Today is Bo Jackson’s 48th birthday. I never got to interview Bo for my story in Auburn Magazine. It sucks. And it doesn’t make much sense. Bo’s down here a lot these days. Commencement addresses. Auburn Creed commercials. Roaming the sidelines. He’s practically the new Aubie. God knows how many interviews with him I’ve seen roll across Google Alerts since the Arkansas game, which was when I just knew destiny would bring us together, being right before my deadline and all. He talked to at least two reporters actually at the game. Alas, his business manager—I won’t go into details—was less than accommodating. So I’d like to think that he didn’t agree to an interview with his school’s alumni magazine only because he didn’t know his school’s alumni magazine (and his biggest fan) wanted an interview. Whatever the reason, I’ve stopped worrying about it… which for obvious reasons, isn’t so hard these days.
Here’s the story.
I felt it. We were going to meet last night—again, I mean… we were going to meet again. I met you when I was five years old. I’ve got the Polaroid to prove it. It’s framed. I’m looking at it right now. I took it to my first show ‘n’ tell. I had just started kindergarten. It was late August, 1984. I guess classes at Auburn hadn’t started back yet. My mom says you had an internship that summer at some business in Birmingham that had something to do with the place she worked. Word had gotten around that you were coming by. My dad checked me out of school just so I could sit in your lap. I remember telling you that I was an Auburn fan. I remember you smiling. I remember them snapping the picture. You signed it “Bo and me. #34. War Eagle.” I remember shaking your hand. Dad and I still talk about the handshake.
“It felt like a brick,” Dad always says.
Pat Dye says he looks at him not as a player, but as a man – an Auburn man whose accomplishments as a husband and a daddy and a businessman and as a student who came back to Auburn to finish his degree (despite the millions he was making as the world’s greatest athlete) and fulfill a promise to the mama he loved so much are more deserving of my awe than any damn touchdown or home run. He tells me that I should look at him that way. And I begin to worry and wonder sitting there on Coach’s back porch with only three days before deadline, with only three days left with a chance to interview The Ball Player about what happened 25 years ago on the field and at the Downtown Athletic Club (and what happened every day before and since, if he’ll let me)… I begin to worry and wonder if I’m the only child of the ’80s whose deep down, Dye-Hard, spine-tingling identity as an Auburn fan is tied to the very real possibility, all jokes and anecdotes and statistics aside, that once upon a time, the guy who ran sideways on the backfield wall and broke baseball bats over his leg (and head) and did back flips while waist deep in a pool (and a lake) might really have been more than a man, Coach…
Coach leans back in his rocking chair and looks at me. He leans forward and smiles.
“I know what you’re trying to do.”
“You do? Well, then help me out, Coach. Lord knows I need somebody to.”
“You’re trying to write an article better than anybody’s ever written about Bo.”
“Yes, exactly. That’s right. It’s like it’s my life’s work or something.”
His dog licks my hand.
I still get emotional over how much sense life made the day I got the email. I knew this assignment wasn’t a guarantee that I’d get to rent a car and have that GPS excitement of finding your house and texting the fam “Bo or bust!” at a red light, or that we’d maybe hit it off so well on the phone that you’d insist on picking me up at O’Hare, and then we’d do the Chicago pizza thing straight from there, and after you stopped laughing at some joke I made about Pat Dye’s cough or something, you might might MIGHT just say “no, don’t waste money on a hotel.” I knew that wasn’t a guarantee, but that was the daydream. We’d go back to your house and watch the ’83 Iron Bowl or the ’89 All-Star game, stuff like that, and I wondered what I would journal about on the night I spent in Bo Jackson’s guest room. “Are you there, God? It’s me, Jeremy. I’ve made it. Thank you.” I told everyone who’d listen to me gush about it that I really couldn’t imagine God allowing me to think I was probably going to interview Bo Jackson and that Auburn Magazine was going to pay me for it only for it to not happen.
On the Saturday after I got the assignment, Jennie was making pancakes, and our five-year-old daughter Sadie was walking around in her pajamas singing songs, and when she came in to my office to tell me that breakfast was ready, she opened the door and saw me at the computer, crying, and shouted “Mommy, Daddy’s watching a video of Bo Jackson again.”
