the ball. When he scored that touchdown, there was still some time left in the game and Alabama was going to have another chance to come down and kick a field goal or whatever to win. But even though the game wasn’t over, it almost felt like the whole world had been lifted off your shoulders. It was incredible to see the referee put his hands up signaling touchdown. It really was euphoric.

Tommie Agee, former Auburn teammate: That particular play pretty much solidified his standing as being one of the greatest to play at Auburn and ever to play football. And you know, he proved that he could get the job done. That started it right there. His greatness.

Jackson was not the only high-profile college football superstar of the time. Deion Sanders of Florida State would garner attention with a flashiness that contrasted Jackson’s understated style. In Sanders’ freshman year, 1985, Auburn and Florida State played, and it did not end well for Sanders or the Seminoles.

Agee: It never fails that every time we played, a lot of people were saying that all they had to do was stop Bo and they stopped our offense. And you always had guys who would talk a lot of smack before games, and Deion Sanders was one. That particular play, Bo was saying, “Look I’m gonna prove to you that you can’t tackle me,” and he did just that.

Jim Riswold, Creator of “Bo Knows” Nike Campaign: I don’t remember that play, but anyone who stiff-arms Deion Sanders is OK in my book.

Baird: The rivalry was sort of a revisionist history. And it stemmed from the fact that both athletes played professionally in two sports, but they couldn’t have been more different. Bo was all pro in both sports, Deion never did anything like that. Deion was never considered to be a phenom in baseball. Stiff-arming Deion was never really a big deal that day; Deion didn’t like tackling people very much.

Cubelic: Back then it was hard to know, nationally, who all the great players were because you didn’t get them every day. But a lot of people knew those were two of the best talents in college football. The thing that separates Bo from a lot of other historical college football players is the individual things that happened that we view as almost superhuman — that not a lot of other guys could have done — and he did a lot of those things to people that were also great in their own respect, Deion being one of those.

Mark Gubicza, Jackson’s teammate with the Kansas City Royals (1986-1990): I think there is a fair comparison there. Both played professional baseball and football. Both were incredible at their sports. Slightly different players overall. Deion was built around speed on the baseball field and on the football field. Bo had the speed but the incredible power, and in both sports. I witnessed it firsthand, watching all the Raider games and watching all the stuff he did on the baseball field. I recall the game in Yankee Stadium where he dove for a line drive that Deion hit and I think he dislocated his shoulder diving for it. I think Bo is at the elite level, but Deion is not far behind. 

The 1985 season also brought Jackson the Heisman Trophy. As the preemptive favorite, he endured a long, stressful journey to end up in New York City holding the trophy. 

Cubelic: The thing that sticks out to me more is that the offense wasn’t very diverse. It’s always beyond impressive when you get a guy that feels like he’s carrying that much more of the workload when you don’t have as many receivers, backs, mobile quarterbacks, maybe, that would have taken some of that off. Everyone probably knew who was going to get the ball and how he was going to get it. So I think it’s even more impressive that he was able to put up the numbers that he did.

Housel: I felt like we were walking a tightrope that season. A sports information director cannot win someone a Heisman Trophy, but he can damn sure lose it, and you lose it by misreading the voters and overdoing it, by overpromoting and mystifying it. We didn’t try to hype Bo. We didn’t try to promote Bo. The interest was already there and we had to meet the interest. We didn’t go around and say, “He’s the greatest thing in the whole world.” We just put the information out there. I had some friends across the country, and every Monday I would call them to see what they were hearing [about Bo], and we would tailor-make our news releases to address those concerns. We would send out about six to eight stories a week, not just about Bo Jackson but Auburn Football and Auburn Athletics. 

We only did three promotional things. One was we sent a picture postcard about midseason, and the second thing we did was send a picture postcard of Bo right at the end of the season after the Georgia game. This was in the day where print media was the primary product. We also sent to television stations a short video clip on VHS tape of some of Bo’s greatest runs that year. I remember he had a great game against Georgia Tech, and John Heisman had his greatest years at Georgia Tech on that field. It was Bo Jackson, a Heisman Trophy candidate, having a great game on that field. Bo won that game on a long run in the fourth quarter and it was a nationally televised game, so that was a great asset. The thing I remember most is when the emcee got up there and he said, “The 1985 Heisman Award winner is,” and announced the “buh” in Bo Jackson, that was one of the happiest days in my life. 

