Bo Jackson, as thrilling a football player as he was before a hip injury changed his history in two sports, never made it to the Super Bowl when he was a running back with the Los Angeles Raiders. The one postseason game he played came in January 1991, the AFC Divisional Round against the Bengals in L.A. He was injured late in that 20-10 win over Cincinnati, then the Bills crushed the Raiders, 51-3, the following week in the AFC Championship Game, and that was as close as Bo ever came to Super Bowl Sunday. A year later, he was out of the National Football League for good.
Even though he won a Heisman Trophy at Auburn, and even though he once ran a 40-yard dash in 4.12 seconds for scouts while weighing nearly 230 pounds, he was more memorable for the eight seasons he played in baseball, not for the four he played in the NFL. It was in baseball that Jackson occasionally channeled a comic book superhero.
There was the All-Star Game in 1989, for which he was voted MVP. He made a great running catch early in the game to save a couple of runs. Then, leading off the bottom of the first, he hit a monstrous 448-foot home run off Rick Reuschel. When the ball was in the air, the great Vin Scully said, “Look at that one! Bo Jackson says hello!”
And there was the night at Yankee Stadium when he hit three home runs his first three times up before injuring his shoulder in the outfield trying to make a diving catch on a ball hit by Deion Sanders. Deion turned it into an inside-the-park home run when the ball rolled all the way to the wall.
There was another time when he tried to call time. It wasn’t granted by the home-plate umpire. Bo still managed to hit a home run on the next pitch, despite having just one hand on his bat when he was first back in the batter’s box.
Jackson won the Sporting News' AL Comeback Player of the Year in 1993 after recovering from hip replacement surgery. By then, he had left the Royals, his original team in the big leagues, for the White Sox. But even with his replacement hip, he hit 16 homers for the White Sox in 85 games, after not having played baseball for two years. He eventually retired after the shortened 1994 season with a lifetime average of .250, 141 homers, 415 RBIs and a .474 slugging percentage.
His best season was his All-Star season of 1989 with the Royals, when he hit 32 home runs, knocked in 105 and showed you all of his possibilities, whether he continued to be a two-sport guy or not. He didn’t turn 27 until that season was over.
There will always be what-ifs for him in both football and baseball. The what-ifs are bigger in baseball because of what we saw from him before avascular necrosis stole so much of his power and speed.
Why are the what-ifs bigger in baseball? Because we saw what he could accomplish even with an artificial hip, that’s why.
Back when he did have his speed, when we thought it was all still ahead of him, there was a Wednesday night in Baltimore on July 11, 1990, when the Royals faced the Orioles. I was working this game for ESPN when he really did turn into a comic book hero. In this case, it was Spider-Man.
This was also the night when Curt Schilling came out of the bullpen to get his first Major League victory for the Orioles. The night wasn’t about that. The night was about Bo doing something only he could do.
Joe Orsulak hit one the other way for the Orioles, and it looked like extra bases when it came off his bat, at least until you quickly remembered that the man chasing down the ball in left-center was Bo Jackson, who made a terrific running backhand catch just shy of the warning track.
The night wasn’t about that, either. It was about what happened next.
Instead of running into the wall, Bo ran up it.
One step, then another, then a third, nearly to the top of the wall in left-center. There is a video of the catch on YouTube, and one of the comments is from a man named Guy Sherf:
“I’m just saying no one has seen Bo and Spiderman in the same place together.”
An old movie buff friend of mine said at the time that it was the closest thing he’d ever seen to Fred Astaire walking on the ceiling in a movie called “Royal Wedding.”
“Only Bo did it without special effects,” my friend said.
It was because Bo, when he was young, was special effects. By the way? This was his explanation of why he did what he did later, to writer Brandon Marcello:
“At the angle that I was running, if I had crashed into the wall, I probably would have reinjured my shoulder. So instead of crashing into it, I just decided to do what I used to do when I was a kid, and just run up the wall and come back down. That seems easier to me and logical.”
It made perfect sense to him. Once again, the rest of us couldn’t believe our eyes. It’s worth remembering again, on the eve of the Super Bowl, what a wonder Bo was on a football field. But he was even more of a wonder in baseball. He didn’t just hit balls over the wall. He ran up the wall.