I put her in my lap and we watched all the highlights. “Look at him, Sadie.” Sadie knows a lot about Bo Jackson, like everyone who is reading this story—that he was Auburn’s greatest running back ever and won the Heisman Trophy 25 years ago, but who chose to, like one of those classic posters said, “Hit” for the Kansas City Royals instead of “Run” for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—I really did tell her all this—and then made the national media resent his talent even more by somehow landing a contract with the Los Angeles Raiders that allowed him to do both until his hip popped out of socket while being tackled by Cincinnati Bengal Kevin Walker, who Wikipedia remembers only as the last guy to tackle Bo Jackson. (Sadie cried when I told her.)
“Daddy, who’s faster – you or Bo Jackson?”
“I’ll probably never know.”
Then I tell her about the race. It was at the ’84 A-Day game.
Imagine this as your first real Auburn memory (age 4): a person, a presence, a power, some all-powerful Something is somewhere behind you. You know it’s there. But you can’t see it. People are cheering. You’re knocked to the ground. Millions of kids are running toward something called the end zone and you realize that you’re not with them and that you will never catch up, you won’t get to participate in what you were told was a once in a lifetime experience.
He was among us, and you missed him!
You cry and your dad comes over and you look up and all you know is that the Power who had won the race before it began is now in front of you, out of sight, untouchable, but actually real–something in orange and blue, something that feeds your imagination more than He-Man, Luke Skywalker, or Santa Claus.
Something called Bo Jackson.
For years, I thought it was a dream.
“No, that actually happened, that’s real,” David Rosenblatt tells me. “My daughter raced against him, too.”
I met David several years ago. We were both looking at Bo Jackson’s Heisman Trophy, which is housed in the entryway of the Lovelace Athletic Museum inside Auburn’s athletic complex. He was the museum’s curator. He’s since retired. We were the only people inside. Bo’s best mind-blowing runs glowed in a continuous loop from a big screen TV. I had tears in my eyes, tingles, the works.
When I interviewed him a few weeks ago at Chappy’s, David wore a Heisman Memorial Trophy baseball cap. “Hard to believe it’s been 25 years,” he said.
In 1989, when Bo Knew Everything, David was working in the university’s special collections and archives. For years he’d been hoarding every scrap of Bo Jackson related material he could get his hands on… we’re talking David Housel’s promotional “Bo! for Heisman” postcards and the VHS video project Bo wrote, directed and starred in for a class when he came back to school, and a warped tape of the less than flattering “My Bo” song produced by then Birmingham-based radio personalities Mark and Brian, and more than 500 newspaper clippings. He decided to write a paper titled The Image and Impact of Bo Jackson on Auburn University “because,” he says, “I was wondering–is it only me?”
I push the recorder towards him.
“I mean, I’m a football fan. I semi-worship Bo Jackson,” he says. “Most of that was psychological, that we (Auburn) had somebody like Bo Jackson. But the bigger question was what impact did he have on Auburn? It can’t help but reflect on the university.”
But Bo, I don’t get to meet you, so I’ve got to write a profile about Auburn’s most famous alumnus without interviewing Auburn’s most famous alumnus. Which seems kind of weird… because it’s for a story in the alumni magazine. “It’d be, like, this glaring omission,” I kept telling everyone.
But then we heard through the grapevine that you really wanted to do it. And that’s when I knew, when I felt in my bones, that it was going to be yesterday–the Arkansas game. It would be cutting it close, deadline-wise, but there might still be enough time to write it. And destiny-wise, Auburn always seemed to make more sense as the setting for a story angled around the 25th anniversary of Bo Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy than the top floor of the Sears Tower or in the woods bow hunting or something. I was going to get a call and it would be you, down for a football game and to see your kids, and I would look at the Polaroid and say “I knew it!” And then we’d plan to meet either before the game at Momma Goldberg’s or after the game on the 50-yard line or wherever destiny determined, wherever the Auburn Spirit led. Dad would call and ask “Still a brick, son?”
“Still a brick, dad.”
Paul Finebaum on Bo’s handshake: “It’s pretty much shattering. We had him on the program back ten years ago or so, and somebody asks him what he thinks of me, and he said ‘I could break Paul Finebaum in half like a twig.’”
