Auburn fans think of Bo Jackson as the embodiment of everything great about the 1980s – American exceptionalism, over-the-top competition, Nike.
Thanks to Michael Weinreb, we know we’re not alone.
Weinreb, who three years ago wrote the Internet’s go-to Bo story (how many times have I Googled thee?) for ESPN, was kind enough to e-sit down with me for a discussion on the Miracle Man who rightfully dominates the cover of his latest great book, Bigger Than The Game.*
Inside, Weinreb traces the birth of the modern athlete to the Year Of Our Bo, 1986, when Reagan was referee, the Bears were rappers, and cocaine – until the sudden death of Len Bias**, the surrounding myth of which Weinreb thoroughly explores – as innocuous as Big League Chew.
Here’s Chuck Klosterman‘s book-jacket blurb: “There was a time when sports were mostly legend; today, they’re mostly marketing opportunities. Michael Weinreb has figured out when that evolution happened and how that transformation worked. Deeply researched and kinetically narrative, Bigger Than the Game is technically about the year 1986, but it’s actually about the jarring recognition of a new reality we can’t escape.”
It’s a thesis as ambitious as the athletes he uses to prove it, and while you can debate the extent of it’s implications (see “The Decision”), by book’s end, you can’t shake the sense that, like Jim McMahon’s sunglasses at night, Brian Bosworth’s middle-finger machismo, and Bo’s 300 ft., all the way in the air, flat-footed throwout of Harold Reynolds, Weinreb somehow pulls it off.
Of course, we only really care about the last guy.
TWER: Auburn fans almost universally associate Bo Jackson with football rather than baseball, but do you think Bo the professional was predominantly known as a football player or as a baseball player? Which was he better at? He’s in his Royal’s uniform on the cover of Bigger Than The Game, but when you close your eyes and dream of Bo as we all do, is he in shoulder pads or swinging a bat? Or was he truly transcendent, beyond either, some sort of Neopolitan ice cream - three distinct tastes (football, baseball, strawberry) sharing the zeitgeist as one unique flavor?
Weinreb: He was far more developed as a football player (in fact, we tried to get the rights to that iconic photo of Bo wearing shoulder pads and holding the baseball bat for the cover, but my publisher couldn’t find out who actually owned it). I mean, Bo was essentially born a football player (which is good, because he hated football practice), but no one is born with the innate ability to hit the curveball. Still, I think he was figuring things out—he might not have even been at 50 percent of his potential in baseball when he got hurt, and he was already an All-Star. Some of the stories his college coach, Hal Baird, tells about Bo’s potential in baseball are almost unfathomable; he was so fast he was actually rendered irrelevant the angles of a baseball diamond. Still, you’re right—the thing about Bo that transcends everything (even Neopolitan ice cream) is that he was essentially a Paul Bunyan-esque figure. It was the eighties, and excess was in, and nothing was quite as uniquely excessive as Bo Jackson seeming to master two professional sports at once, if only for a short time. He was the greatest pure athlete we’ll probably ever see. That’s his legacy.
TWER: Auburn fans know that there never will be another Bo Jackson, but can there ever be another Bo Jackson? Part of Bo’s mystique, particularly for Auburn fans, is not only the amazing athletic feats on the playing field but his alleged exploits on the practice field. The football throw that rattled the rafters of the Superdome. The home run at Georgia that left the state. The back flip out of the lake (I heard it was a pool – a lake makes it 10 times cooler). When I was five years old, I lined up on the 20 (or maybe it was the 30) yard line with hundreds of other kids (even teenagers) in attendance at Auburn’s 1984 A-Day game to race Bo (lined up in the back of the end zone) to the opposite goal line. Bo won by a mile. You have to dig a bit for the wall-scaling clip (finally YouTube’d it in the intro to Pro-Stars, which I was surprised you didn’t reference), but now we have footage of every big time football recruit in our inbox from the time they’re sophomores in high school, every amazing play in every sport runs on SportsCenter a dozen times before tomorrow’s breakfast. Without the capacity for tall tale exaggerations (even though, with Bo, they weren’t exaggerated), can athletes still achieve that kind of myth? That sense of legend? Or is that truly behind us? [Thanks, Jerry.] Google alerts me to the “The Next Bo Jackson?” trope almost every day — if someone with those abilities, with that MO, backed by that marketing machine, came along today, would he / could he be as big of a deal? If the Bo came on the scene tomorrow, what would happen?