Agee: One of the things that we pride ourselves on at Auburn was that we were one big family, and the team always looked out and cared for each other. We knew that Bo was in contention for the Heisman, and we just had a bunch of guys on offense and defense who took pride in going out and trying to keep him in the race, and they did that week in and week out. He was an unselfish guy, and he put the team first. And that’s what we wanted to do — go out there and help him win that Heisman Trophy.

Finebaum: I remember it for being controversial. In ‘85, Bo and Auburn went to Tennessee ranked No. 1 in the country and Bo was a Heisman favorite, and they played a miserable game and got killed. Bo got hurt in the game and I remember writing an article — I am embarrassed to admit this now — that maybe Bo needed to concentrate more trying to win games and worry about the Heisman later on. And a couple of weeks later against Florida, it happened again and that was a day I wrote an article that Bo was too busy writing his Heisman speech instead of playing the game. And it was not a slam dunk he would win because of the injury. He did win and he should have won. There was not anyone in the same universe as Bo.

Marshall: He got some criticism that season because against Tennessee when they lost, he basically took himself out of the game because he was hurt. Some people questioned that and questioned his toughness. Probably the most memorable game was another game they lost to Alabama. He was the main force on two 40-yard drives in the fourth quarter and turned out he had broken ribs, and nobody knew that at the time. So, if anyone had questions about his toughness, that should have answered it for them. 

Blackwell: He averaged a crazy amount of yards per carry, but there were some ups and downs that season. Chuck Long from Iowa was having a good year, and at the time, that was the closest Heisman vote ever between those two.

Mark Murphy, editor at auburnvillager.com and Inside the Auburn Tigers: I remember the SEC was very good in that era. There was as much talent as we’ve ever seen in the SEC and Bo had some really impressive games. One in particular was against Southwest Louisiana. Bo had 290 yards and on one play that they called sniper, Bo had hit someone and it looked like he had been shot by a gun.

Gubicza: I always remember seeing games and thinking, “Well how is a guy this big, that fast?” He would get around a corner and is just gone. Most of the guys his size, maybe a defensive back could at least run him down. But with Bo, no. I was a huge, huge college football fan and anytime I got the chance to see an Auburn game I thought, “Man I gotta see this guy.” All of a sudden, there were rumors that we may be drafting this football player. 

As Jackson ended his two-sport college career, he shocked the sports world by turning down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after being drafted No. 1 overall and opting for a baseball career. He felt that the Buccaneers had not dealt honestly with him, and it had cost him the rest of his college baseball eligibility.

Murphy: I wasn’t surprised because he didn’t think he had been dealt with honorably by the Buccaneers and he had not been. They had given him bad information that cost him eligibility at Auburn. The way he’s wired, he wasn’t going to tolerate that and he’s the kind of guy that likes to go his own way.

Baird: We talked a lot during that time about baseball. He came to me and said, “I’m really serious about playing baseball.” Not very many people took that at face value, because the upfront money in football is so much greater. You go through an apprenticeship in baseball, whereas you go directly to the NFL in football. The very fact that he talked about it, asked questions about it and indicated interest in certain teams, it was an indicator to me that he was dead serious about playing baseball.

Gubicza: I was shocked. You’re a Heisman Trophy winner, so everybody is just assuming the career path is football. For him to sign with our club, it was an immediate excitement around the whole organization. At the major league level, we just kept hoping and thinking about when we were going to see him. He transforms your franchise to a New York Yankees-type franchise. It became Bo Jackson, George Brett and the Royals. It was so much fun just to hear that he was going to be a teammate of mine. As soon as I met him, I knew he was focused on being the best baseball player the world has ever seen. That’s the mindset he had. This dude was literally changing the face of our franchise as he put on a baseball uniform. The sense of excitement was like The Rolling Stones were going to give us a personal concert every day.

Agee: What a lot of people fail to realize is that Bo could’ve written his ticket in any sport and succeeded at it. It just so happened that he was not a big fan of (former Tampa Bay coach) Ray Perkins, and he definitely was not going to play for him. So he pretty much drew his line in the sand and said, “Look, I dare you to cross this and if you do, this is what’s going to happen.” He did exactly what he said he was going to do.

