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Review: For Bo Jackson, playing was enough

A documentary explores the life and phenomenal but brief sports career of Bo Jackson.

December 07, 2012|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Bo Jackson participated in a 300-mile bike ride to benefit tornado victims in Alabama.
Bo Jackson participated in a 300-mile bike ride to benefit tornado victims… (Dave Martin, Associated…)

We're lucky if we have the gift to do one thing well in this life. Even most superheroes just get a single superpower. ("Wait — you're faster than a speeding bullet and you're more powerful than a locomotive? How is that fair?")

So there is something about the multiple-graced — the physicist with the body of a supermodel or the wrestler who writes award-winning poetry — that can seem most unnatural.

But inspirational as well: "You Don't Know Bo: The Legend of Bo Jackson," the final film in the second of ESPN's "30 for 30" series of sports films, tells the story of Bo Jackson, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s simultaneously played football for the Los Angeles Raiders and baseball for the Kansas City Royals. And while this is remarkable in itself — it left no time to train for either sport, for one thing — there was something in the very way he moved that set him apart from his peers.

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Coaches, teammates and sportswriters speak of him in mythological terms. He is compared to Paul Bunyan, described as "something out of Homer," or someone who came "from outer space to play for the Royals." As with Hercules or Superman, there were stories of great physical feats done in his youth.

Such was the depth and the beauty of his play, we are told, that even when he struck out it was worth watching. "He did something every day that you had not seen before," relates one of his former coaches.

But there was a moral element to his heroism, as well. He turned down a quarter-million dollars from the New York Yankees to join the team straight out of high school because he wanted to go to college. And he turned down winning Alabama head coach Bear Bryant — "neighbors would come and look at the phone" that Bryant had called him on, Jackson remembers — because underdog rival Auburn would allow him to play sooner.

And he spurned football out of college just to invalidate his draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom he felt had tricked him out of his amateur status to keep him from playing baseball, and became a baseball player instead. In football, we see him continuing a 91-yard touchdown run clean out of the stadium because he was moving too fast to stop; we see him leap right over a mountain of players to score.

In baseball, he makes a catch, runs up the wall and takes a perpendicular walk before coming down. His hits were of unparalleled distance, his throws of fantastic speed and accuracy. He sailed through the air to make catches.

Director Michael Bonfiglio makes it easy to appreciate these moments; it's hard not to choke up sometimes, watching Jackson at work — or perhaps "play" is the better word, and one not applicable to every athlete. He was famous — everyone alive then remembers the "Bo Knows" campaign that helped Nike beat Reebok, though I do not remember the NBC cartoon "ProStars," in which a cartoon Jackson fought crime alongside Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan — but fame does not seem to have mattered to him particularly.

Jackson, as legends do, burned brightly but briefly, his seemingly effortless progress stopped by injury: a tackle that popped his hip out of its joint, and led finally to a hip replacement. He returned to play a few more seasons of baseball, hitting a home run his first time back at bat.

But though he had the old strength, he no longer had the speed. He ended his career at 32 with a minimum of fuss; he woke up one morning, he recalls, and said, "I'm going to retire this afternoon."

The epitaph he wants for his gravestone is "Here lies a ballplayer." If Jackson is in neither the baseball nor the football Hall of Fame, he is remembered as something more than a mere player — one of those great gifted beings who are given for a time to walk among us and make the world seem more marvelous.


30 for 30 Bo Jackson infobox 12/8/12

'30 for 30: Bo Jackson'

Where: ESPN

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: ESPN2

When: 9 p.m. Saturday


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