Weinreb: It’s possible there will be another athlete like Bo Jackson to come along. In a way, maybe there already has: LeBron James is probably somewhere in the vicinity of Bo in terms of pure freakish ability, but there’s no way LeBron would have actually jeopardized his future by playing wide receiver in the NFL. So you’d have to find the sort of weirdly unique individual who would be willing to play two sports, who wouldn’t be bothered by that added layer of media criticism—Bo took a lot of heat for referring to the NFL as a “hobby,” but when you rush for six yards a carry, that tends to shut people up—and who would be as self-contained and self-aware as Bo was. Plus, he would have to somehow transcend the inevitable backlash toward anything and everything that characterizes the Internet. That’s a hell of a lot to ask for. That’s why Bo’s legacy is actually helped by the fact that he didn’t last very long in professional sports—it just makes all those moments you mentioned seem that much bigger, in retrospect. Nobody remembers that he struck out 172 times in 1989 because he hit that home run at the All-Star game. His career is remembered as a series of unfathomable moments, and I don’t know if that could happen today. I think he’s the last great mythological figure in American sports.
TWER: What, for you, is the most impressive of Bo’s feats? The wall? The throw? The other throw? The back flip? Breaking bats over his knee? Breaking bats over his head? The ruination of Brian Bosworth? The ’89 home run? The NFL combine time? Or causing a batting cage to disintegrate – that one I hadn’t heard – while still in high school?
Practice had just ended, Brasseale told the scout that day, and the scout had explained that he had flown in all the way from New York, and if he could only see Bo hit a few, he’d be on his way. Upon hearing this, Bo stepped into the batting cage and said “I’ll hit two balls.”
The first ball he hit smacked hard against the corner of the cage. The cage began to rattle, up and down, up and down. Then the whole thing collapsed. “I’ve seen enough,” the scout said. — Pg. 30-31
Weinreb: I love them all—after spending a couple of years researching this book, they all feel like my children—but if I had to choose one I didn’t see, and one I did see, it would be the back flip out of the water (because I’m still not quite sure how that’s physically possible), and that run against the Bengals, where he cuts back across the grain and winds up sprinting about four miles and outrunning an entire NFL defense. And then he gets cut down at the 1-yard line, just to make him seem vaguely like a humanoid.
Weinreb: At the risk of betraying my age, I was in college when Tecmo Super Bowl came out—hence my grade-point average/current career. (Though we had a rule that no one could play with the Raiders, because it violated the spirit of fair play.) When I was researching, Jim Riswold (who came up with the Bo Knows tagline) sent me a bunch of the commercials, and a reproduction of that poster with Bo wearing the shoulder pads and the bat, which I might get framed one of these days.
TWER: A friend of mine, Chris Shelling Jr, wanted me to ask you to do some 80′s athlete-with-80′- musician word association.
Bo Jackson…..the Boss
Bosworth…..Billie Idol… (or should that be McMahon?)
Weinreb: I don’t know about that, but I was thinking about how the characters in my book would fit in as characters in the Breakfast Club. I see McMahon as Judd Nelson, Bo as Emilio Estevez (father issues), Brian Bosworth (an academic All-American with terrible hair) as Anthony Michael Hall, and Len Bias as Molly Ringwald. Maybe Micheal Ray Richardson as Ally Sheedy. And Ditka as the principal.
TWER: I got the impression from the book’s acknowledgments that you actually came to Auburn to research Bo (glad to see you give such kudos to David Rosenblatt, who is pretty much behind everything that’s anything in the archives). Did you? When? What did you think? Where did you eat?
Weinreb: I did come to Auburn for a couple of days. I think it was in 2008. I got to visit with Hal Baird and hang out with Coach Dye for a few hours (his dogs kept drooling on my tape recorder) and spent many hours in the library, where David Rosenblatt has done a pretty awesome job of collecting all of Dick Schaap’s notes and clippings from when he wrote Bo’s autobiography. That stuff was invaluable. I love college towns. I grew up in a college town. Is there a Chick-Fil-A on campus? If so, I probably ate there about fourteen times, because I tend to do that whenever I’m in the south. Damn, I wish I had some Chick-Fil-A right now. I also stopped at a barbeque place along the main drag which seemed pretty excellent to me, but I’m from the Northeast, so all southern barbeque tastes pretty great to me.
TWER: I was blown away by your description of the ’84 Olympics, and Reagan flipping the coin for the Super Bowl via satellite was also pretty awesome. I was hoping you were going to bring up Reagan’s role as the color man for the ’89 All-Star Game — they’re talking about Bo, and Reagan playing the Gipper, and in the middle of Regan saying “I just don’t know if there’s every been another one like him,” Bo smashes the home run. What sports moment is the most symbolic of the 80s you portray?
Weinreb: I have a personal predilection toward that 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami. You had this huge good-versus-evil storyline on the field, and then you had Reagan at halftime, wearing a sweater and trying to talk around Iran-Contra. You could kind of feel the decade beginning to crumble at that moment.
