The cyclone of a late spring storm had already caused five deaths in Montgomery, and a twister had just touched down in Talladega, where Vincent (Bo) Jackson was headed. Nonetheless, Jackson had put his fate in the hands of his 1983 Olds Cutlass and the Lord, and he was driving the two hours north from Auburn to the Helen Keller School, on the campus of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. The students had invited him to speak at their annual sports banquet.
"If I'm not constantly keepin' myself busy, I know I'll get in trouble," Jackson was saying. "Trouble's been haunting me ever since I can remember. Coming up, I'd just do things for the hell of it. So I play sports, work out, do studying, cooking, or visit people like I'm doing now." Not 30 minutes out of Auburn, in Dadeville, Jackson swung the car into the lot of a Crispy Chick, ordered a box of the bird and an iced tea and took three straws. Back in the car, he unwrapped one and stuck it in his mouth.
Jackson is forever gnawing on straws. He says straws are better than "dip," or snuff, which is what most of his Auburn football teammates prefer. "I tried dip in high school," he says. "Makes you sick as a dog. I swallowed some first day of summer practice, and coaches be talking, 'Bo's outta shape.' "
So straws it is—purloined from the Auburn training table, where the dietician, Ann Graves, says, "I don't dare run out." Or taken from his personal cache, a plastic bag from McDonald's that originally held a couple of thousand striped straws but is now down to perhaps 50. It takes about a quarter of an hour for Jackson to do a straw. "Every two or three minutes I fold it over once," he says. "I go quicker if I'm nervous. Like yesterday, I walked into health class and found out we had a test. It had slipped my mind. I went through one in two minutes. Straws help me relax. A few guys tried to pick up on my habit, and people in the cafeteria gave 'em hell. 'Y'all tryin' to be like Bo, chewin' a straw.' "
September 4, 1984
One tornado had hewed tightly to Highway 21, and as Jackson negotiated the last stretch of road from Sylacauga, the landscape looked more and more ravaged: cracked-back trees, clotheslined street signs, a family of four, bewildered, stooping to pick through the wreckage of their home. "And this wasn't even a bad twister," said Jackson, removing the straw from his mouth. Its tubing had been masticated into something vaguely resembling the head of a spur.
Talladega was without power. Jackson slipped behind the podium at the Keller School and addressed the kids in his even tone, with a trace of a speech impediment—he stammers—that's gradually disappearing. Those who could hear listened above the wheezing of an emergency generator. Those who could only watch focused on a woman named Erminel Love, who interpreted his speech in sign language.
"I can think of only one thing when I look at all of you," said Jackson. "It's a TV show I watch all the time, That's Incredible." He paused and went on. "I'd like to share my past with you. Coming up, I was known as the little nappy-headed kid on the corner. In third grade I was so bad, I'd bully the sixth-graders."
And on Jackson went. To be sure, he didn't go into everything—how he'd take lunch money off schoolmates in Bessemer, Ala. and lend it back to them, with interest; how he'd pay one kid to beat up on another; how he hit a cousin, a girl, with a baseball bat when she tried to take away a Ping-Pong paddle; or how he helped stone to death a local minister's pig. But he told them of the windows he'd broken and the candy bars he'd stolen, and how removed all that is from what he is now, an All-America halfback, near world-class sprinter, baseball prodigy and, though just a junior, this season's favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
"That's what I'm gonna say to you," said Jackson. "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 there've been three roads: a high road, a 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."
Jackson is so obsessed with trouble that he's warning off a roomful of youngsters who wouldn't know trouble if they saw or heard it, kids who couldn't begin to cross their parents if they wanted to. But trouble is Jackson's bugaboo, his Beelzebub. He's always aware of it, always sizing it up. Sometimes he'll deal it a lick. And sometimes he'll steer clear.
Take women. He knows he could have more than he could ever handle—black or white—on the Auburn campus. But he's not sure it's worth it. "There are good women around here," he says. "And some that won't stop at nothing to get you, just for your name or your popularity. I don't fool with 'em."