Finebaum: That was one of the biggest stories I’ve ever covered. You felt it building. First Bo was declared ineligible for the baseball season toward the end when the owner of the Bucs had sent a plane to come pick him up. That really triggered some negativity. When I heard the rumors that Bo was thinking about playing baseball, I couldn’t believe it at first, and then when the story broke, it shocked the entire world and continued to shock people for days. It was such a great story, and since I am from Memphis and Bo played (minor league baseball) for the Memphis team, I went home and covered his first couple of games. It was amazing to watch Bo play minor league baseball. I was told by many people later that if Bo had dedicated himself to baseball, he would have been one of the best baseball players in history. But Bo had to do it his way, and to this day Bo walks to a different beat. 

Wallace: Bo was also drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school and offered quite a lucrative contract for 1981, and if he had taken that contract and just gone straight into baseball right out of high school, again, there’s just no telling what he could’ve done. He definitely had a great career. 

Cubelic: There hadn’t been a ton of athletes at that time that had real leverage and could say no to something like that and maybe it’d end up better for them. The first thing that stuck out to me was, how is this guy turning down professional football? We knew he was a good baseball player but, let’s be honest, college baseball at that time didn’t get anywhere near the coverage that college football did. The only thing that you really saw then was the College World Series. I don’t think we knew how special of a baseball player Bo Jackson was when he made that decision. 

As Jackson’s fame grew, it seemed like he was everywhere, and it only enhanced his legend. Even the video game “Tecmo Bowl” became a showcase for his talents.

Agee: Tecmo Bowl was an iconic game where if you got Bo, you could pretty much dominate if you knew what you were doing. Whoever created the game gave him all the talents that he had. 

Cubelic: That was one of the first sports games where you had a two-player mode and people could play against one another. He became the iconic face of that game. It only helped raise that hero status because his career was cut so short but you still had the video game to be able to go back to. I think that only forced people to think about the what-ifs: “This guy was this special and this might be the only thing we have left of him as a football player. What if he would’ve kept playing?” The game along with the sneaker campaign ended up putting him over the top as far as a pop-culture icon.

It seemed that Jackson saved his best performances for the biggest stages. A 1987 “Monday Night Football” game included him running over Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth to score a touchdown and a 91-yard run that ended in a stadium tunnel.

Cubelic: It was on a Monday night, and back then that had a massive audience. Keep in mind, you didn’t have Thursday night or Sunday night football, so this may have been a guy a lot of people sort of heard about but not seen a whole lot of because you still had regional coverage. Brian Bosworth was looked at as sort of the defensive counterpart to what Bo Jackson was: iconic status, a lot of popularity, had done other things to get people interested in what he was doing, and for Bo to get that one-on-one opportunity, essentially to embarrass him, that just really put Bo over the top.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnDlFKTNkeE

Agee: The only thing that was standing between him and the end zone was Brian Bosworth. He put his foot in the ground, planted, came straight at Bosworth and just took him on into the end zone and ran him slap over. That one play, and a lot of people are going to disagree with me when I say it, pretty much ruined Bosworth’s career because he was never the same athlete after that. On that play when he ran through the tunnel, I was over there cheering, and my coach looked at me and said, “Hey, you’re forgetting what colors you’re wearing aren’t you.” And I said, “Yeah coach, but — excuse my French — that was one hell of a play.” We just can’t stop him.

Housel: Brian Bosworth was Superman, Bo Jackson was an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object in Brian Bosworth. It was unimaginable.

Campbell: Bo was so fast that even the best players in the NFL couldn’t judge how fast he was. He would make long runs like that because linebackers and defensive backs would take the wrong angle to tackle him. They couldn’t judge where to be to get to him; when they got there, he was already gone. But then, running in the tunnel, it just makes you feel like he’s some kind of superhuman because it’s like his jet engines were going so fast that he couldn’t put the brakes on fast enough.

MORE: There’s got to be a Hall of Fame for Bo Jackson

More Pacific Northwest misery: Much like the Seahawks game, Jackson once uncorked a memorable throw that caught the speedy Harold Reynolds of the Seattle Mariners from trying to score in the 10th inning of a tie game. It came to be known as “the throw.”

