For how many years of his life did the seasons blend seamlessly,
one into another, baseball into football into spring training?
As far as he knew, autumn foliage was simply Mother Nature's way
of signaling a new and only slightly different round of
room-service menus. Turns out these damn leaves, after they turn
orange and fall, get blown about your yard and gather in your
garage, crowding up on your Harley, your Viper, your Mercedes.
For how long has this been going on?
Bo Jackson, one surprised and concerned civilian, stands in his
driveway, armed and dangerous as ever, contemptuous as ever,
looking exactly as we left him, strong and menacing. His new
leaf blower, bought on one of his almost daily trips to Sears
and Home Depot, is at his famous hip. "I blew these out
yesterday," he says of the skittering garage invaders, "which
was fun. But they got back in." They will be blown out again,
and blown out forever. He has just bought a leaf mulcher.
The whine of lawn and garden machinery in suburban Chicago is
all that announces his retirement. The profile of America's once
busiest sportsman is now so reduced that he might be mistaken
for a one-man yard crew in the gated Burr Ridge community. Hard
to believe that he was, for most of the last 10 years, one of
the most famous athletes in our midst, appearing on football
fields, baseball diamonds and hunting shows, and of course, in
athletic shoe commercials. He was the first genuine two-sport,
all-star pro athlete and, apologies to Deion Sanders, maybe the
last. Even in his failures he was more galvanizing than some
hip-hop, gold-entwined, punt-returning pipsqueak. He would
strike out, break a bat over his knee--just like that--and, well,
that's entertainment, folks. Then, to top it all off, this shy
and stuttering Alabaman reworked his odd charisma into a
commercial bonanza--Bo Knows This and That--in one of the most
famous campaigns in advertising history.
Now, as the seasons blend into each other, with the World Series
commingling with the heart of the NFL schedule--Bo's time, the
way we remember it--here he is, leaves gone, splitting open bags
of grass seed. His leaf blower has revealed a bare spot on his
lawn. "This is what I do," he tells a visiting photographer,
daring him to find something heroic in Bo's chores. He almost
sneers. "This is my life." Change of seasons.
The retirement actually came more with a whimper than with a
bang. Football was taken away from him rather abruptly in 1991
when his hip was dislocated, severing a blood vessel. But
baseball just seemed to peter out. He was never the same after
his football injury, though in his impossible baseball comeback
after the hip was replaced, he was still capable of the
spectacular. George Brett, like a lot of other players and fans,
used to say the one at bat he would never miss was Bo's. But
finally, at the age of 32, after average production in the
strike-shortened 1994 season, Bo decided he'd had it. The
announcement came in April, when nobody was paying much
attention to either baseball or him. In the confusion over the
resumption of the national pastime, he just disappeared into
suburban life with his wife, Linda, and their three kids,
Garrett, 9; Nicholas, 7; and Morgan, 5.
Does it seem like only yesterday that he was blasting one into
the upper deck of Anaheim Stadium in the All-Star Game? Racing a
bottle of tea down a skyscraper in a TV commercial? Bowling over
Brian Bosworth in one of most satisfying collisions of all time?
Bo plods along behind his seed spreader. "Guy asked me at the
gym last night who was going to win the World Series," he says.
"I asked, 'Who's in it?'"
Perhaps history will not be kind to Bo, and his two careers will
be remembered as a sort of novelty act, a contrived marketing
phenomenon. He had Hall of Fame-level seasons, to be sure. In
1989, while playing for the Kansas City Royals, he hit 32 home
runs, drove in 105 runs and was named MVP of the All-Star Game.
Ten days after that baseball season ended he joined the Los
Angeles Raiders and in just 11 games rushed for 950 yards. The
next season he was picked for the Pro Bowl. But because of his
hip injury he couldn't turn those seasons into Hall of Fame
careers. There were events--a mammoth home run in Fenway Park; a
throw in the Kingdome in Seattle (a flat-footed peg from deep
leftfield that cut down a runner at home); any of a number of
rushes that combined his sprinter's speed with 230 pounds of
smashing muscle (how about his 91-yard run in Seattle, right
into the stadium tunnel?)--that will long be remembered. But they
don't add up to anything very satisfying. His potential was
revealed, but there is no residual beyond his endorsement fame.
