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The legend of Bo Jackson and 'Bo Over The Top'

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Bo Jackson goes over the top (0:17)

Bo Jackson goes over the top for a game-winning touchdown to beat Bear Bryant in his final Iron Bowl. (0:17)

As Alabama and Auburn prepare for their 83rd meeting on Saturday afternoon, families across the Yellowhammer State are no doubt debating the greatest moments in college football's greatest rivalry, picking their favorite game-changing plays while picking over the Thanksgiving turkey.

With all due respect to 2013's "Kick-Six" and "The Kick" of 1985, the game and play that launched the Iron Bowl into the national consciousness was on Nov. 28, 1982, when one of college football's all-time greatest players launched himself over the goal line of Birmingham's Legion Field.

Bo Over The Top.

If one were able to dig through the Auburn football archives and miraculously find a copy of the Tigers' 1982 offensive playbook, they need not waste their time looking for "Bo Over The Top" among the goal-line sets. It isn't in there. It never was. It was instead dreamed up in practice because few of the goal-line plays in that book had been working very well.

"People ask me all the time about that play and how it was drawn up," says Jack Crowe, who was in his first year as Auburn's offensive coordinator in 1982. "Well, it wasn't drawn up, it was dreamed up."

Before we get to the play, a little background. It had been nine years since Auburn had beaten Alabama. Nine. Easily the longest period of time that the Iron Bowl teeter-totter had been stuck leaning in one direction. The man hired to solve the Tigers' crimson plight was Pat Dye, a Georgia Bulldog who'd managed to win at East Carolina and Wyoming before coming to The Plains.

When asked how long it would take to beat Bama, he replied "60 minutes." His first season on the Jordan-Hare Stadium sideline finished 5-6, dropping below .500 via that ninth straight Iron Bowl loss, falling 28-17 to the fourth-ranked Tide. Adding insult to injury, Alabama's ninth consecutive Iron Bowl was also Bear Bryant's 315th career victory, passing Amos Alonzo Stagg as FBS football's all-time winningest head coach.

"Coach Bryant was always a mentor to me," remembers Dye, who coached linebackers at Alabama from 1965 to '73 before leaving for ECU. "Because of the record, they had a special press room set up in a trailer and we had a great moment in there after that game. He told me Jimmy Carter had called him and I reminded him that Carter wasn't president anymore, that Ronald Reagan was. He said that since I was from Georgia he thought I'd be more impressed that Carter had called. Of course, Reagan had called him, too. He said, 'Pat, has any president ever called you?!'"

But as Dye left Legion Field that evening, he was preparing to make a couple of phone calls of his own. The Tigers needed an offensive boost. They'd failed to crack 20 points eight times in 11 games. His first call was back to Wyoming, hiring away Crowe, the Cowboys' offensive coordinator and a Birmingham native. His second call was one he'd made a few times already, to a multisport superstar in Bessemer, Alabama, named Vincent Jackson. The kid they called "Bo" had wanted to attend Alabama, but had been told by Bama coaches he'd probably not play until his junior year, and likely at linebacker.

"We told him he'd start as a freshman and he'd get to carry it 20 times a game," Crowe confesses now. "Now, how we were going to do that, we weren't entirely sure. We had a lot of running backs. But we figured it out. Just so happened that my 20-carries promise to Bo was the one promise that actually worked out!"

Jackson started his first game at fullback. Then he broke a long run in a season-opening win over Wake Forest. "We were walking off the field after the game," Dye recalls. "I said to Jack, I don't want to tell you how to do your business over there, but you might want to think about making that guy your featured back."

By the time Auburn hit the Iron Bowl regular-season finale, Jackson was indeed the guy, rushing for 829 yards as one branch of a wishbone that included Lionel "Little Train" James, freight train fullback Ron O'Neal and quarterback Randy Campbell. They were ferocious -- until they reached the goal line. Jackson was good, but he also had a tendency to lose the handle on the football.

"It wasn't drawn up, it was dreamed up." Jack Crowe, former Auburn offensive coordinator, on the play design for "Bo Over The Top."

With all that in mind, Crowe and running backs coach Bud Casey concocted a way to take advantage of Jackson's tri-sport background.

"Bo and I were always jawing," Casey said in 2010, five years before his death. "I always joked with him that he didn't even like football. We'd catch him staring out the window during meetings, watching the baseball team practice. He was also a state champion high jumper, so all the time he was, 'Coach, when are you gonna let me jump over the top! You gotta let me jump over the top!' It was just joking. But then one day, Jack and I were like, you know, this might actually work. But only because it's Bo."

It was Nov. 24, 1982, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the last day the Tigers would practice in full pads before the Iron Bowl. Casey and Crowe had been watching film of Alabama and Casey said, "We have to figure out something, because we can't block these guys."

That afternoon, as the rest of the team practiced, the two coaches grabbed two of their players -- Jackson and Campbell -- and walked them to a side field, where a high jump pad was waiting. Campbell would take the "snap" and hand it off to Jackson, who worked to see how much momentum he could build from a standing start in the back right corner of the wishbone, only four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Casey recalled, he was constantly reminding the 18-year-old to keep his hands on the football.