Take Lionel (Little Train) James, Jackson's former roommate and running mate who was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Chargers. Jackson still calls James his best buddy, and he'd just as soon tell of a block he threw for James—like how he took out a Georgia cornerback last fall to spring James for Auburn's only touchdown in a 13-7 win—as describe a scoring run of his own. But James tempted him, says Jackson. He tried to get him to party. And Jackson so prized his Al Green and Mahalia Jackson gospel albums that he kept them in the sanctity of his bedroom. "I didn't leave 'em out by the stereo, with Lionel's Gap Band and Prince," he says.
Take drugs. Jackson was 15 when he found a joint in a paper bag at school. He brought it home, locked himself in the bathroom with the window open and smoked it. "After that I ate out the whole refrigerator, fell asleep and got sick," he recalls. "Now I get high off of nature, sports and being around kids."
Take, even, parking tickets. Not long ago Jackson visited the video arcade on College Street in Auburn to work the Galaga game, an exercise in kill-or-be-killed in which, he says, "you're dodging bullets all the time." When Jackson emerged to find a ticket on his windshield, he drove straight to the police department. Fifty cents, paid-in-full. "If you don't pay within 24 hours, it goes up to a dollar," says Jackson.
Imagine an athlete so gifted that the very abundance of his gifts worked to obscure his greatness. That's a tough concept to latch on to, but consider Jackson's case. "We knew the body was a great talent, but we didn't know he was that great a back in high school," says Auburn coach Pat Dye. And who could tell? At McAdory High in McCalla, Ala., he'd only carry the ball 11 times a game because he was so busy playing every down on defense, returning kicks, kicking off, punting and kicking PATs and field goals. "He didn't pile up the great stats," says McAdory coach Dick Atchison, "because he never came off the field."
Jackson says that's not true. "I'd leave the field to put on the kicking shoe," he says. "And I'd leave it to take it off."
In high school Jackson did things like twist his ankle while winning the state title in the triple jump (48'8¼") and then come back the same day to set a state record (9.54) in the 100-yard dash; like throw a discus 149 feet without spinning his body, because he'd never been taught the proper form; like win the state decathlon crown his junior and senior years without running the mile, the final event, because "distance is the only thing I hate about track." He'd fallen for the sprints in the third grade at Raimond Elementary in Bessemer, where he sneaked out of class to run with a team limited to fourth-, fifth-and sixth-graders. "I outran everybody," he says. "The principal was the track coach, and he waived the rule."
As a high school senior, Jackson hit .493 with 20 home runs and was drafted by the Yankees, who offered him a $250,000 contract. He played centerfield and shortstop for the most part, but pitched on occasion, too, showing a 92 mph fastball and throwing two no-hitters during his final season. "I hated it," he says. "There's no action on the mound. You just sit there and throw the ball. But that's all I did when I was little. Throw. Started out with rocks."
Jackson is the Southeastern Conference's first three-sport letterman in 20 years. He has the fastest time in the 40 (4.12) ever turned in by a football player, college or pro, and bench-presses 400 pounds. "Every so often in practice he does things—balance and awareness things—that we've never seen before," says Jack Crowe, Dye's offensive coordinator. "The fact that he wasn't a polished runner in high school has him learning his style as he goes. He started last year trying to knock folks down. By the second half of the season he was giving them the fast track instead of the hard road. And he didn't fumble but once last year, when he took his eye off a pitchout. Then he threw all of his athletic ability into trying to get that ball back."
Major league scouts love his arm, strength and speed, but wonder about his bat. As a freshman centerfielder at Auburn, Jackson struck out 21 straight times before cracking his first hit. Last spring he gave up baseball to concentrate on track, but quit at midseason, partly because his best time in the 100 meters, a 10.39 at the Florida Relays in March, wasn't good enough to qualify him for the Olympic trials, and partly because the demands of being a Heisman hopeful—interviews, addressing school kids and the like—took up too much time. "He didn't come to Auburn to run track," says Dye, who doubles as athletic director. "He came to play football. And he's just beginning to realize the impact he can have on a game."