Gubicza: As soon as the ball was hit, with Reynolds on base, I literally started taking a few steps toward the clubhouse, but I gave a courtesy look back and all of a sudden I see this ball flying through the air. I see Bob Boone almost in disbelief that this baseball was going that far. He catches it and quickly tags Reynolds at the plate. I almost got a concussion jumping up because the dugout wasn’t that high. It was like he was throwing a rock in a creek back home. But it’s Bo Jackson throwing a baseball and throwing out Harold Reynolds. It’s not like he is throwing me out, he’s throwing one of the fastest guys in the game out. We ended up winning that game. We go from a loss to a win, on that throw. I am just so glad I gave a courtesy look, because I almost missed it.

Baird: This wasn’t a slow catcher or first baseman on base; this was one of Seattle’s fastest players. It was a throw unlike anybody had seen at that point from that distance, to throw a runner out at home plate and prolong a game. That’s just almost an inhuman feat, to be able to throw a ball on a line that far.

Murphy: Baseball scouts gave him A-plus arm grade, which at the time was the highest grade they could give. He was still pretty raw as a baseball player. He had so much natural ability to overcome that, and that play was a perfect example of that ability.

Campbell: I don’t know if there have ever been very many people walking the face of the earth who can stand up against the [left field] wall with their back to the catcher and throw a ball that far and that fast and get there in time to throw out a person who can really run. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a freak thing. 

In 1989, after hitting a soft ground ball back to the pitcher and being thrown out at first, Jackson took his bat over his helmet and seemed to effortlessly snap it in half like a twig. This was during a time when just about everything Jackson did was front page news, and this moment fit perfectly.

Gubicza: Being the idiot I am, I tried to do that over my leg one time and it felt like I broke my femur. Most of the time, when he is breaking bats, it’s not like there is already a crack in the bat. It’s just straight breaking wood. That’s next to impossible. 

Baird: It got publicity, that’s for sure. Having seen a lot of baseball, I don’t recall another major league player doing that prior to him. Knowing how strong Bo Jackson was in those days, that’s not really a surprising thing to me; he could’ve done it anytime he wanted to.

Finebaum: I’m sure Bo knew what he was doing. That just enhanced his reputation of his strength. This was a guy who did not really work out. Pat Dye told me a million times Bo did not spend much time in the off season with weights because he was just a natural athlete.

Cubelic: I just think it went a little bit further to continue to brand him into this sort of superhuman figure. The bat was probably cracked, based on the way he hit the pitch, but still. Most people feel like you couldn’t do that the way that he did it. There is a Nike Airmax trainer that’s called “Broken Bats,” so it kinda shows you, culturally, how iconic that moment was. It was another way to show this guy can do things most humans are not going to be capable of.

In 1989, Bo led off the MLB All-Star Game — with a home run, of course.

Gubicza: I am in the bullpen, talking to Nolan Ryan and a couple other guys. I remember saying that this is a great matchup for Bo: He’s facing Rick Reuschel, who is a really good pitcher, a sinkerball pitcher. I hear the crack off the bat and I have no idea where the baseball went. Vin Scully is doing the game, and he has President Reagan with him. Just the reaction they both have. Vin called a zillion games, Reagan was the president for eight years, and they are both in complete awe of what they saw from Bo Jackson. Every single player at the All-Star game was like a kid talking to Bo Jackson. When you are at the All-Star Game, there’s a lot of egos. But when he walked to the dugout, every last one of them was in awe. 

Riswold: Soon after that, the commercial ran. I think it summed up the whole night. He even got President Reagan’s attention. “Oh my.” A low pitch from Rick Reuschel. All the hoopla. And then, here comes this commercial. At the end of the day, I just said, “God wears Nikes.” Everything fell into place. People seem to forget the big change after that commercial. Reebok was the No. 1 selling shoe in the country. That night, Bo ended that. 

Blackwell: I was just hoping he wasn’t going to strike out! Bo was known to strike out back in baseball, as well. I was a little nervous for him being in the All-Star Game, and I mean gosh … it was such a bomb, man. 

Baird: First at-bat, a 440-foot home run and he was the MVP of the All-Star Game, which was pretty cool for a lot of reasons. One, Bo and his flare for the dramatic, but second, it kind of (began) the trifecta for Auburn. Auburn became one of the only universities, maybe the only one, in which you had a major league MVP, Frank Thomas; major league Rookie of the Year, Gregg Olson; and major league All Star Game MVP, which was Bo. When the stage seemed to be the biggest, Bo was at his best. 

