The sad thing is that sooner or later, probably a year from now, Bo Jackson will have to decide. It won't be as easy a choice as it was for John Elway, who was a much better quarterback than batter, or even Kirk Gibson, who saw a rosier future in being an outfielder rather than a wide receiver. Neither Elway nor Gibson had much trouble settling on the right sport. But Jackson's choice is harder for the simple reason that he could well be a superstar in either football or baseball—but not in both.
"I wish I could do both," says Jackson, who hit .401 with 17 homers in 42 games for Auburn this spring. "At least, I'd like to try it to see if I liked it. But there's always going to be somebody to say, 'No, you can't do it.' "
As a running back, Jackson has few peers, and they have names like Walker, Warner and Dickerson. Last fall Jackson was the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy until he separated his shoulder. He'll get another shot next season, running out of a new I formation installed partly for his benefit.
Then there's baseball. The scouts see Jackson playing centerfield and start rubbing their wings like a chorus of crickets on a summer night. Joe Campbell, a bird dog for the Dodgers, says he has never scouted anyone more talented. Dickey Martin of the Braves says Jackson has graded higher on ability than any prospect since Dave Winfield. And Dick Egan of the Major League Scouting Bureau says flatly, "He's got as much talent as Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays."
The football scouts talk about him in the same excited tones. "He can be a Hall of Famer in football, too," says Les Miller, director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs. "He has that size [6'1", 222 pounds], that rare speed, the instincts and the great field of vision. He has that rare potential to be one of the alltimers."
For Jackson, the quandary is old hat. The Yankees offered him a $250,000" signing bonus out of high school, but he turned them down to go to Auburn. He played baseball as a freshman but, having missed most of preseason training because he was running indoor track, he struck out his first 21 times at bat. He ran track as a sophomore, then returned to baseball this spring and helped Auburn to a 30-22 record, third in the SEC. His statistics were impressive, but what really had the scouts buzzing was his unearthly combination of power, arm and speed rolled into the same package. "In seven years in pro baseball," says Auburn coach Hal Baird, a pitcher in the Kansas City Royals system in the '70s, "I saw four or five guys, total, who had the type of power Bo possesses; three or four who could run like he can; and three or four who could throw like he can. But those were 12 different people. It sounds like I'm talking about Superman."
If Jackson were going to play baseball this summer, he'd almost definitely be the first player picked in the June amateur draft. As it is, he'll go in a lower round to a team banking on him for next spring. (In another conference, he might have opted—as Elway did—to play in the Yankees' farm system the summer before his senior year. But the SEC, unlike the NCAA as a whole, does not allow an athlete to turn pro in one sport and stay an amateur in another.)
Despite all the raves, the inexperienced Jackson is not yet a sound fundamental player. "A diamond in the rough," says Dodger scout Campbell, who coached football against him in high school. "He hit all those home runs in high school [20 in his senior year, matching a national scholastic record] without any practice at all. He'd come over from track on game days."
There are plenty of stories about Jackson's speed (3.8 seconds down the line, as fast as any righthanded hitter in the majors). He stole nine bases this spring before he was thrown out, and recently he beat out a one-hopper to the pitcher.
At the plate, Jackson is a very good breaking-ball hitter. In fact, most of his homers come on curves and sliders that he takes to right. His weakness is the fastball on the inside, but it's a problem that won't last. "He's got the quickest wrists I've ever seen," says shortstop Rock Wilson. "To me, he's not human."
Indeed, he had everyone wondering after one homer during a game at Georgia's Foley Field on April 2. After grounding out in the first, Jackson came up in the fourth. "When I swung, everything slowed down," he says. "I saw the ball hit the bat—right on the thick of it. It was like something on TV."
It soared over the 375-foot sign and into the lights—85 feet high—in left center. People swear it was still rising when it hit the lights. "It was like The Natural," says Baird. "There were a couple of seconds of silence—people just watching—and then a standing ovation." Jackson hit two more home runs, then a double. The fans booed the double.
Talking strictly dollars and cents, Bo should pick baseball. He'd figure to end up with a much larger salary over a much longer career. The one drawback would be the two years he might have to spend in the minors, where the means of transportation wouldn't be to his liking. "Buses do something to me," says Bo, whose bad feelings about them go back to his rides to school in seventh grade.
Jackson could be an immediate millionaire in either football league (assuming there are still two a year from now), but in that sport, there's a greater danger that his career could end on one play.
So which will it be, pigskin or cowhide, Jim Brown or Willie Mays?
"To me it's all about making a living," says Bo. "It's like choosing one job from another—working in a steel mill or a sawmill. It's just whichever one you want to get into.
"I may just put the names of both sports in a bag, and whichever one I pull out, that's the one it will be."
Pigskin or cowhide? It depends on which sport makes the better pitch to Jackson.