In the 80s and 90s, few sports stars loomed as large as Bo Jackson. A Kansas City Royal and an Oakland Raider, he was the rare athlete to play two professional sports. His strength and power seemed supernatural. He soared into end zones, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.13 seconds, hit meteoric home runs, and broke baseball bats over his head for fun. And those were just his documented exploits. Because Bo played in an era before smartphones, stories circulated — that could never be entirely proven or disproven — that he was capable of even more impressive feats. The guy was the stuff of legends.
For this reason, Jeff Pearlman has entitled his new biography of Bo: The Last Folk Hero. Today on the show, Jeff and I talk about Bo’s Paul Bunyan-esque stature, and the real life behind the legend. We discuss both the flaws and the strengths of Bo Jackson, and how natural talent can be both a hindrance and a help, as we trace his life from an impoverished upbringing as one of ten kids, to how he managed to secure an arrangement where he got to play two professional sports. Jeff explains how Bo never liked to practice — because he was so naturally gifted he didn’t need to — why Bo didn’t take the deal when the Yankees tried to draft him out of high school, the flash-bulb moments he achieved in college and the pros, how a hip injury ended his football days but didn’t entirely finish him off for baseball, and why, after such a neon career, Bo has largely disappeared from the public eye.
Bo Highlights Mentioned in the Show
- Bo going over the top in the 1982 Auburn/Alabama Iron Bowl
- Bo running across the outfield wall in Baltimore
- Bo’s first major league at bat against Steve Carlton
- Bo’s rookie 91-yard run vs. the Seahawks
- Bo’s leadoff homer in the 1989 All-Stars Game
- Bo throwing out Harold Reynolds at home plate
- Bo breaking bats over his knee and head
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. In the ’80s, and ’90s, few sports stars loomed as large as Bo Jackson, a Kansas City Royal, and an Oakland Raider. He was the rare athlete to play two professional sports. His strength and power seemed supernatural. He soared into end zones, ran the 40 yard dash in 4.13 seconds, hit meteoric home runs and broke baseball bats over his head for fun. And those are just his documented exploits because Bo played in an era before smartphones, stories circulated that can never be entirely proven or disproven that he was capable of even more impressive feeds.
The guy was the stuff of legends. For this reason, Jeff Pullman is entitled his new biography of Bo, “The Last Folk Hero.” Today in the show, Jeff and I talk about Bo’s Paul Bunyan stature, and the real life behind the legend. We discuss both the flaws and strengths of Bo Jackson and how natural talent can be both a hindrance and a help we trace his life from an impoverished upbringing as one of 10 kids, to how he managed to secure an arrangement where he got to play two professional sports. Jeff explains how Bo never liked to practice because he was so naturally gifted he didn’t need to.
Why Bo didn’t take the deal when the Yankees tried to draft him out of high school. The flash bulb moments he achieved in college and the pros, how a hip injury ended his football days but didn’t entirely finish him off for baseball. And why after such a neon career, Bo has largely disappeared from the public eye. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/bo. All right, Jeff Pearlman, welcome to the show.
Jeff Pearlman: Thank you. Good to be here.
Brett McKay: You got a new biography out about Bo Jackson and if you were a kid in the ’80s or ’90s, Bo Jackson was the guy. I think most of my neighborhood friends had that poster of Bo with the shoulder pads, baseball bat draped across his shoulders looking like Achilles on the fields of Troy. If you played Tech Mobile with your friends, you got in fights with who was gonna be the Raiders. ‘Cause if you were the Raiders, you got to be number 34, which is Bo Jackson.
And you can do these insane 99 yard runs. You know, back before there was YouTubing, you watch Sports clips, highlights, you had to get those VHS tapes. I remember I had a VHS tape that had the infamous play where Bo Jackson runs across the outfield wall like Spiderman. So he’s the guy and you make this case in this book that Bo Jackson was the last folk hero. Why is that? Why was Jackson the last American folk hero?
Jeff Pearlman: Right. So that was I originally heard that terminology from another really great writer named Joe Polanski and he called him the last Folk Hero. And I was like, wow, that’s great. That’s so true. And I told Joe I was gonna borrow it. Nowadays everything is videotaped, everything is recorded. And obviously not just from TV cameras but from the phones we all carry in our pockets. So if some 12 year old kid in Bethesda jumps over an eight foot fence, someone’s gonna record it and splash it all over TikTok and Instagram and it’s gonna go viral on the second.
There was none of that with Bo Jackson. None. And I mean his games were on TV obviously, but he truly was, I start this whole book with a quote, a Paul Bunyan reference, and he really was Paul Bunyan or kind of Bigfoot or like the Loch Ness monster where he did these things. And you, it just doesn’t even sound real like he ran a 41340 at Auburn, which is amazing. He was 227 pounds. But then when he was with the Raiders, he ran a 41740 on grass in pads, like it’s preposterous.
His, when he was a senior in high school, he won the state decathlon championship for the second time in a row, didn’t wanna run the last event, which was the mile. So he basically got far enough ahead so he wouldn’t have to run the mile. And then the next day his team, McAdory High School, was playing in the state playoff game for baseball. And Bo Jackson pitches the only time that year and he strikes out 13 in the win. And this is the same season when he wrapped up his, he stole 90 out of 91 bases as a high schooler. I mean, it’s just on and on all this stuff where you would go, No, that doesn’t… Nah, Uh-huh, he jumped over a Volkswagen. That doesn’t make, I need to see it. It’s like, well you can’t see it ’cause not everyone had a camera. So sometimes you just need to trust the Bo Jackson stories because they’re ridiculous.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, and there’s, outside of sports, there’s these stories about Bo Jackson doing these crazy things. Like you start off the book talking about when he played for the White Sox, the plane was going down and everyone said like Bo Jackson is the one that saved it. And there’s people that said, yeah, that’s how it happened, and other people, I don’t know, but no one filmed it. So it becomes a legend.
Jeff Pearlman: I actually knew. So you don’t always know how you’re gonna open a book, but as soon as I heard that, I was like, this has to be it. He, they’re flying back from California, he’s with the White Sox, he’s a reduced version of himself because of the hip injury. And plane all of a sudden starts making some noises. Craig Urbex an infielder, looks out the window and sees the half the plane on fire. People start freaking out. Frank Thomas is wrapping himself in blankets, [laughter] and pillows, and guys are taking out religious medallions and Ozzie Guillen is praying to Jesus and the whole thing it’s crazy.
And all of a sudden the cockpit door opens and Bo Jackson walks out and he’d been in the cockpit talking to the pilots and he’s like, All right, everyone, don’t worry. They got it under control. Everyone just get your seat belts on and we’re gonna be okay. And it’s amazing story. Well, then someone else tells me the story and they say, no, no, no, no, no. Bo Jackson was sitting in the plane. The plane starts going down, He walked into the cockpit to help them fly the plane. So I have two versions of this amazing story and they both end with them landing in Des Moines, which they did at an abandoned airport way early in the morning. They’re all starving, they’re all depressed, whatever, almost died in a plane crash. And there’s a kiosk, an unattended, unopened kiosk, and next to it is a beer keg with the tap locked. And Bo Jackson walks up to it, uses his bare hand, breaks the lock off the keg, and they all drink on Bo Jackson, like…
Brett McKay: That’s Paul Bunyan stuff right there.
Jeff Pearlman: It’s Paul Bunyan stuff. I freaking love that stuff. And there’s so many things, there’s so many things like that in his life that again, nowadays someone on that plane would’ve videotaped from the plane. Someone would’ve pulled out their phone, they would’ve videotaped it. And maybe we just see Bo Jackson praying to Jesus sitting in the seat. Maybe none of it happened like, but we’re allowed to use our imagination with Bo Jackson. And there’s no one left like that.
Brett McKay: Right? With Bo Jackson. You had to be there to see it. And the only way you can know about it now is just like, it’s stories secondhand.
Jeff Pearlman: And some YouTube, you can still see him climb up the wall, like him climbing up the wall in Baltimore is the kind of thing that lends itself to mythology, right? And someone would say, that’s the thing about him, that’s interesting too. You’d be like, he climbed up a wall, he climbed up the outfield wall, then ran across it, then ran down. And your friend would be like, Nah, there’s no way. Or your grandpa would tell you that story. And he’d be like, Grandpa, you’re seriously, you’re suffering from your dementia, there’s no way this happened. Well now we have this YouTube clip and it actually adds to the mythology ’cause it’s like, if he did that, what else is he able to do?
Brett McKay: So a theme I picked up as I read your book is the promise and peril of being blessed with incredible supernatural talent. And this is a problem that you don’t only see in sports, but any domain, right? Whether it’s art, writing, science, whatever. I mean, I hope we can flesh this theme out looking at the life of Bo Jackson because like that’s the, like he was born with just crazy raw talents. So let’s start off there, like what was his upbringing like and when did people first start noticing like, this guy’s got something.
Jeff Pearlman: So, he’s one of 10 kids, single mom, Florence Jackson Bessemer, Alabama, born in abject poverty. Bessemer was right outside of Birmingham, grew up in a 99% African American community. Was so poor that he literally was going to school, elementary school, either in socks without shoes or his sister’s hand me down shoes. He was a bully, he was a kid who beat the snot out of other kids who stole lunch money. His nickname, the origins of his nickname and this one I did check out is when he was a kid. There’s a local farmer who had these hogs on these boar hogs on his land. And Bo Jackson and a bunch of his friends snuck over there. And there was this one boar who was enormous and they just gathered around this boar and beat the living snot out of it for three days until it died. They would hit it and just beat it and beat it and beat it.
The hog wouldn’t die. They come back the next day, they come back the third day the hog finally dies and Bo is short for boar, for boar hog. So that’s where the Bo kind of stems from. And the thing that’s interesting is I wrote a biography of Brett Favre and I wrote a biography of Walter Payton. They have similar sort of origin stories, which is Bo Jackson wasn’t a kid playing organized football, but he was a kid throwing rocks at cars and throwing rocks at other kids. He wasn’t a little kid doing the high jump or hurdles, but he was a kid scaling fences. He wasn’t a kid doing the long jump. He wasn’t like idolizing Carl Lewis, but he was jumping over ditches to escape the angry farmer because he stole fruit from his trees. Like he was very raw, very raw everything he learned really came outta mischief and his mom wouldn’t let him play football.
He played in high school in ninth grade against his mom’s wishes. He played a lot of summer league baseball. He really didn’t get on the map until his junior year of high school. And he was one of three running backs on his team at McAdory High School. He wasn’t really the star, but he was a physical specimen and he started doing things that blew people away. Running over two guys at once, making these tackles that were just other worldly. And at the time the biggest recruit in college sports in America was Marcus Dupree at a Philadelphia, Mississippi, he was much, he was bigger than Bo, he was stronger than Bo. He was about the same speed and everyone was talking about Marcus Dupree. But in the state of Alabama there were whispers about this kid in McAdory who just was some, some kind of athlete and slowly but surely Scores started to look at him.
Brett McKay: Well you, another part you mentioned he was a bully and he beat the snot outta kids. Part of that reason he beat the snot outta kids is he had a stutter and people would make fun of him and he would make sure that they never did that again.
Jeff Pearlman: Yeah, he had a severe stutter. And it is really interesting. He was actually held, he said, and it’s undeniably true ’cause it was a product of the generation. Like people back then equated stutter with stupid. Like, oh he’s dumb. Can’t get the words out, there was one teacher and one of them, wherever this teacher, she’s still alive. It’s one of the meanest things I’ve ever heard. He got in trouble in class one day and the teacher made him stand up in front of the whole class and recite a poem ’cause she knew his stutter was really bad. Like just mean, mean stuff and I do think one of the things I enjoy about this job and doing books is you could say on the base level, okay, Bo Jackson, God, he was such an asshole what a jerk of a kid. But then you look into it, he’s one of 10 kids in a tiny house.
