Q & A with Bo Jackson, Mr. Know-It-All

Bo Jackson, one of the most celebrated athletes of his generation, transcended the sporting world and became a pop culture icon. His Nike commercials turned “Bo knows” into a catchphrase, playing off Jackson’s ability to perform outrageous feats in multiple sports.

Jackson won the 1985 Heisman Trophy as a running back at Auburn, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him with the first pick in the 1986 NFL draft. The Bucs told him to choose football over baseball, but he signed instead with the Kansas City Royals. The next year, the Los Angeles Raiders drafted him and he began spending his summers in the Royals’ outfield and his autumns in the Raiders’ backfield.

In 1991, he suffered a hip injury that ended his NFL career. He eventually required hip replacement surgery, and yet he returned to the major leagues with the Chicago White Sox in 1993, with a home run in his first at-bat. He finished his baseball career with the Angels in 1994.

He was a human highlight reel. His first major league home run traveled 475 feet. He once stepped out of the batter’s box, realized the umpire had not granted time out, jumped into the box as the pitcher let the ball go — and homered.

In a memorable Monday night NFL game in Seattle, he ran over Brian Bosworth on his way to a 221-yard game, including a 91-yard touchdown dash in which he did not stop running until he had cleared the end zone and nearly reached the locker room.

In this interview, Jackson 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.

Jackson returns to Anaheim on Sunday to play in the All-Star celebrity softball game at Angel Stadium. He was the MVP of the last All-Star Game in Anaheim, in 1989, when he led off for the American League with a 448-foot home run to center field.

Question: You were one of the more prolific sluggers in the league, so how did you react when Tony La Russa, the manager of the American League team, asked you to lead off?

Answer: I didn’t have any idea that was coming. I thought I was going to be batting fifth or sixth with all the firepower we had. Don Mattingly, Kirby Puckett — you name it, we had it.

When he came up and said, ‘Bo, I’ve got you leading off,’ I was shocked. I was just happy to be in the company of so many great athletes. When he said I was leading off that meant one thing to me: I had to get my stuff in gear a little earlier than I had planned to.

Q: And you did, on your first swing. You hit a 448-foot home run off Rick Reuschel, deep beyond the center-field fence.

A: Most of my power was to right field and right-center. I’ve always had the patience to sit and wait.

I learned from the late, great Buck O’Neil, when you’re facing someone we would call a junkball pitcher, someone with a lot of off-speed and breaking stuff, you need to find the heaviest bat in the clubhouse. I think I took a couple of Steve Balboni’s bats with me — 35 1/2 inches, 36 ounces.

He threw the ball down the middle. I waited and waited. I found a needle in a haystack. If I’d have swung at the ball 10 more times, I wouldn’t have hit it.

Q: That turned out to be your only All-Star game. What souvenirs did you take home?

A: I’m not a collector of too many souvenirs. My souvenirs are collected in my mind. I think the best souvenir I could take from that is the appreciation my teammates gave me.

The memory I take from the game is the camaraderie of all the great athletes I got to play with, stand beside, shake hands with and goof off with.

Q: You finished your career with the Angels, in 1994. What memories did you take from that season?

A: I really enjoyed it. You’re on the team with guys like Mark Langston and Chuck Finley, a bunch of young guys like Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon and Eduardo Perez. We were on a team with a bunch of nice guys.

We had a somewhat decent team that year. Jim Edmonds had just burst onto the scene. Salmon was coming into his own.

I think a lot about [owner] Gene Autry, meeting and talking with him. I think about the man walking through the clubhouse with his cowboy boots on — every day, a different pair of boots.

We didn’t really talk about baseball. We talked about how our kids were raised, how we were raised.

The important thing to me was getting to know people on a personal level, and letting people see a side of me they wouldn’t normally see.

Of course, everybody remembers the home runs and the prodigious throws and my blazing speed, but a lot of people don’t know the person off the baseball field. Whenever I had time to sit down and talk with my buddies, we never sat down and talked about our jobs.