MORE: Ranking Bo Jackson’s 11 best baseball cards

The All-Star Game also marked the debut of the “Bo Knows” Nike ad campaign, which highlighted Jackson’s multi-sport abilities, and it cemented his place in popular culture.

Riswold: Bo became the No. 1 athlete in the world for some time after that. Everything kinda fell into place. We used him to launch a marketing wing of cross-training shoes, glorified tennis shoes. It wasn’t too tough to pick a guy who played two sports to tell that story. The guy told the story better than any of us could imagine. It was easy to write commercials for the guy just based upon the stuff that he did. Even his injury.

Finebaum: The campaign really solidified him. It’s one thing to be a famous player, but when you’re on TV all the time and in ads — in that moment in time, there was nothing else comparable to Nike. It was the best-known brand there was. 

Agee: That commercial showed me that he doesn’t know how to play the guitar. 

Baird: I’ve been told that the year before the campaign launched, Nike sales were millions of dollars behind Reebok. But they doubled Reebok within two years of the launch of the Bo Knows campaign. I don’t think there’s any doubt that campaign is the most impacting campaign that has probably ever been launched by any gear company. Not only was everyone aware of Bo and the versatility and the two sport all-pro, but Nike very wisely had him riding bicycles and on an ice rink that crossed over into pretty much every sport that Nike produced gear. They had Bo using it and doing it.

Housel: It wasn’t that impressive on us Auburn people. We already knew that Bo Knew. It was a masterful campaign. You have got to keep it simple. You have to keep it hard-hitting. Bo Knows. What else can you say? It was one of the most successful and memorable slogans that came around. 

Cubelic: This is where I think Bo took a giant leap into mainstream America. Sneaker campaigns were a big deal; they put a ton of money into them. Go look at the star power that was in these commercials — a laundry list of elite athletes who just made a cameo in his commercial. So I think just to have that sort of star-power there for him put a lot of people to the thought, “This guy is a massive deal.” It made him an icon.

Gubicza: I love when he is with Bo Diddley playing the guitar. I said, “Bo, you can’t play guitar.’ And he gave me that look, and he said, ‘Give me some time and I’ll be able to play the guitar.’ He was an elite player in two sports and he was just like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ 

In a January 1991 NFL playoff game, Bo suffered a serious hip injury that would ultimately end first his NFL career and then his baseball career — an unforeseen turn in a career that seemed to only reach milestones.

Finebaum: James Andrews, who did the surgery, called me and went deep into explanation to me off the record. I asked what it meant, and he said, “He can play but he probably wouldn’t be the same.” It was almost like hearing a death sentence. You knew Bo Jackson was never going to be that way again and you really start to analyze and contemplate “what if.” What if he had not played football? He was phenomenal at football, but football really got in the way of baseball. I have asked him about it since and he does not seem to have any regrets. But at some point, I wish he had been able to take a good long look and say, “I won the Heisman, I’ve been in the NFL, I was an All Pro, maybe I should go the baseball route.” But that was not Bo. 

Cubelic: When you heard about an elite athlete going to see Dr. James Andrews back then, you knew it was pretty serious. To hear that he was going to have to have the hip replaced, that was just kinda scary for a guy at his age. Whether you were his fan or not, you knew there was a lot of greatness stolen from professional sports.

Campbell: When he went out, it didn’t look like anything bad at all. You might even assume maybe he’ll come back later in this game, certainly next week. And then when you found out later exactly what it was and that his career was over, you just couldn’t believe it. Normally for something that bad to happen, it would have looked totally different. It was just a freak thing that happened. It’s a shame that it happened, because Bo was certainly one of the greatest football players to ever play in college. More people would think that he was also one of the greatest players to ever play in the NFL if his career hadn’t been cut short.

Getty Images

Agee: I cried when I learned exactly what he experienced during that particular play. You wouldn’t wish that kind of injury on anyone, especially someone you know and admire and think the world of. It was a sad day for people who enjoyed watching him display his talent, and when you heard the injury was a career-ending injury for football, it gave you a somber feeling.

Baird: I think that the response from every sports fan fell into two categories. In one category was every single person who loved football and baseball and had seen Bo play. It was a period of mourning. This was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete and I think everybody who loved sports was in that category. The other category, there was one person. That person was Bo. With almost no argument he would have been a Hall of Famer in Major League Baseball and the NFL. No one has done that, or even come close. That was without question the thoughts people had, and they still do. People of a certain age, it’s, “Man what could it have been.”