They literally don’t have running water in their house. He has to go to the outhouse to use the bathroom at night. His roof is tar paper on his house. He is sleeping on a floor, he’s oftentimes sleeping against a heater and would wake up with heater burns on his body as would the other kids in that house. His mom did the best she could. She worked as a maid at a local motel, but she would beat the crap out of those kids, physically beat the crap out of those kids. So, oh, and even worse, his father, a guy named Edie Adams, he wasn’t just like an absentee father and oh I don’t know who my dad is. He lived across town with his own family and had almost nothing to do with Bo Jackson, a little interest in this kid. So I always think it’s kind of unique to look at someone and on the base level you could say, God, he was set to an asshole, but then you’re like, how could he have not been? He was one of 10 kids living in abject poverty, wearing his sister’s shoes to school, sleeping against a heater with a father who had nothing, who wanted nothing to do with him. And he was hungry all the time. How are you not gonna gonna be an asshole.
Brett McKay: And something you point out that Bo he was able to figure out that sports he saw at a young age, he had two paths he could go down, right? He could continue chunking rocks at cars and getting in fights and going, that could get even worse. But then he saw like sports could save me from that. Like, and he made the choice to choose sports.
Jeff Pearlman: He was terrified of reform school. Reform school was this idea in his head, like the boogie man. And he had an older sibling who went to reform school and apparently his older sibling told him all these stories about kids getting raped in reform school. And he was petrified of reform school. So he did not want to go there, and he starts playing sports. And the thing is, all of a sudden these coaches are really supportive. He had a baseball coach who would drive you home after school. People treated you special, people treated you different, you got a new uniform, you could see yourself in the local newspaper. He had…
When he was a junior, a local reporter from the Birmingham News came to his house to write a story on him. And she told me the story about it. How he was just showing off left and right. Do you wanna see me do this? Oh, I can do this. Watch me do this all in the backyard. And like, you’re one of 10 kids, you never get this attention. You’re one of 10 kids, you’re not special, you were held back. You’re old for your grade and you have a stutter. So all of a sudden, here’s this thing you do and you do really well. And people white and black are paying attention to you and praising you for it, it’s a definitely a drug.
Brett McKay: So the coaches recognized this kid’s got raw talent, but something that plague Jackson throughout his career that he got criticized about was that he was loath to practice. He did not like to practice. Did this start when he was in high school?
Jeff Pearlman: Yes. He was very frustrating. He did not like to practice, he hated lifting weights, he hated running. Again, he wanted to win the decathlon decisively just so he wouldn’t have to run the 1500. He went out of his way to dominate the other events so he wouldn’t have to do running. He loved track. He didn’t like track workout. He loved football, he hated football workouts, baseball he was okay with all around, he was not a hard worker in a lot of ways, he was naturally gifted. It doesn’t, it’s not indictment. He was so gifted and so talented. He just didn’t have to work in the way others did. But it drove coaches crazy.
Brett McKay: Are there other athletes that you’ve covered or written about the same thing? They were super talented and because they were talented they just thought they could get by without practicing?
Jeff Pearlman: I would say Shaq to a certain degree was not to the same degree, but certainly in that realm. The thing that’s really more interesting is every now and then you get a Walter Payton or Kobe Bryant where the hardest worker also happens to be the most athletic. And that’s when you get otherworldly greatness. And Bo Jackson had otherworldly greatness. But you think, to jump ahead a little bit, he wore it as a point of pride that I don’t lift weights. I don’t lift weights and I hate working out in the off season’s mind. And he knew he had this natural gift, but then you think about it, he got hurt and part of it was ’cause he kind of abused his body. He was doing these two sports, his body didn’t hold up. Maybe doing lifting weights would’ve helped. Maybe doing extra running would’ve helped. I’m not saying it matters, he doesn’t care. But I don’t think he’s a poster child for do less work that’ll make you a better athlete.
Brett McKay: How did the coaches manage an athlete who didn’t wanna practice? Because at the same time, they saw like this guy’s really talented, we need him. So we can’t just be like, “Well, you’re off the team.” ‘Cause that would be kind of shooting themselves in the foot. So what did they do?
Jeff Pearlman: It was hard. First of all, highschool is the worst because he’s your meal ticket and he’s your best athlete and he’s just not that hard of a worker. And they let a lot of things slide with him. There were times when he was kicked off the team, You can’t come back for two days, blah, blah, blah. But times he would quit and come back. But mostly they let it slide in high school, which happens, it happened in my high school. It probably happened in your high school. The best athletes walk. College was a little interesting. He shows up at Auburn. And his freshman year, first of all, he shows up, he’s the number two running back recruit in the state of Alabama. Number one was a guy named Alan Evans out of enterprise. And he was more, if you picture Bo Jackson’s like Jim Brown, Alan Evans was more like Yale Sarahs, shifty and all sorts of jukes. And everyone was super excited for Alan Evans. While they’re a couple days in, it’s just so obvious that Bo Jackson is at a different level altogether, that Allen Evans is quickly forgotten and he winds up transferring to UT Chattanooga.
There was a coach early on, Bo’s position coach, his running back coach who one day grabbed Bo Jackson by the face mask to give him a lecture. And Bo Jackson snapped and said, “Never grab my face mask again.” And the coach was kinda like, Haha. And Bo Jackson was like, “I’m telling you, do not grab my face mask again.” And he never did. And Pat Dye was the head football coach at Auburn and he understood like this was my… Again, this is my meal ticket. This guy probably isn’t gonna practice as hard as other guys. Also, Bo Jackson played college baseball for three years, two and a half years at Auburn. And one of the great motivators for him playing baseball was he wouldn’t have to have off-season football practices. He hated football practice, hated it. So he was able to play baseball, which has much easier sort of laid back practices and really embraced that.
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of before he went to Auburn, so he was at high school when he graduated, he was a recruit, people were looking at him for college football. He was getting looked at or getting offers from the pros. He actually got drafted by the Yankees when he was like a senior. Correct?
