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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

Q: So many athletes struggle after they retire. They might crave the fame, or need the money, or miss the camaraderie. You stepped away and you have never come back. Why?

A: Sports was never the center of my universe for this simple reason: I knew where I wanted to be by the time I was in my mid- to late-30s. That was out of sports completely, and into business.

I don't know how I had the foresight to see that at the age of 19 or 20. I guess you could say I was blessed to see what a lot of kids don't. A lot of kids don't realize the gravy train is going to come to an end. They have no formal education, no business sense, no money management skills. They just have to live with that.

I made it a point to learn as much as I could in college, especially because it was free.

I have nine siblings. We grew up dirt-poor. My mother raised us in a 675-square-foot house — three rooms, outdoor plumbing.

Going to college was unheard of. My mother didn't have the money. When somebody said, 'If we give you a scholarship, you could come to our university, compete in football, baseball and track, and we will pay for your education. Would you come?' I said, 'Hell, yeah.'

I told my mother when I was 13 years old that I would either go into the Air Force and learn how to fly jets or go to college and graduate. She said, 'I hope the military lets you in, because I don't have the money to send you to college.'

Mr. Steinbrenner and the Yankees drafted me out of high school. Everybody wanted to know, why don't you go play for the Yankees? I had an offer for a free education.

If my two sons were the top two high school baseball players on the planet, and everybody wanted to make them instant millionaires, they would still have to spend at least three years in college — not to hone their skills, but to get an education.

Q: After you retired, you went back to Auburn to complete your degree. And last year, Auburn invited you to be its commencement speaker. What did that experience mean to you, and what did you say?

A: It was a great honor. I found out later that, in the history of my university, I was only the second non-faculty person to give a commencement speech. That was a delight.

The thing I shared with the kids was, don't get into a routine of doing things the same way every day. Step outside the box. Do something different. The world around you is changing every day. Change with it.

I loved it. Talk to any of my brothers and sisters. They would say the last person they thought would be doing public speaking was me. Growing up, I stuttered. I was real quiet — well, I still am. No one thought I would get up in front of thousands of people onstage, with a microphone, and feel as comfortable as I would if I was on the football field.

Q: Do you feel sorry that your injury robbed you of the chance to play out your career?

A: No. Here's what people don't know: When I got injured it was Jan. 13.

On Jan. 9, my wife and I sat down at the table, at our place in Playa del Rey. We decided that, when the season was over, I was going to retire from football, even though I had a year left on my contract.

My oldest kid had just finished Montessori kindergarten. I got tired of moving him from Kansas City to L.A., to Alabama for the off-season, and then back to Kansas City. It wasn't healthy for our kid.

I was going to announce my retirement. God works in mysterious ways. The way I look at it, I dislocated my hip so I didn't have to retire.

I don't look at it as a devastating injury. God made speed bumps. If you can get over the speed bumps, you'll be all right.

Don't feel bad for me. I didn't get into sports to make it to the Hall of Fame, or to be the home run king, or to break Walter Payton's record. I got into sports because I saw it as a way to open other doors.

Sports was great for Bo Jackson.

Q: Where do you keep your Heisman Trophy?

A: It's sitting behind me, on the mantel at home. It used to be on the floor. I've got more golf memorabilia than baseball and football memorabilia put together.

Q: How did you realize the "Bo Knows" commercials had crossed the line from clever spots to advertising immortality?

A: The first year of us shooting the "Bo Knows" spots, I knew we had a hit. The cross-training line at Nike went from about $4 million in sales to about half a billion.

I think the success came from some very dedicated, down-to-earth, hard-working people Nike had. I was like the barbecue sauce on some well-grilled steaks or chicken. I was just one of the ingredients in a great meal.

Q: Are you looking forward to playing in Anaheim again, in Sunday's celebrity softball game?

A: I am very excited. When they said I could play in the softball game, I said, 'Sure.' That is just an hour and a half of trash talk, fun and entertaining the fans, and catching up with people I haven't seen in 15 or 20 years. I'm very much looking forward to it.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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