So is his coach. Jackson didn't have a great day against Texas in the Tigers' only loss of 1983, mainly because Dye had his quarterback get the ball to Jackson only seven times—"a drastic mistake," the coach admits. In fact, Jackson has a knack for playing well in big games. In a 28-21 defeat of Florida, a game in which he played while suffering from a virus, he went 55 yards on his second run from scrimmage, then 80 on another, to score twice. And, for reasons we'll soon see, he has a showman's way of beating up on 'Bama.
But a legend, even in Alabama, is made from more than regularly rolling the Tide. It comes from refusing the 1984 Sugar Bowl MVP trophy, insisting it go to a teammate, James. Or routinely getting yawny and falling asleep on the locker room floor before games. Or throwing a football that hit the Louisiana Super-dome's ceiling replay screen, a first; before Jackson, only punters had reached it. Someone had bet Jackson he couldn't do it. "I like to make 'em look the fool," he says. The stories about Jackson are assuming a mythic texture:
•Bo in the Bus Station. A lonely, homesick freshman, down on himself because of a poor showing against Georgia—"Bo made a ton of mistakes," Crowe remembers—borrows a friend's car in midafter-noon, drives to the Auburn Greyhound station and sits. He can't bring himself to board a bus. Finally, close to midnight, an agent chases him out. For missing curfew, the coaches arrange what Jackson calls "a date with the stadium steps."
•Bo and the Tightwad Owner. Unwilling to meet the contract demands of running back Curtis Dickey last December, Colts owner Robert Irsay invokes Jackson's name, claiming the sophomore would go pro right away for a fraction of Dickey's price. Jackson doesn't rule out turning pro early. Even today he says, "I don't need a degree in child psychology [his expected major]. Why should I sit in class and learn from a professor what comes naturally for me?" Further, Jackson's prepared to play major league baseball, the NFL and the USFL off one another to get what he wants: a pro contract in a warm-weather city. But was Jackson going with the Colts? No. "You know Herschel [Walker] lied and you probably think I'm lying," he told the press, referring to the former Georgia tailback who first denied he was jumping to the USFL's New Jersey Generals, and then did it. "Nobody knows the real truth but me, and I'm telling it. If you don't believe me, tough."
•Bo and the Traffic Accident. On his way to a 1983 summer job as a teller at the Colonial Bank in Birmingham, Jackson clips the back of a woman's car. She rips into him, demanding to know his name. He tells her. Suddenly solicitous, she asks, "Are you the Bo Jackson who plays for Auburn? Oh, are you all right?" Before the Texas game, Bo gets a Mail-gram that reads: SMASH TEXAS LIKE YOU SMASHED MY CAR.
•Bo and the Rednecks. Jackson is in Tuscaloosa with the baseball team his freshman year. The crew of a beer truck is loitering beyond the outfield fence, sampling the cargo and calling Bo "boy." Next time up he sends a home run clattering off the side of the truck.
•Bo and the Kids. Two days before Auburn's annual spring game, Bo strolls into the office of David Housel, the school's sports information director. "I got an idea for A-Day," says Jackson, who has missed spring practice because of track and thus isn't playing in the game. He explains how much he loves kids and how he wants to run against a bunch of them before the scrimmage. He offers to buy supper for anyone who can beat him from goal line to goal line. Housel hastily makes the arrangements, and several hundred youngsters turn out. Jackson spots them 15 yards, outruns them and vaults the restraining fence into the end-zone stands, where he signs autographs for the balance of the evening.
Bo's incipient sense of p.r. could serve him well in his run for the Heisman. Housel is determined not to pander to the moment. He won't be sending prospective Heisman voters blue-and-orange-striped straws with FLO THRU, BO Or BO SUCKS IT UP FOR THE HEISMAN imprinted on them. "If Bo's going to win it, he's going to earn it," says Housel. "On the field."