Jeff Pearlman: It’s a crazy story. He’s drafted by the Yankees and his mom really wants him to be the first member of the family to go to a four year college. He had a sibling who went to community college, that’s it. And the Yankees draft him in the second round, which is a high pick. And he would’ve been a first round pick if they were short of it, but they weren’t, ’cause scouts were all over him. In high school, there was a scout from the Kansas City Royals named Kenny Gonzalez, who was the first on the train. He’s basically sending reports to the royals. Like, this is the best athlete I’ve ever seen. This guy’s a freak of nature. But Kenny Gonzalez knew Bo was gonna go to Auburn, but the Yankees used a second round pick. And after you draft someone, you reach out to him and they couldn’t find him.
Like they would call his house, nobody would answer. They would knock on his door, nobody would answer. They were doing everything to dodge the Yankees. The Yankees were willing to pay him a boatload of money. And it was two things. Number one, his mom just didn’t want him to go to play professional baseball. And also Auburn had guys watching him, and Auburn had guys playing, sort of playing offensive line for him, blocking anyone who would dare try to come. So they would have someone sit with his mom at games and they would have guys talk to Bo about, You don’t wanna play New York, You don’t wanna play for the Yankees George Steiner’s evil, blah blah, blah, blah, blah. So the Yankees tried and tried and tried, but they were never gonna get him away from Auburn.
Brett McKay: Well, and the other thing too, it just seems like he was kind of indifferent to the business of sports. The money… It didn’t seem to phase him all that much.
Jeff Pearlman: Well, it’s funny, I love this. The Yankees offered to send him to New York with his coach… His high school coach, Terry Brazil, to watch a Yankee Red Sox game at Yankee Stadium. And the coach is like, Bo, we should totally do this. And Bo Jackson didn’t even know the Yankees at Red Sox were rivals, like had no idea. The only guy in the Yankees he probably heard of was Reggie Jackson because they had the same last name. He didn’t care, he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t… He wasn’t sitting home watching the NFL, watching Major League baseball. He probably couldn’t name 10 NFL players at that point. He just didn’t care. It wasn’t his universe. So you’re right. He didn’t… The idea of going to college, playing in state, being close to his mom, those things were much more appealing to him than a couple $100,000 in the Yankees.
Brett McKay: But even as you see this as he is professional career, advanced money was important, but it didn’t seem to be that important. There’d be times where like the management would lay down some gauntlet and he’d be like, “Oh, okay. I just don’t care.” You’d just walk away. Do you think that indifference came from just his talent? Like he just… He was so talented, he just didn’t have to care about this stuff?
Jeff Pearlman: Yeah. Also there’s a line from the movie The Aviator, when Howard Hughes played by Leonardo DiCaprio is in… Is at house and he’s having dinner with this wealthy family and is Katharine Hepburn’s family. And they said, the mom of Katherine Hepburn says, “We don’t care about money here.” And DiCaprio goes, “It’s because you have it.” And like it definitely was easy for Bo Jackson to be indifferent as his career went on. ‘Cause he was making millions and millions of dollars from Nike. And also he had dual full season, really full season professional football, baseball contracts. So he wasn’t hurting for money. I think it’s more interesting that a guy who was the national spokesperson for Nike really, and as big as Michael Jordan didn’t really care about attention. Like he kind of why, he liked being known as great, but he certainly didn’t need to be signing autographs and appearing at store openings, he had very little use for that.
Brett McKay: He didn’t like doing that stuff at all.
Jeff Pearlman: No, he did not. And part of it might be the stutter… Part of it might be the stutter and just his shyness. And again we don’t talk about this enough in sports, but often times you’re taking dirt poor kids, largely African American, thrusting them into this world and saying, “All right, have a good time swimming.” And it’s not a natural transition… It’s just not a natural transition.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So at Auburn he got recruited to play football, but he made it a contingency that he got to play baseball too, ’cause he wanted to…
Jeff Pearlman: And run track.
Brett McKay: And run track, right. So there’s three sports which is unheard of today. I don’t… I can’t think of any college athletes who are playing three different sports unless they’re some small division three college or something. During this time at college. What was his career like as a football player and baseball player? What did he excel at and were there moments where there the legend of Bo Jackson started being cemented?
Jeff Pearlman: Yeah, well, he was freshman year at Auburn, he became… They ran a wishbone. So it was it was a three back offense. And they had a guy named Lionel… They had a lot of NFL backs there, Lionel James, Tommy Agee, different guys. And he was very good as a freshman, excellent as a freshman, like freshman, all American freshman. But there’s… They played Alabama and I think Alabama had won the last nine Iron Bowls. The Iron Bowl was the Alabama Auburn game, and they won this game Bo going over the top from the one yard line. And Bo over the top is legend in Alabama. It’s still legend in Alabama. It’s such legend that people forget that was in late in the 4th quarter. But Auburn got the ball back and Bo actually fumbled and got the ball back to Alabama. And they, held on to win, but it was close. But that moment, Bo over the top really boosted him from just a guy… A really good Auburn player to an icon. And in baseball. So he played his freshman year and the coach was a guy named Paul Nicks, and he was an old school, hardcore red ass, not a fun guy to play for, would berate his players during games on a bullhorn from the dugout.
And Bo decided not to play sophomore year and he came back when Hall Barrett was named the new coach. And Bo Jackson has a moment his junior year in baseball. He would hit these moon shots, but there’s a… The first night game at the University of Georgia, they’d installed these lights, light poles with lights. He never had lights there. And it’s a first night game, Auburn, Alabama, and it’s a big deal. They print out commemorative tickets. It’s a sold out stadium. Vince Dooley, the legendary Georgia football coach is there, and they do it on purpose. Auburn Alabama and Bo Jackson’s playing in the outfield and the fans are heckling him from behind the fence.
And his first at bat, he grounds out and the fans are heckling him. And the 2nd at bat, he hits a home run that hits the lights, Like it hits the lights and the place goes silent, like silent. And this was 39 days before the natural came out where they the, Robert Revels actually hits the light… He hits the light. Bo Jackson runs back out to the outfield at the end of the inning and they stand all the fans who are really… Just destroying him, stand and start bowing. And he ends up hitting two more home runs in that game. Auburn destroys Georgia and his last at bat, he only doubles and the fans boo him for just doubling. There’s all this great… And that game is not on video, it’s not on tape. I interviewed a million different people from it, and that was kind of him. And that was his baseball legend really stems in a lot of ways from that game.
