Do You Know Him? : There’s a Side to Bo Jackson That Fans Cannot See


Bo Jackson, considered the greatest athlete of our generation, might also be one of the most misunderstood.

Visitors rarely are allowed to intrude his privacy. The public knows him only by his commercials and exploits on the playing field. The media doesn’t know him much better.

It has been nine years since he won the Heisman Trophy, five years since he was in the All-Star game, and four years since he last carried a football for the Raiders.


America remains intrigued.

Jackson, who planned to retire if the Angels had not suddenly telephoned in January, proved to all that he can still play this game. He captivated the Cactus League this spring by batting .392 with a team-leading five homers and 17 RBIs.

He not only earned a job on the team, but only two years after undergoing surgery for an artificial hip, Jackson will be roaming the outfield. He will platoon in left field with Dwight Smith.

Estranged from the father he never had, and still mourning the death of his mother, he talked with The Times’ Angel beat writer, Bob Nightengale, last week about what life is like being Bo Jackson.


People think being Bo Jackson is so grandiose, and so prestigious, but they don’t realize that when I leave the ballpark, I cry just like they do. I hurt inside just like they do.

When it comes down to family and sentimental things, I cry like anyone else.

People don’t realize that once I leave the ballpark, I don’t want to be recognized by anyone. You give up your privacy, and to me, that’s the hardest part of all this. You feel constantly like a politician. You’re supposed to be smiling, waving, and acting and all of that. You can’t have bad days. If you do, they say he’s an ass . . . He’s arrogant. There’s always going to be somebody out there unhappy.


When I’m out on the field, I try to be the toughest SOB out there. Everybody sees this hard, crusty exterior of a guy who never smiles. But yet, deep down inside, there’s the side of me people don’t see.

One of the reasons I don’t smile much is because of the fact I never had someone there to make me smile when I was a kid, to do things with. To this day, I still envy baseball players who have their dads fly in to spend the weekend with them. I wish I could do that with my dad.

I still have a lot of open wounds not having a father around when I was growing up. Up to this day, my father and I don’t speak. I haven’t spoken to my father in almost four years now.

Time will heal all wounds, but right now, I’m not ready for that wound to heal. To reconcile, it hurts too much. I feel that if he wants to be my father, if he wants everyone to know that I’m his son, he would have recognized me a long time ago.

I never have sat and acted like a superstar in my life. I just wanted to play professional sports. It’s the public and the media who put those labels on you. “He’s going to be the next Willie Mays. He’s going to be the next Hank Aaron. He’s going to be the next Walter Payton. He’s going to be the next Gale Sayers.”

I hated those labels. I learned in my second year in Kansas City that an athlete is just a commodity. That’s all. If that product is popular enough to sell tickets, you’re going to stick around. And we sold a lot of tickets in Kansas City.


I don’t like to look at things from a racial standpoint, but if I were white and did the things that I did, I probably would have been 10 times as popular as George Brett. And, of course, I probably would have still been there.

I experienced more racial problems in Kansas City than even Alabama, where I grew up. That’s just the way it is there. You get fan mail calling you racial names. “Why don’t you drop dead, you nigger.” It takes some pretty ignorant parents to sit up and teach their kids hatred, to dislike someone just because of their race or religion. It’s pretty sick.

I’m just glad I got out of there when I did. Some pretty strange things were going on. It got to the point where I had to purchase my wife a pistol to keep in her car.

She would have people approach her in the parking lot, following her. People would follow me, drive up to my house, stop behind my house, and stick long-lens cameras out the window.

Crazy things were happening. There was even a funny noise in my telephone. It could have had a tap on it, I’m not sure.

Back then, they didn’t want you to be your own man. And they didn’t want you to be too famous. But I overstepped those boundaries when I became the most popular guy in K.C.


I stood up for what I believed in, and wouldn’t let them step on my feet. Even after I was gone from there, for over a year they were still ripping me in the news and in the newspapers. What is the point? Are they pissed off at me because I left?

I didn’t leave because I wanted to. I left because the people didn’t want me. The way I figure it, it was their loss, not mine.