The Heisman that quarterback Pat Sullivan won in 1971 sits in a glass case in the lobby of Auburn's Memorial Coliseum, its figurine a stiff-arm signpost to Housel's office. Jackson sees the trophy practically every day. "I don't pay it no mind," he says.
It isn't hard to get "Bo" from "boar hog." Once, Nipsey Russell was on Password, and the password was "deer." His partner gave him "doe" as a clue, and Russell guessed "knob." No, Bo came quite naturally from "boar hog," which is what Jackson's eldest brother decided was the only thing as tough as Bo when Bo was only six. Jackson has four brothers and five sisters. His mother, Florence Bond, is a custodian in a Ramada Inn in Hoover, Ala. His father, A.D. Adams, lives in Birmingham. "I was tough like a wild boar," says Jackson. "I had one of the toughest stomachs you could imagine. My brothers and cousins would draw all the way back to Mississippi and hit me and I wouldn't feel nothing."
With all its echoic terseness, "Bo" suits a body-popping running back just fine. It's in a regal enough tradition, too: behind Derek, the decafox; Buchanan, the soapstud; Peep, the little one; Lamar, the erstwhile basketball superstar; Diaz, the catcher (who's really Beaudilio); Belinsky, the pitcher; Gray, Mary Cunningham's ex; and Diddley, the bluesman. And a lot of dogs. People with hounds named Bo are always mailing Jackson their dogs' papers.
Then there's Bo Schembechler, the Michigan coach, whose defense, according to Jackson, "hit like yellow jackets" in last season's Sugar Bowl. Nonetheless, Jackson gained 130 yards and MVP honors as the Tigers won 9-7. And there's Beau Brown, the former Auburn linebacker who in 1982, while the Tigers were in Orlando preparing for the Tangerine Bowl, got involved in a tiff in a topless bar. No matter how you spell it, not a Bo to emulate. "When my mom heard someone named Bo'd been sent home," says Jackson, "she nearly had a heart attack."
But the namesake with whom Jackson is most frequently compared is Walker, whose family calls him Bo. Both Bo's have a small-town Southern upbringing, and both have sprinter's speed and claim to prefer track to football. Neither sleeps more than a few hours a night. Jackson's insomnia is a vestige of the punitive reveilles of his childhood, when his mother would punish him for some mischief by rousing him before dawn to take out the garbage or mow the grass by floodlight. Jackson's and Walker's dimensions are uncannily similar (6'1", about 220 pounds), they wear the same number (34) and both had startling freshman debuts.
Still, the question remains: Who's better? Says Dye, "I don't think Bo's any stronger or faster, but I do think he has a little better ability to make you miss, and a little better balance." Jackson is conceded to be a better blocker than Walker, and the better athlete, and to be more willing to turn upfield, if for no other reason than that Jackson has fewer carries per game and doesn't have to worry about pacing himself by heading out of bounds to avoid constant punishment.
Then again, as the deep back in the Georgia I, Walker was called upon more frequently and predictably than Jackson is in Auburn's wishbone, in which he's just one of several options. Thus the discrepancy between Walker's career average yards per carry (5.3) and Jackson's (7.2). "Every time you run the wishbone you're dividing the defense into four parts," Dye says. "But with the I, you've got 11 guys chasing one ballcarrier." Adds Crowe, "We call them quality runs. We're giving Bo fewer chances, but better ones to break the big play."
Dye figures on providing Jackson with perhaps 10 more carries a game this season than last, when he averaged 15. If Jackson can somehow maintain the same yards per crack average, he ought to turn in 175 yards a game. "When I came here I was a vertical runner," he says. "Now I run tilted at the shoulders, with authority. My freshman year I was running scared. But after I got hit in the 'Bama game and fumbled I said, 'No more. I'm not gonna take no more licks.' You can't be a good back if guys dog you out every time you got the ball. And that's what happened. Guys dogged me out."
Jackson tried dismissing the Walker parallels his freshman season, as soon as they were drawn. "Nobody can be Herschel Walker but Herschel Walker," he said. "And I can't be nobody but myself. So it stands at that."