Brett McKay: So he had a great freshman year. How did his career pan out the rest of his college career?
Jeff Pearlman: It was more hot and cold than people remember football wise. He got hurt a couple times. He definitely got the reputation, a little bit of being soft, sitting out games. He had an injury against Tennessee and after the game, Tennessee was like, we just… We knew he was soft and we just wanted to get him out of there and they did. He won the Heisman Trophy as a senior and he was the presumed front runner from the beginning. And it just kept getting closer and closer and closer because people thought he was lazy. He got this reputation of being lazy. And one of the ugliest… I didn’t realize it as ugly at the time, but a huge moment in that season was Sports Illustrated did a cover and it was three Heisman Trophy, potential Heisman Trophy winners. It was Bo, it was Chuck Long from Auburn, and then it was Joe Dudek from division three Plymouth State. And Sports Illustrator made the case that Joe Dudek should win the Heisman Trophy. And he had all these stats, but he was playing division three. And the thing I didn’t think about until much later as an adult, was the racial component of it. Here’s Joe Dudek, scrappy white guy…
New Hampshire, works at his dad’s store, wears the eye paint under his eyes, his uniform’s always muddy. And here’s Bo Jackson, African American, everything comes easy to him. He doesn’t work hard, he’s just this guy, he’s lazy. And you realize looking back that a lot of these were really racist tropes and Bo Jackson. He wasn’t lazy, he was just freaking gifted. Like he wasn’t taking plays off. He was hurt. He got killed from missing time in another game. And it turns out he had some internal bleeding, and I just look back at the stereotypes in the cliches of Bo Jackson and they really make me cringe because he was a magnificent college football player.
Brett McKay: And how did he end up doing in baseball?
Jeff Pearlman: He was awesome. His junior year is one of the best seasons in Auburn history and SEC history. And his senior year was going, okay… Not great, but okay. And then what happened is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers secured the number one pick in the upcoming NFL draft. And somehow either via his agent, who Bo Jackson blamed, and he shouldn’t have had an agent at that time or you called her house, the owner of the Buccaneers. He thought it was okay to take a flight to Tampa to have a physical with the bucks. And he flew to Tampa. This is early in the baseball season and Auburn baseball was playing someone that night and the head coach, Earl Barrett asked the player, Where’s Bo? And someone’s like, Yeah, he’ll be coming. He flew to Tampa for… To meet with the Buccaneers. And Earl Barrett said, “He did did what?” He’s like, Yeah, he flew to Tampa and Earl Barrett really knew at that moment that his baseball legibility was done. And it was, he couldn’t… Under SEC rules, you couldn’t play or you couldn’t negotiate. You couldn’t do any of that at the time period. Professional. So that ended his baseball career, he was furious. Furious. If you wanna know the number one reason he didn’t sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being drafted, number one. It’s that moment.
Brett McKay: That’s another kind of thing that you talked about too in the book about what college sports was like in the ’80s, I think sometimes we forget like how crazy it was, right? We think college sports is crazy now, but there’s just so much crazy scandal stuff going on. How did Bo Jackson handle the off-field pressures and temptations of college sports in the ’80s?
Jeff Pearlman: You have to remember well he, if he had gotten caught, it would’ve been a mistake. He basically hired this guy named Freeland Abbott to be his business manager, which is a euphemism for agent. So Bo was getting money from this guy and getting goods from this guy and he wasn’t caught. And again, like I can never begrudge a kid who grew up in poverty, one of 10 taking stuff in college. It’s ridiculous that you couldn’t it’s preposterous. So that was the thing. They had… Auburn had weird, Pat Dye wrote in his book, he’s since deceased all about the virtues of running a clean program. And actually he was snorting out loud while reading the book because they had all these boosters handing players money as they ran off the field.
They had a whole scheme of how players could sell their tickets to boosters for thousands and thousands of dollars way above face value, it was the SEC in particular was the wild west back then. All these guys were getting… Or many of these guys were getting paid. Were having their families taken care of. I talked to a guy named Chuck Clanton who was a safety on that team, defensive back on the Auburn and he really wanted to go to Florida State and his parents made him go to Auburn because Auburn was giving him so much money, he had no choice. So it was a dirty world.
Brett McKay: So Jackson finished his collegiate career, it was amazing. Wins the Heisman had a great baseball career despite having been ineligible at the end of it. How did he end up playing both professional baseball and football? I imagine that was… If I was management of a football team or was management of a baseball team, I wouldn’t want an athlete that I’m paying millions of dollars to potentially to be playing another sport because he might get injured or something else. So how did he navigate that and how did that happen?
Jeff Pearlman: It’s actually a fascinating story. Everyone assumes he’s going to football, everyone assumes he’s going to the NFL, he’s gonna be the number one… He’s like, I’ll never sign with the Buccaneers. And the reaction is, yeah, okay buddy, where do you get the money? Of course you’re gonna sign. Well he’s drafted by the Bucks and the Buccaneers are convinced he’s gonna sign with them. And he’s saying, I’m gonna wait for the baseball draft. And everyone’s like, Okay, I’m sure you’re gonna wait for the baseball draft. But he does. And the Royals have them… The Royals are all about Bo Jackson, but they can’t use a high pick on him because what if he doesn’t sign with them? What if he does go to the NFL?
It’d be a hard, you can’t use a first round pick. You can’t blow it. So they wait and wait and wait and finally they get to a later round. And Art Stewart, who is the GM at the time or the head of scouting, said, We’re not gonna… It’s not gonna ruin our franchise if we use this pick on Bo. And They draft Bo and he’s all in. Like he does not want to go to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He feels like they deliberately ruined his baseball eligibility in college and he negotiates with the Royals and these long negotiations and they signed to it. They agree to a deal and he has these different out clauses for football in the contract. But he’s very adamant.
