Bo knows ... diving?

The wild story of Bo Jackson leaving an Auburn dive team speechless

January 18th, 2022
Art by Tom Forget

A version of this story originally ran in June 2021.

Bo Jackson could seemingly do it all.

He was a star at Alabama's McAdory High School -- hitting a mythical 20 homers in 25 games one year, while averaging 11 yards per carry on the football field. At Auburn, he was called the "best pure athlete in America" -- winning the Heisman Trophy as a senior, hitting .401 with 17 homers as a junior and qualifying for the 100-meter dash during both his freshman and sophomore seasons. He went on to become an All-Star in MLB and All-Pro in the NFL.

His Nike commercials had fun with his multi-sport talents, showing him ready to play polo, golf, basketball and any number of sports that he came into contact with. But could he really excel at any of those other pursuits without much experience? Sports you wouldn't expect a 6-foot-1, 220-pound muscle-bound athlete to be able to pull off? Sports like, say, diving?

"Oh yeah, the story that you're talking about is essentially true," former Auburn dive coach Rick Theobald told me over the phone. "All the divers who were there at the time, they still talk about it whenever we have a reunion."

It was the Fall of 1989, at least as far as Theobald recalls, and 26-year-old Bo Jackson was back at Auburn filming his aforementioned "Bo Knows" Nike ads. He was throwing down dunks in the auxiliary gym for the basketball version of the segment, and, during a break, he saw a place down the hall that his two toddler sons might enjoy: the university pool.

The Tigers' diving team was holding a practice, and Bo poked his head in to ask if his kids could swim at the other end. As Theobald told me, you don't really say no to somebody like Bo Jackson, so the kids went down to the shallow part of the pool, followed by their dad. After some time watching the divers, Bo asked if he could try it out. Bo wanted to dive.

The entire team, including Coach Theobald, were excited that Bo wanted to try out their sport.

"Everyone going to Auburn at that time was always waiting to see the next miracle that Bo was gonna pull off," Theobald said.

So, the answer again, was yes.

Bo left the pool area, pulled on some shorts and walked back in toward the 1 meter board. He was, of course, much bigger than most divers -- especially back in the 1980s.

"He was probably about 220 and the amount of muscle on him -- it was a ridiculous amount for one person," Theobald recalled. "... When I was coaching Auburn, the largest guy I had was a guy named Mike Smith. He was 5-foot-10, 5-foot-11 and probably weighed about 170 pounds. A solid rock stomp of muscle. The NCAA champion Jose Roach was about 150 pounds and he was 5-foot-7 or 5-foot-8. The other guys in the pool who I think were there probably weighed about 130?"

Bo had about 100 pounds on the average diver.

As Auburn's most famous alum walked out to the edge of the board, the divers were eager to see him, but honestly, not expecting too much. I mean, had Bo ever tried this before? A giant professional football and baseball player ... diving?

"Let's just say there was a healthy dose of skepticism floating around the pool," Theobald said.

Bo proceeded to the end of the plank and, as Theobald recalled, jumped into the air about a foot higher than most divers would -- maybe 3 1/2 or four feet. A "ginormous hurdle." It was a bit out of control.

But when he came back down on the board to execute his dive, he had settled his body. Then came a sight Theobald had never seen before in his decades of coaching at a competitive level.

"I was the most shocked I'd ever been by watching a non-diver," Theobald told me. "He hit the end of the board and bent it all the way downward where the tip of the board went in the water. Probably six inches. He was in the water up to his ankles."

Bo shot back out of the pool and flew up into the air, doing a 2 1/2 tuck. Two full front flips! And he landed in a dive! Basically this, but from a bouncing board lower to the water.

"My jaw must've hit the floor," Theobald said. "And all the divers, all the kids that were there, clapping and saying. 'Oh my god!' They were all just as shocked and impressed as I was."

Any thought that this would be a silly, entertaining moment dissipated quickly.

"The element of funny went right out the window," Theobald told me. "The awe went right up to the roof."

One story (actually, the only story that talks about this ever happening) mentions Bo then going up to the 3 meter board and doing the same thing. Theobald only remembered this one dive but said he did ask Bo if he wanted to get up and try it from a greater height.

Bo said something like, "No, man, I'm not crazy."

"I think when you do that good the first time, I think Bo knows the moment," Theobald said. "He stepped away and went back to the other end of the pool and started playing with his kids again."

That's it. That's the story of Royals All-Star outfielder Bo Jackson taking a break from dunking basketballs -- for a commercial about him being able to play every sport -- and then casually pulling off a double-front flip at an NCAA Division I collegiate dive practice. Theobald guessed it probably wasn't the first time Bo had ever tried out diving, but he had never seen him around the pool during his time in school as a player or coach.

Either way, one thing was now officially clear: Bo knew diving.