Gather round, kids — put your phones away, you’re not going to need those — and let me tell you about the wonders of the great Bo Jackson. A slab of pure muscle from Bessemer, Alabama, he could hit a baseball to Saturn and be waiting to catch it when it arrived. He hit defenders in the open field so hard their grandchildren were born sore. He wrote bestselling novels as he rounded the bases, cooked up five-course meals in the backfield, and sang like a choir of angels as he leaped over goal-line stands. He was faster, stronger, smarter and craftier than any three other athletes of his day. He was Bo. That was all we knew, and all we needed to know.
Bo Jackson — the hero (and almost the goat) of the 1982 Iron Bowl, and the subject of an exceptional new biography from author Jeff Pearlman — came along at exactly the right moment in American cultural history for a man of his talents. He existed, professionally speaking, in that brief moment when Nike-driven, showbiz-fueled pop culture could create a myth, but ever-present social media couldn’t yet disprove it. He seemed to come from nowhere — back in the 1980s, you heard rumors of “Bo Jackson” long before you ever saw him on TV or in person — and he vanished from the pinnacle so quickly he left behind an impact crater, but not a trace of his true self.
There will never be anyone like him again. There simply can’t be.
The title of Pearlman’s book is “The Last Folk Hero,” and there’s real truth in that. A folk hero doesn’t arrive by social media snippets or brand-driven marketing campaigns. A folk hero’s legend isn’t built on likes, faves and retweets. A folk hero takes up space in your head when you hear of his legendary exploits, but there’s no video to disprove them, only the words of those who were there: Yep, it happened. Never seen anything like it before or since.
Born and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, Bo — nobody called him “Jackson,” not then and not now — began turning heads in high school. He committed to Auburn when Alabama didn’t show enough interest, and that put him in the spotlight as a freshman for the 1982 Iron Bowl.
Coming into that game, Alabama — coached by the legendary Bear Bryant — had won nine straight in the matchup. Auburn, to the Tide, was little more than a curiosity, a necessary task on the to-do list. But to the Tigers, Alabama was the goal and the mountaintop, the foe that Auburn needed to vanquish to claim some measure of self-respect. And in 1982, Auburn had a weapon Alabama couldn’t match: Bo.
At halftime, Auburn led 14-13, but Jackson hadn’t yet broken free. Always a slow starter, Jackson didn’t truly cut loose until about nine minutes remained in the game. He ripped off a ferocious 53-yard run that only ended when he was run out of bounds. A field goal closed Auburn to within five points, 22-17, as the minutes dwindled away.
Late in the game, Jackson and Auburn pounded their way down the field, deep into Tide territory, until, with just 2:30 remaining, Auburn stood at Alabama’s very doorstep. Fourth down and 18 inches to go.
Auburn had been practicing for this very moment.
Alabama’s defensive line averaged 251 pounds — this was 1982, remember — and were impossible to move. So Auburn coach Pat Dye decided that rather than going through or around those mountains, he’d simply go over them.
Jackson was an esteemed high jumper in high school. The Auburn coaches had crafted a play to cater to his strengths. Its name: Bo Over The Top.
Alabama — heck, everyone in the country — knew what the play would be, knew the ball would be going to Jackson. He reached the 2-yard line, stopped for an instant, planted his feet, and then leaped, up and up and up and … crossed the goal line.
“As I was falling down I stretched out and lunged forward and got the ball over the goal line,” Jackson said, as Pearlman writes. “I looked over at the sideline at Bear Bryant and he had a look on his face like someone had walked along and stepped on his sandcastle.”
On Alabama’s next possession, Auburn intercepted it, apparently sealing the Tide’s fate. But as Auburn ran down the clock, the Alabama defense tightened. With 1:13 remaining, Auburn faced a third-and-1, and so the call went out: Bo Over The Top, one more time.
Again, Jackson took the handoff. Again, he stopped and planted his feet. Again, he leaped in the air and extended the ball forward. Only this time, the ball popped off the helmet of an Alabama defender and ended up in Tide hands. Had Bo just given away the game? Had he just shattered the hopes of an entire fan base?
Fortunately for the sanity of Auburn fans everywhere, the Tiger defense held, preserving a 23-22 triumph that was, to that moment, the greatest Iron Bowl victory in Auburn history. Since then, the Camback — when Cam Newton almost singlehandedly wiped out a 24-0 Tide lead — and the Kick Six — arguably the most famous play in college football history, you might have heard about it — have gone Auburn’s way in more dramatic fashion. Right up through last year’s four-overtime thriller, the Iron Bowl continues to deliver, just as it did that day in Birmingham 40 years ago.
Bo, though — Bo didn’t have nearly so much time to run. He would spend the rest of the ‘80s as the most famous athlete in the country. He played for both the then-Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Royals, producing highlights in both sports that rank among the best ever. No one who was alive at the time will forget him running over Brian Bosworth, for instance, or running up and around an outfield wall until he was almost horizontal with the ground.
Bo suffered an NFL-career-ending injury in January 1991 against the Bengals. He kept playing baseball for a few more years, suiting up for the Angels and White Sox, until finally retiring in 1994. Unlike many of his fellow legends, he’s kept a fairly low profile since then, popping up for the occasional commercial or to receive an honor or two.
We won’t see anything like him ever again. We can’t, because half the allure of Bo was the fact that we couldn’t watch his highlights in real time or moments afterward. The legend of a college Bo hammering a home run off the lights at the University of Georgia? That would have been on Twitter within seconds, appreciated, consumed and then forgotten.
“Everything is cooler in story than it is in reality, and you get used to things so quickly, once you see them,” Pearlman says. “Bo Jackson, he’d be great. It’d be amazing. People would be dazzled. But then they’d move on to a Kardashian tweet two seconds later.”
We were lucky to have him for as long as we did. And every time the Iron Bowl comes around, Auburn fans will remember the time Bo went up, up, up … and over the top.
Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.