I’m playing baseball… I’m playing baseball. He spend his 1986 with the Memphis Chicks AA most of the season. He signed and goes to Memphis, plays terribly but at the end is really good, gets a… In his contract, he was guaranteed a call up in September. So he’s called up September, 1986, not far outta college. His first major league bat is amazing. It’s one of the best YouTube clips ever. It’s him facing Steve Carlton and beating out a ground ball to second base for a single. It’s utterly preposterous. And he plays his year in baseball and he’s always saying, “Don’t ask me football questions, don’t ask me football questions.” But on the side he’s kind of dropping hints to people like I, you know, I’m not saying I won’t play football. And he had a guy he played football with at Auburn named Chris Woods, a wide receiver who actually signed with the Raiders.
And one day Bo Jackson said to Chris Woods, he said, “Tell Al Davis if he drafts me, I’d be interested.” So the draft comes around in ’87, the Bucks loses rights, Raiders draft him late and they kind of reach out to him and he’s interested and the Raiders are giddy. They’re like, you can play half a season, you can take a month off after baseball’s done. Take your time, we’ll take you for six games, seven games, whatever. And the Royals are livid, just livid. His teammates are furious. Why is this guy getting special treatment? This is book, blah blah, blah, blah, blah. But they don’t really have a say in it, he has contractual control that he can do this. So he goes off and plays for the Raiders.
Brett McKay: And how did that mean. So when he played for the Raiders, how did he manage the friction with the royals? Was he ever chummy with those guys or was he just business?
Jeff Pearlman: He was chummy with a few of them. But generally, like Willie Wilson was merciless to the media about how mad he was at Bo. Frank White was clearly mad at Bo. George Brett was one of his closest friends on the team. And he wasn’t thrilled by it, but he was supportive. He didn’t care. He really didn’t care. And this is to his credit, not to… It’s not insult. He was all about his wife. He was all about his soon to be kids, his mom, his hometown to a certain degree. I don’t care if Kevin Siper hates me. Why do I care if Jim Sunberg is mad at me? What… How does that impact my life in any negative or positive way whatsoever? It is indifferent to me and I think it’s really impressive. I wish I was able to think the way Bo Jackson thinks about things. ‘Cause I think it’s impressive. He just didn’t care.
Brett McKay: No, I actually, that’s part I admired about him after I was reading about it. There was a moment where he was getting criticized by sports writers on the baseball side that he needed to show more leadership. And they said his lack of leadership was shown because he just… He didn’t get upset after they lost a game. Like he needed to be more sad. And Bo Jackson was just like, Why am I gonna take that home with me? Like it’s just… It was done. It’s a game. You move on. I’m not gonna mope around ’cause I don’t want that around my family.
Jeff Pearlman: Yeah. You know, sports, I ask athletes are asked to play roles. They’re almost asked to be actors. I’ve covered sports for a long time. Baseball team loses. You walk in the clubhouse with post game interviews, it’s dead quiet. No one can look happy. And he just like, he just wasn’t that guy. He wasn’t a joyful, he was a pain in the ass for the media. He was not good with the media. So it’s not like I’m saying he was wonderful, but he wasn’t gonna do your tap dance for you. He wasn’t just gonna put on a hat and a little cane and do a jig for you. He wasn’t that guy at all in fact, you would do the opposite. You guys think, I’m gonna play football, I’m gonna play baseball. You guys think I should go to extended spring training? No, I’m going home to be with my newborn kid. I’m not doing it. I don’t care. You’re gonna yell at me. I don’t care. I can beat the shit outta you. I’m not going to, But I don’t care. He just had that approach to it all. And again, I find it much, much more admirable than I do anything negative about it.
Brett McKay: And there’s awesome moments after the football season was over or the baseball season or before baseball season started, the Royals didn’t even have his phone number. And so when they were looking for him, they couldn’t find him. And usually he was off hunting or fishing or just off with his family doing something.
Jeff Pearlman: It’s amazing. The Raiders didn’t have his number either. So like they ask Art Shell the head coach, when is Beau reporting? And his answer is, I think Monday, but it might be Tuesday or Wednesday. I’m not sure. He kind of intimidated people. Like people were afraid to confront him. He was quiet. He was… He could definitely be moody. He was kind of brooding and like, he just wasn’t a guy to mess with. He made it like example, he made it very clear in both sports. He did not like signing things for teammates and he really did not like signing things for the other sports. So if you were a teammate with the Royals and you brought him Raider gear, he did not wanna do that. And vice versa, if you were on the Raiders. And guys weren’t challenging that, no one was coming up to him being like, Come on Bo, don’t be an asshole. They were not challenging that. He was a presence you did not wanna cross.
Brett McKay: So during, through his career, both in football and baseball, were there moments? What are the key moments you think that just kind of Bo Jackson became Bo Jackson, the Bo Jackson with the shoulder pads and baseball bat across his shoulders, Tech Mobile, Bo Jackson and we mentioned running across the outfield wall. Anything else that stands out to you?
Jeff Pearlman: Oh yeah. Bo Jackson’s made of neon moments. It’s all neon moments. In order, it’s him going over the top against Alabama is his first neon moment. Him winning the Heisman Trophy is his second neon moment. He’s a rookie and his first major, he got bat, he beats out a ground ball to second against a Hall of fame pitcher. Steve Carlton, who later, he later admitted he had never heard of, he didn’t know who he was, which is insane in football. His big coming out moment is Monday night Football against a Seahawks as a rookie in ’87 where he steam rows Bryan Bosworth, but also runs 91 yards for a touchdown and catches a touchdown pass. That was a huge moment for him in baseball. It’s the leading off the 1989 Allstar game at Anaheim with a home run on a picture perfect day with Vince Scully and Ronald Reagan and the booth with the debut of the Bo Nose, the Bo Diddly Ad as a commercial in that, during that game, like the whole bonus campaign was premiering on the day he led off the Allstar game with a home run. So the timing was amazing.