It wasn’t only me, they got rid of Bret Saberhagen, Willie Wilson and Frank White. We kept that stadium packed. Damn near sold out every night. How many times that stadium been sold out since we left there? Not once. You go back and check. So what does that say?

They sit and say these guys weren’t a drawing card. Who’s their drawing card now? Wally Joyner? Vince Coleman? I’m not trying to say anything bad about them, but come on.

People don’t want to accept change there. They want things to stay as they were 20 years ago, 30 years ago. George Brett and Frank White are probably two of the greatest players in the history of the Royals. Why is it those two guys aren’t both in the front office, and just George?

I hope with George in the front office they’ll make some changes around there that are better for the players. It’s hard to have someone running a ballclub when they don’t know jack about baseball.


That’s a time of my life I want to forget. It was something I had no control over. I remember I wasn’t even employed by the Royals anymore, but the day we packed everything up to move out, we went to the airport and had news cameras following us. One ass . . . kept walking up with the microphone, trying to get me to talk to him. I was on my crutches, and I wouldn’t say anything to him.

This one gentleman that was standing in line by us, he got fed up with it. And this was a white man. He walked over to this reporter, and said, “Look, why don’t you get the hell out of this man’s face with that camera? Didn’t he tell you that he doesn’t want to talk to you? Now I am getting sick of you. You can’t sue me, because I don’t have anything. I’ll kick your ass. Now get out of here with that camera.”

And I politely told him, “Thank you.”

Everybody is looking for a story. If they can print something about somebody who has a name, or who’s a celebrity, they figure they got a front-page story there. Everybody has a Bo story. Everybody wants to write or speculate about Bo Jackson. They never get the real story.

It’s sad, really. Media people rip you one day, and two days later that same person is hanging around the locker room trying to get a story on you. I don’t forget. Sports Illustrated came down to Auburn once and spent a whole week with me. The story comes out, and it rips me, saying I always take myself out of big games. Well, I haven’t talked to SI since.

In this business, you have a lot of people trying to screw you. What people see is dumb jocks, and that’s not the case. You got a lot of people in baseball that have college degrees.

Yet, whenever you hear of an athlete getting into trouble, it’s usually a baseball player. You get to the point where we are constantly looking over our shoulder to see who’s coming over to pick a fight with you. You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times.


When I left home to go to college, my mom told me, “I don’t want you to get into any fights. If somebody is trying to pick a fight with you because you are Bo Jackson and only Bo Jackson, turn your other cheek. And then, if he kicks your other cheek, you can whup his ass.”

If I sense trouble, I’ll say, “If you got a problem with me, go home and try to solve it yourself. If you still think fighting me will solve it, go ahead and take the first shot.” I’ll never start a fight, unless it’s with my sisters.

But there are those people out there who look for trouble. You can see it. They’ll come in, sit by Bo Jackson, start talking sports, and ultimately will bring me up and start ragging on me.

I remember sitting in a bar when I was playing with K.C., and guys were trying to get to me. We had just got killed in the game, and they were talking about how bad we were, especially me, because I struck out two or three times. They were really trying to get me to go off.

You know what I did? I walked over their table, bought both of them a beer, smiled in their face, and said, “Have a good day.” They were insulted more by me doing that than if I kicked their butts.

Even when I’m out with the fellas fooling around, I make sure we don’t get into any trouble or do anything stupid. Last year when the White Sox released Carlton Fisk, we got together and we took him out to this bar. We rented the upstairs and closed the place down.


We ended up spending almost four grand just on Carlton Fisk because we all loved him and wanted him to go out with a night. I was the only person there that wasn’t drinking because I felt I had to chaperon. I put it on myself to stay sober because that’s the last thing we needed was for somebody on the team to get in trouble and do something stupid. They would probably mention so and so name in the paper, but I bet you my name would be in the first sentence.

Really, I feel that my baseball career started two years ago. All the accolades and awards I received before I got to Chicago, to me, never existed.

The greatest thrill I ever had was when I hit that homer in my first game after the surgery. That topped every athletic goal and achievement I obtained in my college and professional career. I wasn’t doing it for the team. Or the public. Or the media.

