Search

WHICH WAY WILL YOU GO, BO?

Dec. 14, 1987
Dec. 14, 1987

Table of Contents
Dec. 14, 1987

Hoosier Dome
Bo Jackson
Free Agents
Don McPherson
Holyfield-Qawi
DeForest
Pro Basketball
McLain
Spotlight
Point After

WHICH WAY WILL YOU GO, BO?

After a promising rookie year in baseball and a spectacular NFL debut, Bo Jackson is proving he can do almost anything

You would have to say that so far Vincent Edward (Bo) Jackson is doing a fair job of moonlighting. Even Maddie and David would have to admit it. The Bo Show got a 19.9 rating in its first appearance on Monday Night Football, Nov. 30 from Seattle, and a lot of raves nationwide, as Jackson gained 221 yards, scored three touchdowns and said to the camera, "We've got nothing to lose, Baby." The Fridge was a nice goal-line diversion for prime-time viewers in 1985, but when Jackson went 91 yards on a dead run, nobody breathed.

This is an article from the Dec. 14, 1987 issue Original Layout

Other athletes have had the ability to play two major league sports for a living. Indeed, a goodly number have done it concurrently, but none recently. Gene Conley (1952 to '64), Dave DeBusschere (1962 to '74) and Ron Reed (1966 to '84), all of whom played baseball and basketball, were the latest. Danny Ainge was a light-hitting Toronto Blue Jay before he became a hard-nosed Boston Celtic. John Elway probably could have played rightfield in the majors. Kirk Gibson probably could have been an NFL receiver. Eric Davis might have been good enough to play guard in the NBA. But Elway et al. didn't play two sports, and Ainge never returned to baseball. Certainly none of them could have become a titanic slugger and a colossal breakaway threat (or their equivalents) in less than two years after leaving college.

In October, Jackson completed his rookie year as an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals with 22 home runs. On Sunday he played his sixth game for the Los Angeles Raiders, a 34-21 defeat of the Buffalo Bills in which he ran for 78 yards on 19 carries and caught four passes, including one for a TD. Now the questions are: How well can he do both, and for how long? Why not just wait and see? Well, this is the late 20th century, and people want to know things in a rush. And that's what Jackson gives people—a serious rush.

Some football players who watch Jackson run seem to be almost spiritually moved. "There's no question he's a Hall of Fame back. If anybody had to break my record, I'm glad it was Bo. He's a great back. They come along every 20 years, one like him." The speaker is former Raider back Clem Daniels, who held the team's single-game rushing record of 200 yards until Jackson ran over Brian Bosworth and by everybody else in Seattle.

"I kind of expected it," said Daniels. "His attitude impressed me from the start. He talked about himself in the third person: 'Bo will do this. Bo will do that.' I liked that. Your ego has to be big enough to give you the drive. I saw Jim Taylor at the NFL alumni golf tournament. He still had that attitude: I'm an ass kicker.' Bo believes that, too. You can see it."

But wait. Jackson's day job is baseball. He says unequivocally, "That's what I'll end up playing." When he signed his five-year, $7.4 million contract with the Raiders last summer, he was quoted as saying that football was his "hobby." Many scoffed when he said that, but you don't see that hobby quote taped to many NFL lockers now, not after Jackson announced his arrival on Nov. 22 at the L.A. Coliseum.

From the Raider 35-yard line he took a pitch from quarterback Marc Wilson while going right, pivoted 180 degrees and was at full bore, going outside left end, in three steps. He ran over Denver's unsuspecting cornerback Mike Harden, without breaking stride, and then vaulted into the end zone for good measure. After that game Jackson said he had been "experimenting." Following the Seattle game, when he bowled over Bosworth on a two-yard scoring run, the Boz said, "No excuses. He just flat ran my butt over." Jackson, who turned 25 that day, said he had "had fun."