Then there’s Bo running up the wall up and down the wall in Baltimore, which is amazing. Funny thing about that, the guy who hit the ball, Joe Orsak didn’t know until about 10 years ago that he’d been the guy who hit the ball. He hit the ball, put his head down, was running hard, looks up in Bo Jackson, has the ball. He didn’t know, he ran up the wall. And then the other big one in baseball obviously is him throwing out Harold Randalls at home plate. Which is otherworldly and amazing. And those are really the iconic, him breaking a bat over his head and breaking a bat over his knee also. But those are the iconic moments. And the last real iconic moment for Bo Jackson as a baseball player, as a football player, is the 1991 playoff game against Cincinnati where Kevin Walker comes from behind and grabs his leg and pulls his hip out of the socket. That moment is iconic in its own way.
Brett McKay: Well that’s the injury that ended his career. Correct?
Jeff Pearlman: Yep. That was it.
Brett McKay: It wasn’t, just like it pulled out a socket like it actually, like was it damaged the bone, like the bone was degrading.
Jeff Pearlman: Yeah. So he stayed on the sideline for much of the rest of that game. The Raiders handled it terribly like that guy needed to be in a freaking hospital ASAP and he wasn’t. And he went for x-rays the next day and the doctor says, shows him and he goes, Bo, do you see all this dark here? He’s like, Yeah. He goes, That is all blood. And Bo Jackson said that’s the it’s the only time he remembers he hated needles, but it’s the only time he really remembered passing out, like almost passing out, was a sick sight of all this pooled blood in his body. And it became, the hip became diseased and yeah, he needed a new hip. He didn’t know at the time, but he needed a new hip. And the next, it’s funny, the next week, so the Raiders the following week are going to Buffalo to play the Bills and the playoffs at Buffalo and Bo Jackson’s getting destroyed in the media. He’s soft, he’s skipping. His heart isn’t into it. He’s not a real football player. There was a former Raider tight end named Todd Christensen, who just lay it lashed out at him. And none of these guys realized that like he was done, he could not do it again. And that there was all this internal blood pooling and he was there in Buffalo, they lost 51 to three and that was the last time Bo Jackson was at a Raiders game as a kind of player.
Brett McKay: And what happened to his baseball career?
Jeff Pearlman: Well, basically what happened is, so it’s all like a drama. It’s really a kind of sports soap opera from here. He has his injury. And the Royals front office is basically saying, “Man we fucking told you so, we told you this would happen, We knew this would happen. We told you not to play football and you played football. This is on you.” Bo Jackson did not respond to that well and he kept the injury kind of quiet, the extent of the injury and the seriousness of the injury. And he’s telling everyone, “I’m gonna report to spring training, I’ll be there on time” And actually The Royals, he was up for contract, I think it was arbitration at that point and he wound up getting a huge deal, one year deal. And he reports to spring training with the Royals. This is Spring 91.
And he’s on crutches and everyone’s like, Whoa. And he keeps telling people, “I’m gonna be ready, I should be ready. I’m very confident I’ll return” But he really wasn’t confident and he was terrified and he was working out in the pool and he was on a bike. He couldn’t run and he could barely walk and he was on crutches. And during spring training while he was in Alabama meeting with Dr. James Andrews about steps for his hip the Royals released him. He wasn’t even around they released him. It was really classless and they just didn’t feel like they had a choice. They just didn’t feel like they had a choice and he was so mad at The Royals and he really had no right to be ’cause he did decide to play football. He did get hurt playing football. He was useless as a baseball player and people were saying at the time, “Guys, it’s such a cutthroat business”. It’s not even that cutthroat of a decision. Why am I gonna sign a baseball player when he can’t play? It doesn’t make sense.
Brett McKay: Okay so he is cut from the Royals but then the White Sox decide to take a shot on him and they just sign him to like, it’s a minimal contract, but at this point the guy’s still on crutches. He hasn’t had hip replacement surgery yet but the White Sox still like “Hey, we’ll give you a chance. We’ll work with you”
Jeff Pearlman: They had a trainer, Ron Snyder who was. I think Ron Snyder who was really dogged and really determined and Bo Jackson he’s working out, working out, working out. The whole idea was we’re gonna strengthen the muscles around the hip, so we’re gonna do everything we can to strengthen everything around this. And they worked and worked and worked and worked and worked and worked and Bo Jackson kept promising, “I’m gonna come back, I’m gonna come back”. Everyone was like “You’re not coming back” The Chicago media was really dismissive of this whole carnival. And he came back, he actually came back without a hip replacement and he was a shell of his former self. He couldn’t generate the power. But 1991 he ended up playing 23 games with the White Sox, hit three home runs, had 14 RBIs. His first home run came against the Yankees Neal Heaton. And it was one of the most emotional moments of his life.
Again he’s not a crier and he is not an emoter, but that moment of hitting that home run was huge for him because he did something nobody thought he could do. Unfortunately he comes back for spring training in ’92 and because of the severity of the injury he’s sort of toast and he’s a shell of his former self. He’s hobbling all over the place. His one leg is shrunk a little bit. So he actually has a leg that’s shorter than the other leg and that’s when he winds up. It’s really sad. He winds up getting hip replacement. Everyone thinks he’s done and he comes back, he sits out off 1992 comes back in 1993 and is their DH for playoff winning team.
Brett McKay: Well, what was interesting you talked about when he was initially rehabbing his hip before the hip replacement that was like the first time Bo Jackson actually took training seriously. It seemed like he finally realized he didn’t have that, he couldn’t rely on his natural talent anymore. He had to do something to get back to where he wanted to be.
Jeff Pearlman: Yeah I think he was really good for him. I’m not saying that injury is good for him but I think the awareness, ooh this is what it’s like to be Craig Grebeck or Warren Newsom or some journeyman, this is what it’s like to be fighting for a job. So you have to really lift weights and you have to swim and you have to exercise and you have to sweat and you’re gonna stay after. His family was in Alabama, he moved in with the Chicago trainer, Herm Schneider. I said Rob Schneider, it’s gonna be Herm Schneider. He literally moved in with him and would go to the ballpark every day and work out the White Sox built this enormous pool for Bo Jackson, a rehabilitative pool that sort of created waves and such. And he was there every day and he went from a guy who people dismissed as sort of indifferent to a guy who was busting his ass. And his comeback in ’93 is one of the great. People don’t talk about it because he was not what he’s been. In 1993 at 232, 16 home runs 45 RBIs as a part time DH. It’s not a great season, but the comeback is one of his crowning achievements of his life because it… He was playing with basically your grandma’s artificial hip. It wasn’t a modern artificial hip, it was a plastic artificial hip. The screws were made of metal they would chip away at the plastic. It was dangerous. It was archaic. And he came back and was a functioning major league player.