Strangely, that fame outlasts all others; even though his
contract with Nike lapsed in June of '94, and even though there
has not been a Bo Knows ad for nearly two years, he came in
seventh in a recent survey on the recognizability and
credibility of athlete endorsers. A catchphrase may be his most
But as his ignorance of this year's World Series suggests, Bo
couldn't care less. He goes about his day, surprised by the ebb
and flow of nature, indifferent to the supposed demands of
destiny. He has a part interest in a restaurant in Alabama with
his old Auburn schoolmate Charles Barkley, he is doing a
speaking tour on behalf of a hospital chain and he is intent
upon an acting career. And next month he plans to open a shop in
Chicago where he and his partner will customize
Harley-Davidsons. Bored? "No. No. No," he says, softly, in rebuke.
He gathers two bows (from his collection of perhaps two dozen)
and a quiver of arrows and, having done his chores, gives an
impromptu archery demonstration. As a kid he made his own bows,
made arrows with bent bottle caps for arrowheads, and ventilated
much of the poultry in little Raimond, Ala. Now he zeroes in on
Styrofoam targets that have been erected 30 yards deep into the
woods beyond his deck. "Sometimes a 13-year-old boy comes
around, and we shoot at targets," he says, even though the boy's
presence infuriates the oldest of Bo's children. "Doesn't he
have a dad of his own?" asks Garrett.
Bo releases the arrow and it travels 300 feet per second into
the heart of a gray foam pig that his visitor can't quite see.
Bo peers at the visitor over his small round glasses. His look
mixes resignation and arrogance: He can't help it, he's so good.
"Being able to participate in sports, to be successful at them,
that's just one of the accessories that came with the package,"
His achievements were not exactly accidental: The ability to
play a major league sport after hip-replacement surgery (he had
a second replacement operation this past summer) suggests a will
or character that is made, not inherited. But Bo does not claim
much credit for his feats and, consequently, does not permit
himself much satisfaction from them. This is infuriating to
mortals. Professional football, as he once told us, was his hobby.
Bo's wife, who has a doctorate in psychology and ought to have a
better handle on him than anybody, agrees that his indifference
is more than annoying. Linda remembers his hitting three home
runs in three at bats, taking a month off for an injury and
returning to hit a fourth home run in his next at bat.
"'Vince,'" she remembers saying to him (she alone is allowed to
address him by his given name), "'don't you think that's kind of
a big deal?' But it was nothing to him."
There's not much, after all these seasons, that he is openly
proud of. Marrying Linda, that's one thing. He still can hardly
believe it. "I know that I married over my head," he says. And
he's proud of his college degree, which he received after taking
10 correspondence classes over the last three years. Mostly
though, his dominance is so inescapable that he cannot take it
Bo tells a story of a guy at the local gym ("on the juice," he
says) who challenged him to a weightlifting contest. Bo beat
him, even though he doesn't lift weights. He tells the story
with a shrug, his pride mostly secret. "I'm just naturally
strong," he says.
So why should he regret his retirement if he never exulted in
his work? Bo now withdraws to his basement sanctuary, a
five-by-10-foot cubbyhole that has been subdivided from a
utility room. He makes his arrows there and thinks. "I can
probably say, if I wanted to be in the baseball Hall of Fame, I
could have been easily," he says. "If I wanted to be in the
football Hall of Fame, I could have done that too. But I can say
also that I wouldn't go back and change a thing." His time came
and went. "Nobody waits for you to hit your last homer, score
your last touchdown. You have to grow up. You have to move on."
He says he knew back in college that he would move on before the
age of 34. But even Bo might have been subject to the inertia
that makes well-paid stars--in his prime he made as much as $7
million a year--stay around from season to season. What hurried
him out of baseball was not his increasingly part-time status
with the California Angels but his consistently part-time status
with his kids. He had begun to brood about his failings as a
father, much as he had come to brood about his own father's
failings with him. As his athletic career matured, Bo realized
that important issues had been ducked. The pain that surfaced in
him had less to do with his hip than with entangled family
"Whenever I had free time," he says, thunking an arrow into his
workbench, "I'd spend the whole day with my kids." Raised
without a father, or rather with a crosstown father who denied
Bo his name, love and attention, Bo was fiercely determined to
be a hands-on dad. "My children," he would tell Linda with a
strange vehemence, "will be loved." But for all the attention
that he gave them, he noticed that they still went to their
mother when it was crunch time.
"Why do they go to you whenever they have a problem?" he asked
"Because I get up with them every morning," she said.
This was surprising news. Bo would have given anything to have
had a father like ...Bo. "My own father," he says, "do you know
what I thought a father was? A man who came to your house every
month and a half and left $20 on the table." The harshness of
that comment only hints at the depth of his resentment. A.D.