Paul Finebaum on why Bo Jackson means so much to me as a fan raised in Auburn’s 80s renaissance: “Because Bo saved the franchise, so to speak.” He’s talking about wins and losses and X’s and O’s and the brave new world of regular victories over Bama.
But he is also talking about Bo Jackson’s direct financial benefit to Auburn, which a study at the time cited in David Rosenblatt’s paper put at $1,000,000.
Finebaum has been covering Bo since his senior year at McAdory High School in McCalla, right outside Bessemer.
“They did an addition, they did boxes. I remember [former Auburn assistant athletic director] Oval Jaynes was talking about going to Wall Street to get bonds for stadium expansion based on Bo Jackson. I think they called them something like ‘Bo Bonds.’ No player has ever moved a program more in terms of a financial reward than Bo Jackson. He saved the Auburn program.”
And then he tacks on: “He saved the university.”
Now, that sounds kind of ridiculous, even when talking about Bo.… until you dig into the responses David Rosenblatt received 20 years ago from former presidents and faculty, not just athletic department personnel, about Bo’s impact on the university’s self-esteem and reputation in the wake of the controversy surrounding the forced resignation of university president Hanley Funderburk, and in the midst of a federal suit brought against most of the state’s institutions of higher learning pertaining to “vestiges of segregation.”
On December 7, 1985, the United States District Court, Northern District of Alabama, upheld the government’s contention and saved “its most damaging statements for Auburn University.”
On December 7, 1985, Bo Jackson won the Heisman Trophy.
Sportswriter Michael Weinreb frequently cites Rosenblatt’s paper when delving into the political and cultural legacy of Bo’s Auburn years in his new book “Bigger Than The Game,” which examines the phenomenon of Bo’s larger-than-life persona and achievements relative to modern sports culture.
In a chapter titled “I Am Superman,” Weinreb writes: “In the midst of a slow and painful transition at Auburn… here was a young man who stood as the exemplar of change, who seemed burdened neither by the limits of his race nor the limits of the human body itself.”
Weinreb got to interview and hang out with Bo—they went bow hunting—not only for his for book but for a “where is he now” story for ESPN.com. I wrote him for advice regarding the interview that never happened.
“Have fun with him,” he told me. “Bo obviously loves Auburn, so that should buy you a lot of good will. He’s a pretty fascinating guy just to be around. (Just don’t touch his arm when you’re talking; he hates that. Seriously.)”
“I think it was huge for Auburn University,” says Alabama State Representative Mike Hubbard, President of the Auburn Network. “Winning the Heisman Trophy is huge for a university and obviously we have two of them with Pat Sullivan, but it brings a lot of attention. I believe the admissions folks will tell that applications go up when we’re winning, and I think a lot of people at that time decided they wanted to go to Auburn because of Bo Jackson. He’s had an impact on everything, and the thing about it, too, is that he’s just a quality guy…I would say he’s a good friend.”
I tell him about my attempts to interview his good friend.
Hubbard furrows his brow.
“I can’t imagine him not doing it,” he says.
(He emailed me later that afternoon to say that he had emailed Bo. He’d email me when he heard back. I never got an email.)
“How do you get in touch with him when you want to?” I look at his desk. “Is there a Bo phone? A Bo signal?”
“I just call him.”
The reason Hubbard gets to just call him is framed on his wall: a picture of him and Bo prepping for interviews after a game in 1985. Hubbard was the point person for the David Housel-orchestrated, stats-speak-for-themselves Bo! for Heisman “un-campaign,” which kicked into high gear only after a borderline smear piece written by “Sports Illustrated” columnist Rick Reilly questioned Bo’s toughness in big games.
Hubbard rolls his eyes.
“I still don’t like Rick Reilly to this day,” he says. “He said Bo was a wimp and took himself out of the game and didn’t deserve the Heisman, and the guy’s sittin’ there playing with two broken ribs. We kind of kicked it in to overdrive there at the end, David and I both, as far as talking and getting information to the voters, making sure that they knew that the stuff coming out was not true. But it came down to the wire.”
And Hubbard was there when it did. He was the only person from Auburn with Bo on the flight up to New York–he framed their boarding passes–for the announcement. They had adjacent rooms at the Downtown Athletic Club.