If Jackson really were a Walker clone, he'd have effortlessly captivated the state the way Walker held all Georgia in his thrall. Athletes from Auburn, the perennial stepchild, don't just "take" the state of Alabama. A Spartan would have an easier time ascending the steps of the Parthenon. That's what best distinguishes Jackson from Walker. Herschel cast his spell by galvanizing ready partisanship. For the most part, Jackson has generated sober respect.
"I grew up 'Roll Tide,' " he says. "I had my mind set on going to Alabama. Two weeks before the signing date Auburn wasn't in the picture, but it wasn't out of the picture, either. I wanted to stay in state. And an Alabama coach said, 'There's no place else to go. We want you, but I don't think you'll see any playing time till the last of your sophomore or the beginning of your junior year.' I said I wasn't gonna waste two years of my life. When I told the recruiter, he tried to change his story vice versa. I said, 'No, you're out of the picture.' "
Some schools that wanted Bo—Florida, Southern Cal, Tennessee, Hawaii—never really entered his picture. "Hawaii wanted me to visit," says Jackson. "I didn't. Dumb me. But those are party schools. At Hawaii you're chasing those grass-skirted women. If I'd gone to Florida, I'da flunked out my first term." And while the Alabama recruiter told him that going to Auburn would mean losing to 'Bama for four years, Jackson's mother was more worried about some of the things—drugs, guns—a few players had gotten into in Tuscaloosa. "Me also," he says. "If I'da gone there, they'da put so much pressure on me, I'd be smoking, too." Besides, Auburn needed backs.
On the second series of the 1982 season opener against Wake Forest, Jackson went into the game. "Don't be nervous," James told him. "When we pitch you the ball, haul ass." Before the day was over, Bo would go 43 yards up the sideline for a touchdown. Against Alabama, later in Bo's freshman year, Auburn faced fourth-and-goal on the Tide one-yard line with 2:30 left and the Tide ahead 22-17. The Tigers called Play 43 for Jackson. He took the handoff up over the line, found himself stopped, but wriggled forward the requisite extra smidgin. With the 23-22 victory, Auburn had beaten 'Bama for the first time since 1972, and the balance of power, which is to say the balance of football, in the state found itself reversed. "Whatever that recruiter said got Bo to go just one inch more" says Housel, holding his thumb and forefinger in front of his face. "And that inch has made all the difference."
Last fall, with tornadoes baying at the outskirts of Birmingham and 'Bama having just taken a 20-16 lead, Jackson dashed 71 yards to score as the Tigers won again, 23-20. Earlier in the game he'd run 69 yards for a TD, reversing his field on an abortive sweep left when holes twice closed up on him.
And now, for the first time in recent memory, people in Birmingham are talking more frequently about the Tigers than about the Tide. Defeatist red-and-white GO PRO BO bumper stickers answer Auburn fans' GO BO GO ones. In his inauguration speech last spring. Auburn president James Martin, apparently meaning to use the word "preeminent," called Auburn "the preemptive university in the state." We're talking sea change here.
"The week of the Alabama game it's like I'm in mourning," says Jackson. "Like I have to pay that coach back what he said. He told me, 'Auburn will never beat Alabama,' simply because Alabama beat 'em the last 10 years. That gives me incentive to play till I can't no more."
Auburn doesn't have to beat the Tide to get people out to Toomer's Corner downtown. All the Tigers have to do is win, and students and townspeople will festoon the corner of College and Magnolia with toilet paper. "It'll be up to your car tires," says Jackson. "And it better not be raining, 'cause otherwise maintenance workers'll be up there for three weeks. When we beat 'Bama in '82 they rolled the corner for two days. People bought up all the paper in town. Cops be out rolling, too."
And if they're rolling Toomer's Corner when Jackson wants to reach the arcade on College, several storefronts down, to dodge video bullets? Bo'll just swing his Cutlass onto Tiger, hang a right on Glenn and another one, at the Amoco station, drive up College, park and fill the meter. Remember the meter.