Brett McKay: When did Jackson decide to retire from sports completely?
Jeff Pearlman: So he signed 1994 with the California Angels really as a spare part. Their GM was built with AC and he said to me, he said I’m gonna be honest we hired him and we signed him as a circus act like we weren’t gonna be good. He wanted to be out in California, bla, bla, bla. And ’94 he’s not very good. He’s kinda the same level he was in ’93. He hit higher at 279 average 13 home runs. And that was a strike year. And by the end of it all he didn’t really like playing with the Angels. They were not a fun team to play for. They weren’t very passionate, fans I live near here fans here are kind of crappy, just indifferent. And when the strike came he’s basically like You guys wouldn’t, probably never see me again and he left and he kept his word and they never saw him again. He barely talks to former teammates, He never talks to former managers. He became kind of reclusive without being, he’s not a hermit but he sort of became reclusive.
Brett McKay: What does he do, and what has he done since then? Since he’s retired from sports?
Jeff Pearlman: I actually I take that back a little. He’s a spring training instructor sometimes for the White Sox and Royals. And there’s actually an endearing clip of him speaking to I think it was Adam Larose’s son during a White Sox spring training explaining to him who he was and he’s like, “Have you ever heard of a thing called the Heisman Trophy?” And the kid’s like “Yeah.” And he’s like, “I won that”. He’s run a bunch of businesses. He tried acting a little bit. He was in some mediocre movies. He was in a Gene Hackman movie. He was actually pretty good in it. He’s run like different food companies, food distribution companies. He lives in suburban Chicago.
He shovels his own driveway. He drives his own Ford truck. He likes hunting. He loves barbecuing. He’s just a guy. Yeah. When the Uvalde tragedy happened, he paid for a lot of the funerals very quietly. He runs a charity every year… Bike race called Bo Bikes Bama… That started after one of the hurricanes years ago. He gives a lot of money. He’s prickly, he’s ornery, he’s not the best at card shows. He can be a pain in the ass… But he’s also endearing and lovable and just happy being a dad and a grandpa…
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah. Like the way you describe, like he just didn’t really… He’s like, Oh, sports, that’s something I did. And that’s it… Like, he doesn’t, reminisce about the old days. He’s not sad. He just, it’s that same Bo Jackson, like what was really important to him was family. I mean that seems like that like family was really important to this guy all throughout his life…
Jeff Pearlman: Very much so. I mean, you have to remember, he grew up with a single mom, rejected by his father in poverty and now he has a wife he loves and he has these three kids who he loves and he’s just endearing in that way. He’s endearing, not being endearing. Like again, you don’t wanna approach Bo Jackson while he was eating at a restaurant. You don’t, it’s not gonna be a good scene. He’s not gonna scream at you, but he’s gonna give you the look of death and tell you to walk away probably. But he does the important things well, he plays a lot of golf too. That’s not important. Right? He plays a lot of golf. He’s just a likable… His life is likable. I think it’s much cooler than if you were hosting a podcast right now talking about his old memories and if he was arguing why he should be in the Hall of Fame, like he doesn’t give a crap…
Brett McKay: Yeah…
Jeff Pearlman: He doesn’t give a crap. He’s the best. I love that he doesn’t give a crap.
Brett McKay: So I mean, after researching and writing about his life, what are the big takeaways or life lessons? I think one is just like, don’t care… Don’t take this stuff so seriously because it’s not that important in the long run… I imagine that’s one lesson, right?
Jeff Pearlman: I know. I think that’s a huge one. I also think if you wanna go a little deeper, and this doesn’t… I don’t think he bemoans it, but just because you have a gift doesn’t mean you can’t just coast on your gift. Like he probably coasted on his gift. Like he could have been a much better baseball player… Like a much, much, much better base… He had Mike Trout talent, Mickey Mantle talent, but he didn’t really wanna go to fall league and hang out with prospects and he didn’t really wanna do that stuff. And the good news is he doesn’t care in hindsight, he’s not upset about it. But I think the bad news is he could have been a Mickey Mantle or a Dave Winfield or someone like that, but he didn’t really work at it hard enough, I don’t think…
Brett McKay: Do you think it was a mistake to play two sports? Like spreading yourself too thin is that a lesson?
Jeff Pearlman: That’s a good question. I mean, not for him, ’cause I think he did exactly what he wanted…
Brett McKay: Right.
Jeff Pearlman: I think if you have… If you do it, you really have to think it out. I think in this day and age where people are much more intelligent about physiology and sort of how the body works and recovery, recovery time, health, nutrition intake, it’d probably be better designed, back then it really was. All right, baseball season’s done. I’m gonna take a couple weeks off then I’ll play football. Football season’s done, all right, a nap a little bit, then I’m gonna play baseball. Like the constant abuse on the body without really thinking enough about the body without… He didn’t have a personal trainer throughout those times. Giving him sort of maintenance tips, I think that would’ve helped a lot.
Brett McKay: Or yeah, you just put ice on it. Like if it hurts… Ice, that’s it… You’ll be fine…
Jeff Pearlman: Right. Obviously you’ll be fine, yeah…
Brett McKay: Well Jeff, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Jeff Pearlman: I’m on that awful thing called Twitter @JeffPearlman and my website jeffpearlman.com and the book is available where… All book buying platforms…
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Jeff Pearlman, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jeff Pearlman: Oh, thank you so much…
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jeff Pearlman. He’s the author of the book, The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, jeffpearlman.com. Also check at our show notes at aom.is/bo where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic…
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