“We went through everything and I talked with Bo about what to expect… and I said, ‘OK, here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to get up there, we’ll have the ceremony, and they’re going to get up and announce your name, and then you’re going to turn around and shake my hand.’
“You know, I was just kind of joking with him. Like that I knew it was going to happen, that’d he’d win. Well, if you look at the video, the guy says ‘the closest vote in the history of the Heisman Trophy, the winner from Auburn University, Bo Jackson.’ And what does he do?’ He stands up, turns around and shakes my hand.”
Then we got another “no,” again from your business manager, but more emphatic this time. By this point it was comical. But I still held out hope, and when I interviewed Mike Hubbard three days ago, and he told me that he would call you, or email you, everything made sense again.
Never heard anything. I took my recorder to the Arkansas game anyway. I met a guy who graduated in ’85. He was telling me stories. He had his 12-year-old son there. I asked the kid if he knew who Bo Jackson was. “The greatest player ever,” he said.
It’s hard for me to describe how I felt when I looked up at the Jumbotron and saw you emerge from the fog at Chizik’s right hand (or vice versa). It was the same feeling I had the moment your bat crushed the second ball pitched to you in the ’89 All-Star game. I knew you were going to hit a home run at your first at bat. And it happened! You are that guy! You are Roy Hobbes in “The Natural,” just like Mark Murphy says every time he’s asked, just like he wrote for David Rosenblatt’s questionnaire 20 years ago. And I knew you were going to be be there. And I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t been able to get in touch with you. I couldn’t believe it. I texted Jennie “Bo is here. Like always, expect a miracle.” And I decided then and there that I was going to find you after the game. Dad called me to ask if that was really you up on the screen, and I said “yep” and told him what I was going to do. “Hey, I’ll get arrested, I don’t care,” I told him. “And for my one phone call I’ll tell them ‘I want to call Bo Jackson.’”
“Go for it,” he said.
“Don’t try too hard,” Coach says. “He’s a human being.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Yeah, he is, just like Cameron Newton is. Look, the ones of us that saw Bo, like us grown folk, and like you did as a kid, were blessed to have seen the greatest athlete that ever lived. He was the Secretariat of football players. But Cameron Newton…”
This is where Pat Dye is going to tell me that Cam Newton is a great football player, but that he’s no Bo Jackson, and that’ll be the end of it. I’ll have to get back to actually writing an article better than anybody (who hasn’t’ been able to interview him) has ever written about Bo.
“… Cameron Newton is as much a freak as Bo Jackson was. And, boy, that’s right now. What you’re looking at every Saturday right now.”
I’m not sure when I first realized that Cam Newton was forcing me to rethink my approach to the article better than anybody’s ever written about Bo Jackson. It might have been when Coach said what he said. It might have been when Sadie saw me watching Cam’s highlights from the South Carolina game and said ‘Daddy, you’re always watching Bo Jackson videos.” It might have been earlier in the season when I opened up an issue of “Sports Illustrated” to a full-page ad for Nissan, “proud sponsors of the Heisman Memorial Trophy,” that showed a photo of Bo Jackson with the caption “Anything you can do, he can do better”… and then followed Bo’s eyes to a story on the adjacent page about Auburn’s exceptional new quarterback, Cam Newton.
But I knew for sure that he had when I looked up at the Jumbotron last night and watched in silent awe as Bo Jackson emerged from the fog, the tip of the spear, like somehow I knew he would, and then watched it flash to Cam, then back to Bo, then back to Cam. (Dad called.“Was that Bo?! He’s here?!”)
And I knew it when my friend texted me: “Bo is on the sidelines. Is he here for the anointing?”… and I knew it when I replied with “Cam Over The Top” right after Cam’s second rushing touchdown … and knew it later that night when I saw video and photos of Bo and Cam together in the locker room, shaking hands. Of course, since I never got to talk to Bo Jackson or show him the Polaroid or shake his hand again or tell him that the article better than anybody’s ever written about him wasn’t going to be an expose, or really even a profile, or really anything other than a love letter from a five-year-old boy (“and girl,” Sadie says), it’s possible that Cam Newton did more than reshape the angle of the story. It’s possible he sort of saved it.
