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Bo Jackson: ‘I Probably Just Would Have Played Baseball’

Bo knows regret? Not exactly, but the former two-sport star opens up about head trauma and how knowledge of its long-term impact might have altered his career path. Plus thoughts on Tebow, Vegas and more

Editor’s note: Bo Jackson sat down with The MMQB in Los Angeles in mid-August, a couple weeks before the season began. 

DOM BONVISSUTO: Nobody knows better than you how difficult it is to play two sports professionally. How hard will the transition be for Tim Tebow as he looks to start a baseball career?

BO JACKSON: I wish him all the luck in the world, but it’s not going to be easy. I struggled with it, and I played baseball through high school and college. Deion Sanders was the same way. We were two of the fortunate ones to get to the majors and stay there. With Tebow, I never even knew he played baseball. And he says he hasn’t played since high school? That’s not going to be easy. I wish him all the best.

BONVISSUTO: Why are we seeing so much specialization in youth sports today? Do you think kids, or their parents, are making a mistake by focusing on one sport?

JACKSON: I think kids should be kids, from the time they start playing sports at a very early age. Let them do whatever they want—baseball, football, soccer, it could be Frisbee. Let kids be kids. As you get older, you have to taper that down to what your heart is set on doing. The reason I did two sports was to stay out of trouble. I think a kid trying to split his time between two sports means one thing: He is going to spend all his time on the bench. The talent pool is so deep that is hard to crack that No. 1 spot just playing a single sport, yet alone two. Not trying to brag, but I came through the system at the right time. I did it constantly from junior high to high school to college to pros. That’s all I knew. I never had that gap.

“If I had young kids, to be honest, and if they came and said, Dad, I want to play football, I’d smack them in the mouth. No. No.” 

Sports has changed. The mentality of sports has changed, from the standpoint that if you’re not on someone’s traveling team, you are going to be left out. Take for instance football. Instead of taking your summer off and just using the last few weeks to get ready for the season, kids are now playing in these summer 7-on-7 leagues. If you’re not doing that, you’re left out. Same thing with baseball, with summer, fall and winter leagues. I have a business in Illinois and Ohio with Bo Jackson Elite Sports. In the Midwest, with these summer sports, the kids are handcuffed [in the fall and winter] because of the weather outside. And what I decided to do, because I saw a big need for it, was to bring the summer indoors during the winter. I got these air-supported complexes and have regulation infields and 12 batting cages and six pitchers mounds; it’s almost 90K square feet. The kids can get the same type of practice they could get outside when it’s summertime. Just broke ground in July in Hilliard, Ohio, because there is a need for these. Kids in the Midwest were 3-4 months behind the kids from Florida, Georgia, California because of the weather, the snow and ice. Sports is a year-round thing, and if you’re not a part of that, you’ll be pulling up the rear.

BONVISSUTO: You played for the Raiders in Los Angeles. Now they’re up in Oakland and there’s talk of them moving to Las Vegas. Do the Raiders belong in Las Vegas?

JACKSON: I only know of the Los Angeles Raiders. I can’t say where they should be. I think Vegas has enough attractions and distractions there, but to have a football team there? [Shakes his head.] It may be a great thing, but it may not be. That’s not for me to say because I’m not the owner.  I will say that wherever the Raiders do go, they will do well. They have a good brand and the Raider Nation is strong. It can stand on its own.

BONVISSUTO: What are your memories of Al Davis? What was it like playing for him?

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JACKSON: He was the best employer I’ve ever worked for. Number 1, he was a man of his word. Number 2, he spoke whatever was on his mind. And number 3, he fashioned the phrase Just Win Baby, but deep down inside, he cared more about his players than anything. I know that because before he got sick, and after I left the Raiders in ’90, for about 10-15 years he would send my wife flowers on her birthday and send her a Christmas present. No other owner I ever played for has done that. It stopped when he couldn’t do it anymore. He will always have my respect, not as my employer, but for being a man of his word.


BONVISSUTO: In today’s the NFL, with the way the game has changed, would you be utilized the same way now?

JACKSON: I’m a runner, I’m a running back. That’s all I know. I wouldn’t have any problems playing in today’s NFL. Now, I will say this: I don’t watch football or baseball or basketball. For me, sitting down watching a game is like you going home, getting a beer, getting some popcorn, sitting down on the couch and watching somebody else do an interview. So I don’t watch sports, but what I know about it, is what I read about or watch in the morning before I get up and go to the office. Now, football has changed in the past 25 years.  It seems like the running back position is slowly fading away because everyone wants this run-and-gun type offense, which is good for some people. From my day, people wanted to see—there’s more action when handing the ball off to a running back, whether it’s Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, LaDainian Tomlinson. That’s what gets the fans on their feet. I’m not saying anything negative about today’s players, but back in my day, people came to the stadiums to see running backs.

BONVISSUTO: With regards to head injuries and how they’re affecting retired players, have you experienced symptoms that you feel are due to your time playing football?

JACKSON: I am one of the fortunate ones. I don’t think anyone who has ever strapped on the helmet and shoulder pads hasn’t had their bell rung. I had my bell rung once. It’s not anything to play with, now I know that. I went and watched the movie [Concussion] and there were people I knew, that I was friends with, that were gone that I didn’t even know they were gone. If I had young kids, to be honest, and if they came and said, Dad, I want to play football, I’d smack them in the mouth. No. No. Because if I’d have known back then what I know now, to be honest with you, I probably would have taken a different path. I probably just would have played baseball.

BONVISSUTO: Tell me about the one time you had a concussion.

JACKSON: I had just run over somebody, and I was in the process of stepping on them and going down the field. Someone came from behind me and hit me right behind the ear. It was like someone short-circuited me. The ball came out and I fell on the ball, so I got it back. Something in my brain was telling me to get up, and don’t let these guys see that you are hurt. I got up and walked to the sideline. I got through the crowd and went to sit on the bench, and right when my butt hit the bench, someone grabbed my arm and said, You’re on the wrong side, motherf---er. So yes, I got my bell rung and it’s true. When you get your bell rung, you don’t hear nothing but a [bing]. You got 80,000 people screaming, but all you hear is [beeeeeeeeep].

BONVISSUTO: In hindsight, would you have made the same choice coming out of Auburn, if you had the knowledge you have now, 30 years later?

JACKSON: Hindsight speaks volumes, but being a 21-year-old kid, I don’t think I would have changed a thing. I’d be making a $100 million in one sport, $100 million in another sport. That’s just the nature of the beast. In pro sports, it doesn’t matter if it’s baseball, football, basketball, soccer—you gotta make as much as you can, as early as you can, as often as you can. NFL stands for any professional sport: Not For Long. You got to get it while you can.

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