Adams, called Big Track, lived with his wife and his other
children 20 minutes away, and life was no doubt complicated for
him. But Bo, who was raised by his mother, Florence, was
unforgiving. He blamed A.D. for whatever trouble he got into,
and there was plenty of it: Bo has boasted of such
indiscriminate meanness that he had to hire kids to beat up
schoolmates, because "I didn't have time to beat all of them up
"If I'd had a father figure," Bo says, thunking that arrow into
the wood, "I wouldn't have strayed."
Did Bo ever think: Was I a man who came to his children's house
those times of the year when there wasn't baseball or football,
and left some multiple of $20 on the table? "No. No. No," he
says softly, in rebuke. He was no A.D., although his schedule
was pretty busy there for a while. "Don't you see," he says, "I
had no father." Different.
"My father has never seen me play professional baseball or
football," he says. Thunk! Thunk! "I tried to have a
relationship with him, gave him my number, said, 'Dad, call me,
I'll fly you in.' Can you imagine? I'm Bo Jackson, one of the
so-called premier athletes in the country, and I'm sitting in
the locker room and envying every one of my teammates whose dad
would come in and talk, have a beer with them after the game. I
never experienced that."
From Linda's point of view, the estrangement was faintly
ridiculous. She wasn't going to deprive her children of their
only remaining grandparent. She resolved to take the kids down
to Alabama last year to see their grandfather. Bo remained
stubborn and pitiless. "I wouldn't go," he says. He would hear
from his five sisters that A.D. would sometimes come around, ask
how Bo was, say he wanted to make up with Bo. The sisters would
say A.D. was crying. He wasn't getting any younger; he'd been
retired from his job at the coal-processing plant for three
years. Still: "This was a guy," Bo says, "who wouldn't even make
a phone call."
What was it Nick had said last spring? Nick is the Jackson kid
most like his father: quiet, plays on his own. What did he say,
what was it exactly that pushed this paradigm of fame into
suburban anonymity? "Why is Daddy never home? Does he have
another home with more kids?"
Bo didn't need any more than that to announce his retirement. He
had been looking forward to his freedom ever since the baseball
strike gave him a taste of life at home. And now he's the guy
taking the kids to school in the morning, putting them to bed at
night. But Nick's words also worked on him in another way,
reverberated weirdly, and he spent a lot of time in his basement
corner thinking about them while thunking that arrow into his
workbench. If he decided to be a father, could he decide just as
easily to be a son?
"I decided to see my father after all," he says. Last month,
after a hip rehab session in Birmingham, Bo drove to Raimond and
looked A.D. up. "We sat down, had a long talk, and I told him
the things that had been eating at me. Things are looking up."
And just a couple of weeks ago Bo was sitting at his workbench,
fooling with his arrows, when the phone rang. It was his dad.
"Sitting in this chair," Bo says. "Right here. First time he
ever called. Took him 32 years to realize he had a son that
loved him." Thunk!
Outside, in the afternoon sunshine, Bo goes and waits for the
school bus to deliver his two boys. It's a beautiful autumn day,
baseball teams playing, damned if he knows which teams or where,
though. A soft wind creeps up, and the leaves skitter along his
driveway and drift into the garage, forming small piles here and
there. It's so funny that Bo almost laughs.
COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID STRICK COVER PHOTO What Became of Bo? Not long ago BO JACKSON was the most famous man in America. Then he disappeared
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Bo no longer runs in the fast lane, but on his Harley he still looks tough to tackle. [Bo Jackson on motorcycle]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON When Bo Was In the Know Before a hip injury in 1991 that would eventually end his playing career, Jackson was a ubiquitous presence on the sporting scene. The nation saw him hitting a homer at the '89 All-Star Game as a Royal, picking up enough yardage to make the Pro Bowl as a Raider, and starring in numerous print and TV ads that helped Nike almost double the sales of its cross-training shoes, to $200 million, in the first year of the Bo Knows campaign. [Bo Jackson playing baseball for Kansas City Royals]
COLOR PHOTO: NIKE [See caption above--Bo Jackson in "THE JACKSON 5" Nike advertisement]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [See caption above--Bo Jackson playing football for Los Angeles Raiders]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: NIKE (2) [See caption above--Bo Jackson sitting in bathtub for Nike advertisement; Bo Jackson in "BO KNOWS BO" Nike advertisement]
COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS RAYNOR Bo never played football after this tackle, and though he returned to baseball after hip surgery, he wasn't the same player. [Cincinnati Bengals player tackling Bo Jackson] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID STRICK [Bo Jackson leaning against wall]
"Guy asked me at the gym last night who was going to win the
World Series,'' he says. "I said, 'Who's in it?'''
Bo realized that his pain had less to do with his hip than with
his entangled family relationships.
If he decided to be a father, couldn't he decide just as easily
to be a son?