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Q & A with Bo Jackson, Mr. Know-It-All

The MVP of the 1989 All-Star game speaks out on Michael Jordan, Al Davis, Gene Autry and how he was days away from announcing his NFL retirement when he injured his hip.

July 10, 2010|By Bill Shaikin

Bo Jackson, one of the most celebrated athletes of his generation, transcended the sporting world and became a pop culture icon. His Nike commercials turned "Bo knows" into a catchphrase, playing off Jackson's ability to perform outrageous feats in multiple sports.

Jackson won the 1985 Heisman Trophy as a running back at Auburn, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him with the first pick in the 1986 NFL draft. The Bucs told him to choose football over baseball, but he signed instead with the Kansas City Royals. The next year, the Los Angeles Raiders drafted him and he began spending his summers in the Royals' outfield and his autumns in the Raiders' backfield.

In 1991, he suffered a hip injury that ended his NFL career. He eventually required hip replacement surgery, and yet he returned to the major leagues with the Chicago White Sox in 1993, with a home run in his first at-bat. He finished his baseball career with the Angels in 1994.

He was a human highlight reel. His first major league home run traveled 475 feet. He once stepped out of the batter's box, realized the umpire had not granted time out, jumped into the box as the pitcher let the ball go — and homered.

In a memorable Monday night NFL game in Seattle, he ran over Brian Bosworth on his way to a 221-yard game, including a 91-yard touchdown dash in which he did not stop running until he had cleared the end zone and nearly reached the locker room.

In this interview, Jackson speaks out on Michael Jordan, Al Davis, Gene Autry and how he was days away from announcing his NFL retirement when he injured his hip.

Jackson returns to Anaheim on Sunday to play in the All-Star celebrity softball game at Angel Stadium. He was the MVP of the last All-Star Game in Anaheim, in 1989, when he led off for the American League with a 448-foot home run to center field.

Question: You were one of the more prolific sluggers in the league, so how did you react when Tony La Russa, the manager of the American League team, asked you to lead off?

Answer: I didn't have any idea that was coming. I thought I was going to be batting fifth or sixth with all the firepower we had. Don Mattingly, Kirby Puckett — you name it, we had it.

When he came up and said, 'Bo, I've got you leading off,' I was shocked. I was just happy to be in the company of so many great athletes. When he said I was leading off that meant one thing to me: I had to get my stuff in gear a little earlier than I had planned to.

Q: And you did, on your first swing. You hit a 448-foot home run off Rick Reuschel, deep beyond the center-field fence.

A: Most of my power was to right field and right-center. I've always had the patience to sit and wait.

I learned from the late, great Buck O'Neil, when you're facing someone we would call a junkball pitcher, someone with a lot of off-speed and breaking stuff, you need to find the heaviest bat in the clubhouse. I think I took a couple of Steve Balboni's bats with me — 35 1/2 inches, 36 ounces.

He threw the ball down the middle. I waited and waited. I found a needle in a haystack. If I'd have swung at the ball 10 more times, I wouldn't have hit it.

Q: That turned out to be your only All-Star game. What souvenirs did you take home?

A: I'm not a collector of too many souvenirs. My souvenirs are collected in my mind. I think the best souvenir I could take from that is the appreciation my teammates gave me.

The memory I take from the game is the camaraderie of all the great athletes I got to play with, stand beside, shake hands with and goof off with.

Q: You finished your career with the Angels, in 1994. What memories did you take from that season?

A: I really enjoyed it. You're on the team with guys like Mark Langston and Chuck Finley, a bunch of young guys like Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon and Eduardo Perez. We were on a team with a bunch of nice guys.

We had a somewhat decent team that year. Jim Edmonds had just burst onto the scene. Salmon was coming into his own.

I think a lot about [owner] Gene Autry, meeting and talking with him. I think about the man walking through the clubhouse with his cowboy boots on — every day, a different pair of boots.

We didn't really talk about baseball. We talked about how our kids were raised, how we were raised.

The important thing to me was getting to know people on a personal level, and letting people see a side of me they wouldn't normally see.

Of course, everybody remembers the home runs and the prodigious throws and my blazing speed, but a lot of people don't know the person off the baseball field. Whenever I had time to sit down and talk with my buddies, we never sat down and talked about our jobs.

Q: In what turned out to be your last major league game, with the players' strike looming, you had your only stolen base since your hip injury. Did you want to prove you still could steal a base before you retired?

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