An Inside Look at Bo Jackson's Ascent at Auburn as a Three-Sport Star

Former SI writer Alexander Wolff reflects on his 1984 visit to Alabama to spend time with Auburn's ascending star, Bo Jackson.
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Before Bo Jackson won the Heisman, played a down in the NFL or had a professional at bat, he was a 20 year old college kid showing off his immense talents at Auburn. Sports Illustrated is opening up the SI Vault and examining its most consequential work about moments like this one that defined the most legendary athletes in sports through its new podcast, The Record.

In 1984, former SI writer Alexander Wolff visited the 21-year-old ascending star in Alabama, where he rode in the passengers seat of Jackson's 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass, furiously scribbling notes. Jessica Smetana talked with Wolff about his reflections on his story, Bo on the Go, Jackson's the legendary college career and upbringing, and what it was like to ride around Alabama with him. 

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Jessica Smetana: Was it normal to do a national profile on an athlete like Bo Jackson at this time for Sports Illustrated? Granted, he hadn't won the Heisman yet, but he was very well-known and popular at the time. But at the same time, he was only 20 years old and he was getting a huge spread in the magazine. 

Alexander Wolff: Yeah, I think given the circumstance here, you had a guy who'd been offered a quarter million dollars by the Yankees coming out of high school to play baseball. He was a great raw talent as a sprinter. He wasn't quite up to making the Olympics, but had a there. If he'd really put his mind to it, he probably could have been Olympic caliber sprinter. And he had that amazing game against Auburn. So it was a little bit of a legend building about him. And back in the ’80s, we had so many ad pages in the magazine. When the college football preview came around, we had scouting reports. We could do all sorts of very cool things.

So to follow this guy around and to know that there be the access that I would get to sit in the shotgun seat while Bo was driving me around the state of Alabama, these tornadoes that touched down and there was all this wreckage outside the window, the cars we were driving around. So it made for this this kind of dramatic scene that you could play with. They were going to do anything they could take to give me time with him. This is back in a day when schools work really hard to get their Heisman candidates as much publicity as possible. And I wasn’t going to pass that up.

JS: So you mentioned that Bo Jackson was possibly an Olympic caliber sprinter. We know that he was an NFL caliber running back and an MLB caliber outfielder because he went on and did those things.

But at this time in Bo Jackson's life and his amateur career, did he have this feeling that maybe if I specialized in one sport, I could be exceptional at it rather than being really great at multiple things? Or was that not something he had considered yet?

AW: He wasn't talking in those terms quite yet. He was still kind of taking stock of his many talents. I think he was really trying to stay out of trouble, like what could I do that might mess up all these possibilities? Let me avoid that. And I think the thing about football that was so appealing is something that he was getting a lot of positive reinforcement for because he was an Alabama kid at Auburn. There's always a little bit of a wild card with baseball. What if you can't hit the curve ball? And he struck out a lot of SEC baseball games. So there might have been a little bit of quavering confidence in baseball. And then in track, he had yet really broken through in an elite way that he had already broken through in football. So I think football at that time was the leader in the clubhouse of those three options. But history tells us clearly that he was able to do it in baseball, too. And, you know, in track, I can't believe he wouldn't have been just superb at it if he'd been able to spend the time.

JS: Did you get the sense that he was doing all of these things because he was a troublemaker, like you said. He admitted it all the time. He didn't want to follow the rules of, you know, you have to pick one thing and be good at it. And this was kind of his way of keeping with that troublemaker, break-the-rules type of mentality that he had growing up, that I'm not going to let anyone tell me that I have to do one thing. I'm going to do whatever I want and I'm gonna be really good at it.

AW: You're onto something, Jessica. Absolutely. I mean, I think his riposte to that Alabama recruiter like, What do you mean I have no other options? I can do anything I want. He was stubborn. And the nickname Bo, remember his real given first name is Vincent. But he got the nickname Bo from a brother because the brother described him as being tough as a boar hog, being a shortened version of boar. And I think part of that is just the stubbornness. And that did impress me that he was stubborn. He was happy to prove things to people. He was happy to get up in front of kids and tell them that this is the way it ought to be.

There was a wonderful story—because Bo hadn't participated in spring practice, he wasn't allowed to play in the Auburn spring game, but he was, of course, there. So he went to the Auburn Athletic Department and said, I love kids. Let's set up some sort of a promotion at he spring game where I'll race the kids. And they did that. And Bo spotted the kids like 15 yards head start and they ran 100-yard dash. And it was that kind of engagement. I think he loved being a role model. And that kind of led to things we saw later in his professional career careers, plural, which was the “Bo Knows” stuff. Yeah, I can do this. Watch me do this. Maybe you can do it, too. There was that little twinkle in his eye about it. So there was definitely some of that contrarian streak in him that I think really made him a great athlete and led him to take on these challenges.

JS: In your 1984 story, Bo on the Go, you have a lot of Bo Jackson wisdom that he shared with you. For example, there's one quote that says, “That's what I'm going to say to you. Don't run life too fast. You only have one. You'll either be somewhere serving time or pushing up daisies. Obey your parents in my life. They've been three roads, a high road, low road. And in between a just road. Right now, I'm on that just road with God's help. I'm just about to get to the top to the high road for such a young athlete.”

How did he come up with all of these like Bo-isms and this wisdom? It seems so fascinating to see that he had already this very mature outlook on life as a junior in college.

AW: So really, for the first time in 30 years I went t back and re-read that story and I was struck by the same thing. Where does this all come from? And I'd like to think that by getting him at the wheel of the car, it made him feel kind of more confident and more in charge and metaphorically at the wheel. And all I had to do was sort of write down what he had to say. He was chewing on a straw, which probably relaxed him. But there was a consistency to those Bo-isms, as you call them. They all had to do with taking care of your business and playing it straight—pay that parking ticket before you forget about it. It was very, very consistent and I wonder if it was the trouble he got into when he was young. He told this one story about because he would get into trouble, he would sometimes get awakened in the middle of the night by his mother and told to go outside and cut the grass in the moonlight or so. So there I think there was that kind of hanging in the back of his mind all the time. The sense of, you know, there might be hell to pay if I don't if I don't handle my business properly. It's striking how poised he was. And as I can tell, he kept his nose real clean through the rest of his professional career.