"If you're running it out of the I [formation] then you've got more time to gain speed and launch," Jackson explains. "Out of the wishbone you're at an angle and there's less room. So I would launch off both feet. Just get as high as you can, but headed in the right direction."

Crowe, Casey, Campbell and Jackson all liked what they saw. The next day, in the pad-less walk-through practice, they ran the play with the entire offensive line. Campbell would hand it off to Bo, who wouldn't actually jump, but instead mimic the motion while the entire line would jump to the ground and lie down. "If you saw us running that in practice, you would have thought, 'What in the hell are they doing? They've lost their minds. They'll never run this goofy play.'"

You can add the head coach to that list. Dye, a defensive guru, was focused on a defense that played extremely well all season, and the bigger picture. He trusted Crowe. That's why he'd hired him. As a result, he hadn't really seen the work on the new play, which was never drawn up or written down. It did have a name, though: "Bo Over The Top."

"In 40-something years of coaching, that's the only play I've had where we put a player's name in the name of the play," Crowe says, laughing. "But Bo is also the only guy we would've run that play with."

The game was a classic Iron Bowl heavyweight brawl. It didn't matter that neither team was ranked, both sitting at 7-3 and both coming off disappointing losses, Auburn falling 19-14 to Herschel Walker's Georgia Bulldogs and the Tide being stunned by Southern Mississippi at home, 38-29. Both had used a bye week to prepare and both were eager to salvage their seasons.

There had already been five lead changes as the game ground into the final minutes and Auburn trailed 22-17 with 7 minutes, 6 seconds remaining and starting a drive at its own 33-yard line. The Tigers marched, converting a fourth-and-1 near midfield and also third-and-13 via a 15-yard Campbell pass. Campbell was actually intercepted on the drive, but the pick was erased via a pass interference penalty and set Auburn up with a treacherous first-and-goal at the 9 with less than 3:00 remaining. The QB hit Jackson on a crossing route, but the back was stopped a foot and a half short of the goal line.

There was 2:30 on the Legion Field clock. It was fourth-and-goal at the 18-inch line. Legend has it that Jackson went to Dye on the sideline, reminded him of his high school high jump title, and begged to run the next play. The truth is a little less Hollywood, but no less awesome.

"Pat was the head coach and it was his call whether or not we were going to go for it on fourth down," Crowe says. Not going for it wasn't as crazy as it sounds. The Auburn defense hadn't given up a point in the fourth quarter and had already forced the punt that had set up this drive. "But he said to go for it and he trusted us to make the right playcall. But he also trusted us to put the ball in the hands of the best athlete in the stadium."

With the not-so-neutral Legion Field crowd of 78,170 shaking the rafters, Campbell took the snap, perfectly tucked it into the navy No. 34 in the center of Jackson's white jersey, and stepped out of the way, just as he'd done three days earlier at the high jump pit. The Auburn linemen got low, pushing the scrum down as close to the ground as they could. Jackson set his two feet and launched.

"What's amazing to me about the play is that Bo actually changes direction in the air," Keith Jackson recalled in 2015. He was the man on the call for ABC Sports, shouting "Jackson -- touchdown!" and then choosing to stop talking so that the people at home could hear the crowd's reaction. "There was a linebacker who read the play and had himself in the right spot, just beneath Bo to grab him and keep from crossing the goal line. But Bo actually twisted, tucking the ball to protect it, and placed himself into a nice little gap between two defenders to plop in there on that turf."

Auburn led 23-22, but it wasn't over. With 2:26 remaining, a lot happened after Bo Over The Top. Auburn failed on a two-point conversion attempt. Alabama drove, but threw an interception. Auburn turned it over, too, when Jackson went over the top, but fumbled.

That's right, there was a Bo Over The Top II, and the fumbleitis that everyone feared had shown up, though thankfully not on the first leap. Auburn's defense came up huge again, and when the final Alabama pass attempt fell to the turf, it was joined by Tigers fans chanting "War Eagle!" as they tore down the goalposts and carried Dye off the field.

The nine-game losing streak was over. Auburn would win six of its next eight against Alabama, including four in a row. The game was also Bryant's final Iron Bowl. He ended the '82 season with three consecutive losses and, after defeating Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, he retired from coaching. One month later, he passed away. His grieving apprentice, Pat Dye, won the first of his four SEC titles the following year. In 1985, Bo Jackson won the Heisman Trophy.

"My life completely changed in one second," Jackson says now. "Before that play, people who were Auburn football fans probably knew who I was. But the second I landed in that end zone, on national television, first time Auburn had won in a long time, and Bear Bryant standing over there on the sideline ... from that moment on, people knew who Bo Jackson was. People knew who the Auburn Tigers were. All because of that play."

"All the plays that you design and draw up and win games with, you never expect to have a play that sticks with you the rest of your life," Crowe says with a tone of total disbelief. "Here we are, what, 36 years later? And people ask me about it every single day."

They also ask the coach to draw up the play, even though he never actually did that in '82. Whenever he diagrams "Bo Over The Top" or any other play he designed for Jackson, Crowe always adds a little extra reminder.

"I draw all the X's and O's normal size, but when I get to the running back position I draw that O about four times bigger than all the others and I tell them, that's the key to making sure this play works the way it's supposed to. That's Bo Jackson."