I was doing it for my mother.

There hasn’t been a day that she left me where I don’t think about her. That’s my life. That’s my heart right there.

Now when I go back to Birmingham, it’s hard for me to go back there and stay in my mom’s house. When I walk into the door, I expect to see her there. I expect to go up into the kitchen to help her cook.

I stay at Dr. (James) Andrews’ house in Birmingham when I go there on short trips, but when I’m staying for awhile, I go down and spend time in my mom’s house. I sleep in my mom’s bed. I expect to see her come upstairs and wake me up. I expect to walk up and hug her, and I can’t do that anymore.


I was the worst of all 10 kids in the family. I think I got more whippings than all my brothers and sisters put together. I think that’s why I feel so close to my mom.

I know I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything close to what I have without my mother. The difference between me and a lot of other athletes is I have that confidence in myself. I know what Bo Jackson is about, and what he isn’t, and to get other people to realize that is like pulling teeth.

People say I’m here to put people in the stands, but it works both ways. I have a lot of business ties on the West Coast, so nobody gets screwed. My life doesn’t depend on whether or not I play baseball. Baseball is just a means of employment.

It doesn’t matter how big of a player you are, or how big of an ass-kisser your are, you can stick around this game if you can fill seats. We are only products. When they can’t get any more use out of us, they say, “There’s the garbage can, go jump in it.”

If I came here with the intentions of being just a crowd-pleaser, I would be fat and out of shape because I know I wouldn’t have to do anything. Believe me, I’m here with the expectations of playing a lot of ball. That’s the bottom line.

I just don’t want to play the type of ball I played when I was with the White Sox. Sit on the bench for four or five days and then go out and expect to spark a team. You got to be in that lineup if you’re going to be successful, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.


There were only two teams I would have considered, and if the California Angels hadn’t called, I’d probably be back home and doing things with my kids that I’ve never done before. There was no way I was going to play for George Steinbrenner. You can take away a zebra’s stripes, and you still got a zebra. He thinks he can just buy a person, and I refuse to be somebody else’s property.

It’s amazing, but I feel 1,000% better than a year ago. Last year, I was going in unchartered waters so I had to be a little more careful than I’m being this year. One thing about it is that when I go out to play, I do what I can, and I don’t try to do too much.

I know there’s people who feel sorry for what happened to me, but if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not even the day I got injured with the Raiders. Those were four wonderful years with the Raiders and Mr. (Al) Davis. The Raiders treat their players like human beings. Every player that has gone through there, probably with the exception of Marcus (Allen), comes back there and visits.

I just feel that things happen in a person’s life for a reason. I’m a firm believer that the Good Lord allowed me to get injured so I’ll be able to get out of sports when I wanted to get out of them.

I always said I wanted to be out of professional sports and be a successful businessman when I’m 34. I’m 31 now, and I think about that a lot, what is it going to be like when I’m through with baseball?

I don’t have any sad feelings. Actually, I can’t wait until that day comes because that means I get to spend a whole lot more time with my family. I’m looking forward to watching my kids grow up. I’m looking forward to teaching my kids how to ride horses, how to snow ski, how to snorkel. I’m going to teach them how to do everything I wanted to learn growing up but wasn’t able to because of finances.


You don’t see enough athletes being a father outside the ballpark, and that’s what I want to do. I want to be the coach on their Little League baseball team, or be one of the Scoutmasters taking the kids camping out in the woods. I’m not talking about three little rich spoiled kids, but giving them the knowledge to know what’s out there.

I look forward to my career in business. When baseball’s over, I’ll stay in Chicago for a little while and go to culinary school to be a chef. Southern cuisine, that’s all I want to cook. I hope to open a Southern-style cuisine restaurant in downtown Chicago and call it Bebe’s, my mother’s nickname.

“It’ll be like old country style. The wicker chairs. Tables with checkerboard tablecloths. The drinks will be out of big Mason jars with straws. And I’ll be in the kitchen wearing the big hat.

It’ll be just like ol’ times, back in the kitchen again with Mom.

Believe me, I can’t wait.