TWER: What’s the best sports movie of the 80s? Ever?
Weinreb: Well, Rocky IV—which I write about briefly in the book–is a terrible movie, but it’s by far the sports movie that’s the most fascinating relic of that time period. All the others—Hoosiers, Bull Durham, etc.—are good movies, but they could have been made any time. Rocky IV is a pretty unique viewpoint of American Cold War paranoia. My estimate is that eight or nine of my top ten favorite sports movies of all-time are documentaries. Does King of Kong count as a sports movie? Also, When We Were Kings is pretty hard to top.
TWER: Despite the “almost like his whole life was choreographed” quotes you include from an anonymous friend, Bo seems to me – both before and after I read the book – to stand in stark contrast to every other person profiled in Bigger Than The Game. It was his freakish talent that drew attention, not sunglasses, debauchery, middle fingers, steroids, snarls. Yet you claim that Bo’s decision to play two sports was predicated on a desire not only to prove wrong those who said it couldn’t be done but to become, as the book jacket teaser puts it, “a marketing pioneer.” Though he’s obviously a successful businessman now (due at least in part to his celebrity and “glass-cutting gaze”) I’ve never imagined Bo — especially 20-something Bo — as a shrewd schemer, someone charting his life with something other than normal self-interest. You write of his “headstrong self-interest” but then say he decided on football because he “just wanted to have fun.” You write that the habit of referring to himself in the third person underscored his larger-than-life persona, but you also (seem to) hint that it was not only a way of coping with his stutter, but a conscious attempt at building a brand. To me though, it just seems odd to think of Bo choosing to forgo the fat salary of a First Round draft pick and humbling himself to the Memphis Chicks out of not only hatred for Tampa Bay management and a preference for baseball, but a commitment to the long con. So which is it — did the 80s use Bo, or did Bo use the 80s?
Weinreb: All of the above. I’m sure there’s some retrospective history-making on Bo’s part when he says things about viewing his career as businessman, but I don’t think he was an innocent naif, either. He knew what he was doing, and there’s nothing wrong with that—his goals as a businessman just happened to coincide with his goals as an athlete. He’s a very complex figure, probably the most complex in the entire book. He knows how to manipulate his own narrative. I think he likes to do that. He likes to embrace the stories, and the myth of his childhood. He likes being Paul Bunyan. It’s a way for him to make a bigger impact, as a businessman and a philanthropist. Maybe he didn’t see that quite as clearly back then, but I don’t think he was entirely unaware of it, either. He negotiated some pretty treacherous waters, what with all the agents and hangers-on who wanted a piece of him, and that takes a certain amount of selfishness. He didn’t want to be another poor kid who gets taken advantage of. In Bo’s case, at least, self-interest is not necessarily a negative personality trait.
TWER: As an Auburn fan, Bo was such a big deal for me as a kid. He still is. There is so much pride, so much thankfulness that he’s ours, that we get to claim him, that no one else can. I think of him as not only the greatest athlete ever, but as more popular for a time than even Michael Jordan, and I have imaginary arguments with people who are too young to remember the truth where I try to prove it (which I always end, in a stupid, Chuck Norris wears Tebow pajamas kind of way, with “hey, Michael Jordan was doing Bo Jackson commercials”). And I just want you to confirm it for me, one more time: you’re telling me that I can now just hand “them” your book and boldly, confidently proclaim that Bo Jackson at the height of his celebrity was more popular than Michael Jordan at the height of his?
Weinreb: Yes. Yes. Yes. Bo had better commercials, and he was a better pure athlete, and he had a way cooler public persona. I even liked his shoes better. Anyone who disagrees with you is completely wrong. You have my permission to knock them unconscious with my book.
TWER: How long did it take you to write Bigger Than The Game? Is there a part or angle you had to edit out, but really wish you could have kept? During your research, was there one bit of trivia, or a story that you came across, that so gelled with your thesis it made your jaw drop? Something you hadn’t known before, but that made you say “yes” out loud?
Weinreb: People ask me why I didn’t write more about the ’86 baseball playoffs—and the Mets especially–and I wanted to, but I couldn’t quite get it to fit properly. Plus, there’s already been several books written about that baseball season. You know what was weird? That the Space Shuttle blew up a couple of days after the Bears won the Super Bowl. Stuff like that always kind of got me—you hope that maybe your thesis lines up at least a little bit, that all these different elements might somehow converge in a short period of time, and then you realize that they actually do.
* A full review by 1988-born Ben Bartley coming soon.
** What Vestavian male doesn’t remember Coach Gaydosh holding up that index finger and barking: “One time… Len Bias died after doing cocaine one time!”