Riswold: When I wrote commercials for athletes, you tried to base it on something in their life or career to make them different from the athlete next door. Bo’s story wrote itself. The injury happened, and we do that second big spot where he says, “I’m an athlete, not an actor,” and he climbs out of a television commercial and goes to the gym to rehab. It tells his story. All they wanted to talk about was the hip, the hip, the hip. We brought in a then-unknown comedian, Denis Leary, whose forte was to tell people to shut up, and he told them to shut up and mind their own hips.

Marshall: That was really sad and really marked the end of his baseball career too, but first he had to become the first player to ever hit a home run with an artificial hip. It was sad. He had a lot to do and a lot yet to accomplish and if it had not happened it would be interesting to see what we would be talking about today about Bo Jackson.  

In the final analysis, Bo’s unparalleled career generates a unique level of appraisal.

Agee: What a lot of people don’t realize, with all the iconic commercials that he did and the things that he experienced while playing sports, he never lost character. He was always a humble person. That comes to the way he was brought up. 

Campbell: On Fridays, for home games, we would go out at Jordan-Hare Stadium and do a little walk-through. It was relaxed, a lot of the coaches would be gone recruiting, so it was just an opportunity to go outside for 45 minutes and get your legs loose. So, one day, I asked Bo, “How far can you throw a football?” and he said, “I don’t know, let’s find out.” I could throw it about 60-65 yards. Bo took the ball on the 20-yard line and took two steps toward the 25 and he launched it. The ball was in the air and landed behind the back of the endzone and it bounced into the stadium seats. So, I think he threw the football 90-95 yards; no quarterback on our team could throw it further than, like, 70. He had a rare combination of strength and speed and talent.

Baird: He really did seem to have that certain knack of doing things you had to take a second look at and then kinda think, “Well have I ever seen a human being do that before?” More often than not, the answer was, “No, I’ve never seen anybody do that.”

Wallace: Coach Dye used to say it best. “What Bo would set his mind to do, his body would do.”

Finebaum: Bo Jackson could do things that no one else could do. You saw it with “The Throw,” you saw it with Bosworth, you saw it when he played in college, the home run in the All-Star Game. I was no longer surprised at that point by anything Bo Jackson did.  I am just getting emotional thinking about all the great things he did, and the sadness about the fact he got hurt and could never be the same again.

Murphy: He hit a home run at the University of Georgia and the old-timers still talk about it looking like a scene from the movie “The Natural.” He hit the hardest hit ball I’ve ever seen against a University of Virginia pitcher. He hit it so hard back up the middle that the pitcher had to be taken out of the game because he was so shaken up. He saw his life flash before his eyes.

Housel: I am not one to say that Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete to ever live. How good was Jim Thorpe? How good was Bo compared to Jim Brown? I can say Bo is the best, but had I lived during the time of Jim Brown and Jim Thorpe I probably would have said they were the best. I think without a question that Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete of our time.

Gubicza: When he first made it up to the big leagues, we were messing around and had a football. We threw it to him and said, “Hey we can tackle the Heisman Trophy winner?” Within seconds, he had me and Bret Saberhagen in a bear hug, picked us both straight up in the air. Our feet were dangling. Could you imagine? That’s probably 450 pounds. And for him, it was nothing. The biggest thing I always take from him is that he is the most honest, real person for the type of person he was at that level. Not many people were that huge on every level. He was a great, great teammate. The best description is that he was a great teammate, and the best player I have ever seen in both sports. 

Sporting News

The interviews for this oral history were conducted by the students of an advanced sports reporting class at Auburn University, under the direction of journalism professor John Carvalho. The students who conducted the interviews were Delaney Baro (Tommy Agee), Kinley Beshers (Cole Cubelic), Ian Bivona (David Housel), Jen Dietrich (Phillip Marshall), Kayla Evans (Bobby Wallace), Morgan Evans (Randy Campbell), Jacob Hillman (Jim Riswold), Maddie Joiner (Paul Finebaum), Caleb Jones (Hal Baird), Robbie Tucker (Mark Murphy), Cameron Yowell (Stuart Blackwell), and Henry Zimmer (Mark Gubicza)





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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.