So what will he do next? "Bo has always been motivated by the challenge," says his agent, Richard Woods. "He's never left a challenge unfulfilled. That excites him, gets his adrenaline going. Right now, I can promise you baseball is out of his mind. But the only way he would give up baseball is if it was no longer challenging to him. If he gave up baseball, I would be shocked."

Woods seems certain of this for maybe a nanosecond. Then comes the rush. "But then," he says, "I know that with Bo Jackson, anything is possible."

The idea of playing both sports became a serious possibility in late spring, after he had been selected by the Raiders in the seventh round of this year's draft. "Al Davis and Tom Flores were willing to be flexible about things," says Woods. The crafty owner Davis and coach Flores would wait for Jackson until after baseball season. In late June, before conferring with the Raiders' brass, Woods went to Kansas City, and Jackson asked him, "Can I do it?" Woods said, "I don't know. There are a lot of hurdles. Think about it." Jackson thought about it. "See what you can do," he said. Within three weeks Woods had reached an agreement with the Raiders.

Segue to the end zone. What Jackson did against Denver, Seattle and Buffalo was not all that unusual—not in the context of great running backs. They're great as soon as you give them the ball. Early in the first quarter of his first NFL regular-season game, Earl Campbell went 73 yards for a TD against Atlanta. As a rookie in 1965, Gale Sayers scored 22 touchdowns, including six in one game. In his first year Eric Dickerson led the league in rushing with 1,808 yards. Jackson's running mate and blocking back, Marcus Allen, was magnificent as a rookie in '82 and a Super Bowl MVP the next season.

But Jackson is unique. None of the above have his combination of size, balance and speed. Bo is six feet and 231 pounds, with a magical inner gyroscope and a 40-yard-dash time you read with an atomic clock—4.175, it's said. It sounds impossible, and probably is, which is why it's believed only Jackson could do it. He won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn even though he had to share the ball in a wishbone backfield with halfbacks Lionel James (now with San Diego) and Brent Fullwood (Green Bay) and fullback Tommie Agee.

Jackson is averaging 7.1 yards per carry. With 553 yards on 78 carries, as of Sunday he was already the seventh-leading rusher in the AFC. By comparison, the conference leader, Dickerson, has carried 216 times for 958 yards and a 4.4-yard average. "Bo is good, really a great back, but I don't think he's of my caliber," said Dickerson last week. "That's my opinion. I have better moves than Bo." Sorry, Eric. Based on the early evidence, Jackson is in your class.

Jackson keeps insisting that he will be playing baseball years after he has finished with football. But he probably won't play winter baseball for the next four years. He won't even go into the batting cage until the football season is over, and that figures to be early for the Raiders this year. Then he plans to return to Auburn and work out under the eye of the Tiger baseball coach, Hal Baird, who once roomed with Royals manager John Wathan in the minors.

"Nobody knows what Bo is going to do," says Woods. "He has more options than the rest of us. But baseball is his primary challenge."

"No way," says Daniels. "I think he'll give up baseball. It's boring. He's gotten used to the glory and adulation. It gets to be a yearn, and it works on you."

"Bo Jackson does everything," says Tommy McCraw, batting coach for the Tidewater Tides, the New York Mets' Triple A team. "I've never seen a ballplayer like that. And I'm not alone. He has a better arm, more speed, more power than anybody. I know Kansas City rushed him [by bringing him up too quickly from the minors]. I also know a lot of guys are making big money in the major leagues with the numbers he threw up there [a .235 average and 53 RBIs in 396 at bats, in addition to the homers] in really just a half year. I'm sure there's resentment. But all Bo Jackson lacks is the experience. And maybe the patience to gain the experience."

