It is amazing that Bo Jackson was able to be the sort of media star that he was before the age of the internet and YouTube. He almost seemed like a YouTube star decades before anyone knew what the internet was.
Bo Jackson was a human highlight reel. And his borderline surreal and seemingly superhuman feats were the sort of thing that allowed shows like SportsCenter to become part of the the sport viewers daily routine.
Of course Vincent Edward Jackson was the best football prospects the country had ever seen. He was a Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn and expected to be the top pick in the NFL draft.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted him with that top pick and paid a visit to Bo while he was still in Auburn. This visit made him ineligible for his senior year of baseball, which was probably their plan anyway.
Bo was angry at the Buccaneers who told him that their visit was within NCAA regulations when in fact it wasn’t. The Buccaneers drafted him in the 1986 draft with the first pick overall. The Royals, coming off the 1985 World Series title, picked him in the fourth round.
Jackson stunned everyone by snubbing Tampa Bay and signing with Kansas City. Some saw it like a John Elway signing with the Yankees stunt to get him traded to a better situation.
Nope. He was serious about baseball. By the end of the 1986 season, Jackson was added to the big league roster. On September 2, 1986, he made his big league debut, getting a single in a 3-0 loss to the White Sox. On September 14th, he hit his first big league homer off of Seattle’s Mike Moore.
In 1987, he made the team out of spring training and wound up hitting 22 homers along the way. After the 1987 season, with his rights to Tampa Bay expired, the Los Angeles Raiders drafted him. Once again, he surprised everyone by signing with them.
He would join the Raiders at Week 8 of the season. Some of the players in the NFL bristled that he wasn’t taking football seriously, even calling it his “hobby” at one point.
Brian Bosworth, another highly touted football prospect, talked smack about stopping Jackson when the Raiders would face off against the Seahawks. Jackson made a mockery of the situation, running past Bosworth in a 91 yard run on Monday Night Football. Bosworth never saved face. Jackson, in front of the whole country showed he could do both.
He returned to the Royals and had a better 1988 than his 1987. He added stolen bases to his arsenal. And when the Royals were eliminated, he went back to the Raiders where again, he shone.
In 1989, he made the All Star team and led off the All Star Game in Anaheim with a towering home run to centerfield. Again, with the national spotlight on him, he excelled. He was named the All Star Game MVP. He clubbed 32 homers, drove in 105 runs and stole 26 bases.
But it was more than the stats for Bo. His homers seemed to be towering upper deck shots. He made amazing catches and gunned runners out at the plate with his dazzling throwing arm. Even his strikeouts were memorable, as he did on June 21, 1989. After a swing and a miss, he broke his bat over his head in frustration.
As ESPN’s influence on the sports landscape grew in the late 1980’s, the super highlights became one of their biggest draws on SportsCenter. And Bo Jackson seemed to give viewers a never ending supply of “Did you see that?” moments.
None was more spectacular than a running catch against the Orioles on July 11, 1990. Running to the wall in Memorial Stadium, he caught a line drive but his momentum would not let him stop. Instead of crashing into the wall, he jumped up and ran along the wall like he was Spider-Man and landed on his feet as if he had planned it.
The Baltimore fans gave him an ovation even though he was helping beat their team.
Fans would see the highlights and they seemed like the exaggerations of an old man, telling stories of a guy who could play baseball and football at an elite level. But these weren’t tall tales. They were on tape. We all saw them.
And we saw the hilarious “Bo Knows” commercials which played off of one simple notion: You can do anything you want if you put in the work.
He made the NFL All Pro team in 1990, being the first player to make the All Star status in baseball and football.
But a tackle caused a hip injury that ended his football career and looked like it would derail any hopes for him in baseball.
The Royals didn’t bring him back as he nursed his injuries. The White Sox took a flier on him and he played 23 games in September for them. His highlight came on September when he hit a 2 out 2 run pinch hit homer in the bottom of the 9th against Mark Langston to tie the game. The White Sox would win it in 11.
1992 was a lost year. After having Bo for baseball and football season, suddenly there was nothing. He had hip surgery based on his football injuries. He was getting an artificial hip. Everyone knew that WALKING with an artificial hip would be hard enough. Forget playing a sport.
But in 1993, Bo attempted a comeback with the White Sox. In his first at bat of the season with an artificial hip, what do you think he did?
He homered of course. That’s what Bo did.
Bo hit 16 homers altogether and helped the White Sox win the AL West. But he was hitless in 13 plate appearances, walking 3 times and scoring once in the ALCS against Toronto. The Blue Jays won in 6 and Bo never got another chance to go to the post season.
He played 1994 with the California Angels and actually had a decent OPS of .851 in 75 games. But the strike ended his season and he did not comeback.
Few athletes I have ever seen captured the public’s imagination like Bo Jackson. For about 2 or 3 years, everything seemed possible. He played baseball and football at the highest level and with a flair for the dramatic. Me made us all run to the TV screens to see what amazing feat he did the night before and we all talked about it afterwards.
Bo has said he wished he didn’t play football because it would have prolonged his baseball career. Sure, it would have been great to have more years of Bo the baseball player. But his injuries only added to his legend.
What could have been if he didn’t hurt his hip?
It is an agonizing what if but I choose not to be greedy. Sure we could have had more Bo… but think of how lucky we all are that we had him at all.
Now enjoy this clip, my favorite one, the wall catch.
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