This morning, Kirk Sampson, Auburn’s assistant athletic director, wrote me back to tell me that if I really needed to interview Cam Newton for a story on Bo Jackson, and if I really needed to do it in person, that I could try my luck tonight after post-practice interviews. I showed up early. Mark Murphy, editor of “Inside The Auburn Tigers Magazine,” was setting up his laptop. Mark actually wrote the first real feature story on Bo. It was during his freshman season “when he was painfully shy,” Murphy says, “and just starting to figure out he was a special athlete.”
“A lot of people think he’s the best American athlete of the 20th century,” Murphy told me, “but part of the mystique about Bo is the potential unrealized, because the injury that cut his career short. Everyone remembers him in his absolute prime. I don’t know if many of these kids even knew who he was before yesterday.”
The beat reporters got what they needed and started filing out. Cam was about to leave. We were the only ones left in the room. I reminded his handler that I was the guy writing the story on Bo Jackson and that I’ll just take a second. He’d already spent half an hour humbly deflecting questions about his overnight status update as the by-a-mile front-runner for the Heisman, a new narrative that Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist and CBS college football commentator Tony Barnhart was only too happy to help shape last night. I wasn’t able to stalk an interview out of Bo Jackson after the Arkansas game, and Lord knows I tried. His daughter is a Tigerette. I found some of her friends. I told them what I was doing. They stared, then walked away. But I did manage to run down Tony Barnhart as he hustled back inside the stadium, presumably to type up his “Not since Bo Jackson…” notes on Cam for a Monday column. I shouted his name. He turned around, gave me five minutes.
“So you saw him play,” I said. “Tell me about him.”
“Bo was just one of these extraordinary guys who had the power to break tackles and the speed to run away once he broke them. He’s identified with Auburn… everybody has heard of Bo Jackson,” Barnhart said. “Not just because of winning the Heisman Trophy, but because of what he did afterward.”
“Did you see him out there tonight?
“Oh, no. Was he here?”
“Yeah, you didn’t see him? He led the team out of the tunnel with Chizik and they kept flashing him up on the Jumbotron. Then they’d flash to Cam. My friend asked if he was here for the anointing. So yeah… think Cam has a shot at the trophy?”
“I think Cam Newton definitely has a shot. I asked Coach Chizik that a little while ago. You’ve got to look at this guy.”
I tilt my head back and look up at this guy. It’s just Cam and me. I hold up the recorder.
“Did you know who Bo Jackson was, growing up?”
“I knew all about Bo Jackson. His road to Auburn, his life after Auburn. You go to Footlocker and you see his shoes and his paraphernalia. Bo is a marquis athlete and for him to be an athlete and play baseball and football and be good at it? Bo Jackson’s name rings bells to a lot of people.”
“So is having him on the sidelines and in the locker room like he was yesterday – I mean, is that a big deal?
“Oh, absolutely. Anytime you get to be in the presence of a person like Bo Jackson… a person who has reached so many pinnacles of success in his life, we’re all about that.”
“I thought I was going to have a chance to interview him this weekend, didn’t happen. Is he a cool guy? Did you talk to him?”
“What’d he say?”
“He was encouraging us to take the challenge to be dominant.”
Newton, in what will probably—let’s be honest—be his only game against Arkansas, took that challenge to the tune of 140 yards passing and 188 yards rushing.
In his only game against Arkansas, Bo rushed for 88 yards.
“I’m not going to ask you about the Heisman or anything,” I say, “but do you think it’s fair to say that no other Auburn player since Bo Jackson has had the impact you’re having?”
“I wouldn’t say that. There’s been a lot of great players before me. Coach Chizik says this program was made great before I was here, even before I was born.
Cam Newton was born on May 11, 1989. It was a Thursday. Nolan Ryan struck Bo Jackson out in all four at bats that day.
“Did you feel, like, a transference of energy or something when Bo shook your hand?”
I was only half joking.
He smiles. “Yeah, I did… Bo’s presence makes you want to be great.”
I tell Cam Newton thanks for everything. I tell him War Eagle. I tell him he’s great.
I really wish I had Sadie with me—and a camera.
I shake his hand.
It felt like a brick.
War Eagle, Bo.
I remain your biggest fan,
Jeremy Henderson, age 31.
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