Bo Jackson, the world’s greatest living athlete and the only man to be an All-Star in baseball and a Pro Bowler in football, has a confession to make.
If Bo knew back in his playing days what he knows now:
Bo never would have won a Heisman Trophy at Auburn. Bo never would have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Bo never would have worn a Los Angeles Raiders uniform. Bo never would have trampled Brian Bosworth on Monday Night Football. And Bo never would have suffered the dislocated left hip that ended his football career.
“If I knew back then what I know now, I would have never played football. Never,” Jackson tells USA TODAY Sports. “I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. And the people that did know that, they wouldn’t tell anybody.
“The game has gotten so violent, so rough. We’re so much more educated on this CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) stuff, there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play football today.
“Even though I love the sport, I’d smack them in the mouth if they said they wanted to play football.
“I’d tell them, ‘Play baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, just anything but football.'”
Jackson was leery of the game’s exploitative tendencies when he came out of Auburn — a suspicion he says played a significant role in his shunning of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and that, in concert with greater knowledge of head injuries and their effect on deceased stars such as Junior Seau, forced a greater re-examination of the sport.
And without football, there’s no telling what Jackson might have accomplished in his other sport.
Jackson, 54, who will be honored Saturday with the Scouts Dream Award at the 14th annual Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation banquet in Beverly Hills, knows that football truncated his career, but he has no bitterness.
If he had just stuck to baseball, perhaps he and George Brett — who will present him with his award — would not only have been former Kansas City Royals teammates but also fellow baseball Hall of Famers.
If he had played baseball only, perhaps every Mike Trout and Bryce Harper who comes along would be compared to Bo Jackson.
“You know what? I still wouldn’t change a thing,” Jackson says. “The man upstairs had a plan of the way of working things out, and they did. I have no regrets.”
Ready to walk away
This comes from a man who was just one week away from shocking the sports world and retiring from football so he could focus on his baseball career.
Jackson revealed to USA TODAY Sports that he had planned to retire from the NFL after the 1990 season. He still had a contract with the Raiders, making the Pro Bowl that season, but planned to walk away and solely play baseball once the season ended.
Instead, a hit from Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Kevin Walker on Jan. 13, 1991, forced him into retirement. The hit broke and dislocated his left hip in the third quarter of a divisional playoff game.
Jackson thought it was simply a hip pointer, which would have allowed him to return the next week to play the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game.
Jackson, who suffered from hip necrosis that required surgery for an artificial hip, never put on a football uniform again.
“That week, three or four days before the playoff game, I sat down with Linda (his wife and mother of their three children) and told her that I was going to announce my retirement,” Jackson says. “When the season was over, we had made my mind up that I was going to do that. That was the plan.
“Well, the man upstairs changed that plan. I’m not a very religious guy, but I believe in God, and I believe God works things out for a reason. If I had retired before my contract was over, I would have probably been hated by Raiders fans forever.”
Instead, Jackson is beloved wherever he goes, well, with the exception of Tampa.
Betrayal by Buccaneers
Jackson, the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner, was selected by the Buccaneers with the first pick in the 1986 draft. He refused to sign. He was willing to play for any other team in the NFL, but not the Buccaneers, who were owned at the time by Hugh Culverhouse.
Jackson thought the Bucs were responsible for him becoming ineligible to play baseball in his senior season at Auburn. They had sent a private plane to pick up Jackson for a physical in Tampa and allegedly reported the infraction to the NCAA.
It was nothing more than betrayal, Jackson says, and he never forgave the Bucs.
“Their people said they were looking out for me and checked with the NCAA that it was OK for me to go on their plane for that physical, but nobody checked it out,” Jackson says. “Well, I put 2 and 2 together and figured it out. They knew I was a first-round pick in football, but they wanted to get me away from baseball, so they got me ruled ineligible. I’m 100% convinced of that. They thought that would make me forget baseball.
“I told myself, ‘All right, if you screw me, I’m going to screw you twice as hard.’ If anybody else had drafted me, I would have gone, but I wasn’t going to play for that man.
“People thought I was crazy, but it was just morals. If you screw me over like that and I’m not part of a team yet, just think what they’d do to me under contract. I couldn’t do that. I needed the money. I was as poor as a Mississippi outhouse. But I couldn’t play for that man.
“I also observed the way they were treating people. The fact the owners kept calling the players, ‘These are my boys.’ Their wives were doing the same thing. I couldn’t go there. I always believed that if you don’t believe in yourself and stand for what you believe is right, who else is going to have faith in you?”
A gem on the diamond
The NFL’s loss was baseball’s gain.
Royals scout Kenny Gonzales persuaded the Royals to select Jackson in the 1986 draft, burning a mere fourth-round pick. He had scouted every one of Jackson’s games and was in awe of Jackson’s speed, power and athletic prowess. He spent time talking with Jackson’s baseball coaches, sat down with his family and truly believed Jackson wanted to be a baseball player.
“He’s the reason I played baseball in Kansas City,” Jackson says of Gonzales, who died of a heart attack in 1994. “He asked me if I was serious about playing baseball. I told him I was. The rest is history.”
After just 53 games in the minor leagues, Jackson was a September call-up in 1986. He hit his first home run in his seventh game, a 475-foot shot off Seattle Mariners pitcher Mike Moore, still the longest home run hit at Kauffman Stadium.
Jackson became an everyday player in 1987. In 1989, he was MVP of the All-Star Game and hit 32 homers with 105 RBI in a year marked by his iconic “Bo Knows” Nike ad campaign.
He might have been a perennial All-Star, but football never left his soul. A year after he rejected the Bucs, Jackson was drafted by the Raiders in the seventh round. They offered him a five-year, $7.4 million deal. Just like that, Jackson had a new hobby.
“I always had it in my mind, even in college, I wanted to do both sports, even at the pro level,” Jackson says. “There were only a couple of other teams out there I would have played for at that time, the Raiders and 49ers. I would have loved to play for (Hall of Fame coach) Bill Walsh. But I’m thankful I got to experience Al Davis, the most charismatic owner in professional sports to this day. He was an icon.”
Everything changed on that January afternoon in 1991. The hip injury led to hip necrosis, which led to hip replacement surgery. Jackson played parts of three more seasons with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels but was never the same player. His last game as a pro athlete was Aug. 10, 1994, getting a single in his final at-bat off Tom Gordon in a 2-1 victory against the Royals.
The Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike the next day and the World Series was canceled a month later, quietly ending Jackson’s career.
“That’s all right. I’ve got no regrets,” Jackson says. “I know Bo Jackson was good for professional sports at one time. I know pro sports was great for Bo Jackson, then and now.”
Jackson lends his name to a training facility in Illinois, Bo Jackson’s Elite Sports, and maintains business relationships with Nike and Gatorade, but otherwise he maintains a quiet profile. He rarely watches sporting events these days. He missed the 2015 Royals’ World Series championship. He skipped the Raiders’ wild-card playoff game last weekend. He didn’t bother watching Clemson’s national championship victory against his old college rival, Alabama, although he does attend games occasionally at Auburn.
“I’m not a good spectator. I get bored watching,” Jackson says. “But I sure loved playing the game. I loved the competition. I loved being better than the next guy. I enjoyed watching people’s eyes jump out of their heads watching me do something that was normal to me.
“So there’s no reason for anyone to feel sorry for what happened to me or what might have been. I didn’t play sports to make it to the Hall of Fame. I just played for the love of sport.
“I still don’t know what my stats were, but I know I’m still reaping the benefits, enjoying the accolades and all of the awards that still come to me.
“I’m blessed. Things turned out all right.”- by Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY