Bo knows stardom and disappointment
By Ron Flatter
Special to

There have been others -- from Jim Thorpe to Deion Sanders. But even now, eight years after he played his last football game and four years since his last baseball game, Bo Jackson is still considered by many to be "the man" among multi-sport athletes.

 Bo Jackson
Although he had the Heisman Trophy on his resume already, Bo Jackson's 221 yards rushing against Seattle a month into his pro career really captivated American sports fans.
Legendary? To this day, memories of Jackson linger, and not just because an ad campaign made "Bo Knows" a mantra. There was that Monday Night Football touchdown run through Seattle's Brian Bosworth in 1988. There was the 1989 All-Star Game home run, which he hit while Ronald Reagan was in the TV booth describing it.

He never played for a world champion, but the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Jackson was the first athlete named to play in the All-Star Game of two major sports. Not bad for a guy who won a Heisman Trophy and became a 1998 College Football Hall of Fame inductee in a sport he described as his "hobby."

"When people tell me I could be the best athlete there is, I just let it go in one ear and out the other," Jackson said when his star was near its apex in 1990. "There is always somebody out there who is better than you are."

Maybe in one sport or the other. But from the fall of 1987 to the winter of 1991, Bo knew no equal among paid athletes who took less than two months off.

In baseball, he was a career .250 hitter with 141 home runs and 415 RBI in 2,393 at-bats in eight major-league seasons (1986-91, 1993-94) as an outfielder and designated hitter with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and California Angels. He hit 107 homers for the Royals from 1987 through '90, when he also played pro football.

As a part-time running back making full-time money with the Los Angeles Raiders, he ran for 2,782 yards on 515 carries, an impressive 5.4 average, and scored 18 touchdowns running and receiving in that 1987-90 period. He is the only player in NFL history to have two rushing touchdowns of 90 yards or more, with a 91-yarder coming when he rambled for a Raiders record 221 yards against Seattle a month into his pro football career.

His last play as a Raider began the end of both his football and baseball careers. Even though the 1991 injury would lead to hip-replacement surgery in the spring of 1992, Jackson would make a triumphant return to baseball before retiring for good.

Vincent Edward Jackson was born Nov. 30, 1962, in the steel town of Bessemer, Ala. The eighth of Florence Jackson Bond's 10 children, he was named after her favorite television actor, Vince Edwards, who portrayed Dr. Ben Casey. A child renegade, his family said Jackson was as wild as a "boarhog." Eventually, he came to be known as "Bo."

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About his tough childhood, Bo said in his book "Bo Knows Bo," "We never had enough food. But at least I could beat on other kids and steal their lunch money and buy myself something to eat. But I couldn't steal a father. I couldn't steal a father's hug when I needed one. I couldn't steal a father's whipping when I needed one."

Hardly a model student, Jackson showed his prowess in sports -- plural. At McAdory High School in McCalla, Ala., Jackson claimed two state decathlon championships. As a senior, he ran for 1,173 yards on 108 carries (10.9 average) and scored 17 touchdowns in football, and slammed 20 home runs in 25 games in baseball.

His baseball talent caught the attention of the New York Yankees, who selected him in the second round of the June 1982 draft. But Jackson turned down their multiyear contract offer to accept a football scholarship from Auburn.

In college, Jackson ran for 4,303 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in the regular season. Twenty-one times he rushed for three figures. He culminated his Auburn career in 1985 with four 200-yard rushing games in a 1,786-yard season and won the Heisman Trophy, an achievement Jackson called "my greatest honor."

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Jackson the first selection of the 1986 NFL draft. But Jackson rejected their five-year, multi-million dollar contract. "My first love is baseball," he said, "and it has always been a dream of mine to be a major-league player."

So Jackson, who as a junior center fielder at Auburn hit .401 with 17 homers with 43 RBI in 42 games, waited until the Royals made him a fourth-round pick in the 1986 baseball draft before signing his first pro contract. After spending only 53 games in the minors, Jackson made his major-league debut on Sept. 2, 1986, and got an infield single off Steve Carlton in his first at-bat.

It would not be long before he would moonlight. Since he did not sign with the Buccaneers, his name went back into the 1987 draft, and the Raiders picked Jackson in the seventh round. Unlike the Bucs, Raiders owner Al Davis embraced Jackson's baseball career. When Davis offered full-time money to pursue part-time football work after each baseball season, Jackson signed a four-year contract.

By 1989, Jackson was a baseball All-Star. His mammoth home run to center in Anaheim off Rick Reuschel leading off for the American League made him the All-Star Game MVP.

In 1990, the 698 yards he gained in 10 games with the Raiders earned him a selection to the Pro Bowl, though he would never play in the game. That's because on Jan. 13, 1991, he suffered a hip injury while being tackled during the Raiders' playoff victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. No one knew at the time, but the resulting condition, known as avascular necrosis, would lead to the deterioration of the cartilage and bone around his left hip joint.

When Jackson's hip did not respond to treatment, the Royals released him. He was picked up by the White Sox, but Jackson's natural hip had given out for good after he played only 23 games in 1991. Within a year, the joint had deteriorated so much, doctors replaced it with an artificial hip.

Medical and athletic experts figured Jackson would not be heard from again. Apparently, there were no Bo Jackson experts to be heard. During the months after the operation, Jackson worked himself and his prosthetic hip back into shape. Not just to walk, but to run and compete.

Jackson's return to the White Sox was even a bigger splash than his previous double burst into pro sports. In his first game back in 1993, Jackson pinch-hit a home run off the Yankees' Neal Heaton. Although he hit 16 homers that year, he batted just .232 and the White Sox released him. Jackson then hit a career-high .279 with 13 homers in 201 at-bats for the Angels in 1994.

His career ended all too quietly when that season was cut short by a players strike. Not long after, his "Bo Knows" campaign for Nike, once a loud voice on the advertising landscape, ended just as quietly. Before the 1995 season began, Jackson retired from pro sports.

"God has his way of opening up our eyes to see reality," he said. "The way He opened my eyes is to allow me to have this hip injury. That is a rough way to go, but I had to accept the fact."

Keeping a promise he made to his mother before she died of cancer in 1992, Jackson went back to Auburn and graduated in December 1995 with a bachelor of science degree in family and child development.

He opened a motorcycle shop outside Chicago and went into partnership with Charles Barkley on an Alabama restaurant. He serves as president of the Sports Medicine Council, a non-profit, youth outreach organization of HealthSouth Corporation.