Q: In what turned out to be your last major league game, with the players’ strike looming, you had your only stolen base since your hip injury. Did you want to prove you still could steal a base before you retired?

A: No. That was off Tom Gordon. I turned around and I laughed at him. He was on the mound looking back at me and calling me some names I can’t say. We were great friends. But he was as hot as the griddle at the Waffle House.

Q: You put up pretty good numbers in 1994, batting .279 with 13 home runs in 75 games. Why did you decide to retire?

A: I knew deep in my heart that, if we had a strike and it lasted for the rest of the season, I wasn’t coming back. My kids were in elementary school. If I had the opportunity to be home with them — to get up in the morning with them, to make breakfast for them, to take them to school, to go to parent-teacher conferences — I knew I wouldn’t be back.

I got home and I got a taste of freedom.

After the strike, I had two or three teams call me. I had been home for eight months. I said, ‘Thanks for the offer, but I like my freedom a little bit better.’”

Q: Could you have extended your career by a few years, even with the bad hip?

A: Of course I could have. If we hadn’t had a strike, I would have played a couple more years. But even before I got out of college I knew I was going to be in and out of professional sports before I was 34 years old. I wanted to be my own boss.

Don’t ever misquote me in the sense that I took my jobs in professional baseball and football for granted. I knew I was good for professional sports. But Major League Baseball and the NFL were great for Bo Jackson. They opened a lot of doors. I think a lot of people in this day and age take that for granted.

Q: Al Davis, the Raiders’ owner, let you play out the baseball season then join his team midway through the football season. What are your memories of Al Davis, and of playing in the Los Angeles Coliseum?

A: Everybody stands up and says, ‘Al Davis, that crazy SOB.’ That isn’t so. This is a man who would have fought a lion with a switch to defend his players.

This is my opinion, and my opinion only, but the reason the Raiders left Los Angeles was because of the condition of our place of work. The public just got to see the outside of the stadium, which is beautiful. But after a game we had to stand in line to take a shower. There were 20 or 25 shower heads — and only four of them had a steady stream of water coming out of them.

When you have conditions like that, you’ve got to go to greener pastures. That’s what Mr. Davis did.

Mr. Davis tells you exactly what he thinks. That’s what I like about him.

From the time I left the Raiders he called my wife and I every Christmas, and he called my wife on her birthday and sent her flowers. That is the type of man Al Davis is. He will always remain one of the most distinguished men I’ve ever had the opportunity to shake hands with.

Q: In the year you were finishing your baseball career, Michael Jordan was trying to start his. You got a lot of acclaim for playing two sports. He got a lot of grief for trying. What did you think of his effort, and did you talk with him about it?

A: I’ve never spoken to Michael about it. Michael was going to do what made Michael happy. If we live our lives according to how the public thinks we should, then why are we living?

People are always going to critique us. That’s just part of life. You have to take it with a grain of salt and move on. If Michael chose to play baseball, let him, and let his actions determine whether he can accomplish that. It’s not for somebody who has probably never put on a jock or a pair of baseball shoes to say that.

Q: Do you think the ability to compete at a professional level in two sports is extremely rare, or do you think many more guys would try if teams would let them?

A: It’s rare. The day and age of the two- and three-sport athlete is extinct, mainly because of the level of competition. If you don’t concentrate on one sport you’re going to be left behind. If a person succeeds in doing two sports on a professional level, he’ll be there for one reason: to ride the bench. There will always be someone ahead of him.

Q: As parents and coaches, we push our youngsters to specialize in one sport at an increasingly early age, with travel ball and club teams and sports academies. Do you consider that trend a good thing or bad thing for our youngsters?

A: I think it’s a good thing. Travel ball and academy ball, they play year-round. If you play for your high school, you only have one season and then you’re done. I deal with a lot of travel teams. They play year-round. I’ve seen the competition.

I could see, 10 years from now, high school baseball will be obsolete. There are so many travel teams where kids get the opportunity to play year-round. Those kids who just play for their high school team two months out of the year? Nobody is going to come look at them.

It’s not just baseball. It’s sports in general that have gotten so competitive.

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.