The reason that Jackson has played only 53 games in the minors is that Royals co-owner Avron Fogelman wants him in Kansas City. By contrast, the Cincinnati Reds' Davis, who is the same age as Jackson, spent all or part of six seasons in the minors. Royals general manager John Schuerholz is on record as saying that Jackson may have to log time in the minors next season. After Woods and the Royals last summer amended Jackson's contract—which pays him a measly $1,066 million over three years—he no longer had the option to walk away from baseball on July 15, 1988, by paying the club a penalty fee. His contract now requires him to complete the '88 season. If he then chooses to give up baseball, he will have to return 50% of what the Royals have paid him to that point. "Bo is employed by the Royals," says Woods. "They have the right to send him to the minor leagues if they choose."

Jackson hit .254 before the All-Star break but only .188 after it, and much was made of his 158 strikeouts. "He has great ability, great tools, but he has problems with Uncle Charlie [the curve-ball]," says former scout Ben Moore, an official of the Baseball Network, a recently formed group whose aim is to encourage the hiring of minorities for front-office positions. "But the only righthanded hitters I ever saw with as much power as Bo Jackson were Frank Howard and Dick Allen. Bobby Bonds couldn't hit the curve either, at first."

Because he won't be playing winter ball in the Latin leagues, where breaking balls abound, Jackson probably won't ever hit for much of an average. Also, he will probably always strike out a lot. However, as Reggie Jackson, the alltime strikeout leader and a probable Hall of Famer, says, "Nobody cares how you do it."

"That's right," says McCraw. "All Bo needs is time. In football you have to learn only your team's plays, then go out and do it. In baseball the skills are more refined. The Red Sox have 11 pitchers. You've got to know every one of them, and what they want to do to you. Multiply that by every team in the league. It just takes more time."

And understanding. Jackson's season with the Royals was a testing one. Several players objected to his rawness and to the preferential treatment they thought the club was giving him. "I don't think Bo was ready for the pettiness," says one veteran baseball writer. After a game in mid-June against the California Angels in Anaheim, in which he went 1 for 4 with three strikeouts, Jackson was carrying a plate of postgame food when he inadvertently spilled gravy on some of second baseman Frank White's belongings. "Rookie," snapped White, giving Jackson a look that would have chilled Medusa. Shortly thereafter, when Bo announced he had come to terms with the Raiders, he endured more sniping.

For the football season Bo, wife Linda and their 1½-year-old son, Spud, are living in a condo in Redondo Beach. The Jacksons are renting. Bo doesn't like those six-plus tremors that have rocked California since his arrival.

Allen, the Raiders' leading career rusher with almost 6,000 yards, took a different approach toward Jackson than did Jackson's teammates. In fact, Allen volunteered to move to fullback so that Jackson could get more carries. Allen is a remarkable player himself. He may now be the NFL's best blocking fullback. That's a role change no other premier running back could have accomplished. Further, Allen can still catch the ball, throw it, run with it and look good in the lobby afterward. Allen has said he will wait until season's end to voice any complaints, if he has any. You would think that with this jillion-dollar backfield the Raiders would be hell on wheels. No. Bo missed the season's first two games because of his day job. Then came the strike. L. A. is 5-7.

But the Bo Show rolls on. From now on, whenever he crushes a home run or strikes out, people will recall his stunning run in Seattle and get a different kind of rush. Bo steams left, slaps away a groping tackier, turns it on and leaves safety Kenny Easley running in syrup. Jackson zooms 91 yards into the end zone and beyond, through a tunnel beneath the stands, out of sight. Three Raiders run after him, yelling for him to come back. But he was long gone.

PHOTOBILL SMITHPHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSPHOTORONALD C. MODRATrouble with the curveball was the main reason Jackson fanned 158 times last season.PHOTOCHARLES BERNHARDT/FOCUS WESTIn six NFL games, Jackson has gained 553 yards on 78 carries for a 7.1 average.PHOTOJERRY WACHTERFielding isn't Bo's forte, but he says he'll be in baseball after he's done with football.TWO PHOTOSRICHARD MACKSONJackson had to work hard against Buffalo Sunday, but he got a helping hand from Allen.