About the Author
Recent posts by Mike Beacom
The two men sitting in Section 317 of Raymond James Stadium are taking turns rattling off the greatest rushing performances in Buccaneers history. A little drunk, and more than a little frustrated by their team's performance, the names start flying.
"There was 1979 when Ricky Bell carried us to the NFC title game," one offers. "Of course, in the mid '80s, few were as productive as James Wilder," blurts out the other.
The best back of all, they both agree, was Bo Jackson. No comparison. What Jackson did for the Buccaneers is legendary — the long touchdown runs, the broken bodies he left in his rearview mirror, that time he gained 210 yards on just 12 carries before calling it a day. Jackson single-handedly made football relevant in Tampa, and in just a few years had turned the NFL's biggest loser into a must-see attraction.
Nope, no one like Bo. End of the debate, back to the game.
Of course, the conversation is imagined, as are Jackson's credentials in the Buccaneers' creamsicle uniforms. The Heisman Trophy winner never played a down for the team that made him 1986's No. 1 overall pick, and so for the past 25 years that's all Buccaneers fans have been able to do — imagine.
A quarter century ago, Bo Jackson should have began what most agree would have been a legendary career. This was a 6-foot-1, 227-pound running back who reportedly had clocked a 40-time of 4.12 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Jackson was so good — so physically gifted — that there would be no one to stop him from shattering the record books. As front-office executive Ron Wolf once put it, "Bo Jackson, had he played football, would have set standards that even today wouldn't be topped."
But Jackson also was his own man. For all that's said about his freakish athletic abilities, Jackson's convictions were just as freakish by NFL standards. A college prospect willing to shun a contract that would make him the richest rookie in NFL history? Absurd. NFL players negotiate; they don't turn down record deals. All except Bo, anyway.
Some suggest baseball's lure of Jackson began when the jet of Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse landed on the University of Auburn's campus and picked up Bo to take him to Tampa for a medical checkup. The incident robbed Jackson of his remaining eligibility for the 1986 college baseball season. Enraged, as the story goes, Jackson turned his back on the Buccaneers.
Some believe Jackson was turned off by Tampa Bay's losing ways, while others suggest he simply favored baseball (later, he would famously label football a "hobby").
What really happened in the two months between when Tampa Bay picked Jackson and when the star signed his contract with the Kansas City Royals remains somewhat of a mystery. Only Bo knows.
One thing is certain: Major League Baseball was delighted to gain from football's loss. Whereas most dual-sport wannabes receive more interest from one set of scouts than the other, in Jackson's case the praise was universal. If Bo didn't want Canton he could have Cooperstown.
"He could be greater than George Brett," Royals co-owner Ewing Kauffman told a Sports Illustrated reporter in the summer of 1986. "He has more speed and power. Why, he could easily be another Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays."
Tampa Bay ended up with very little from the 1986 draft. The other 11 picks collected nary a Pro Bowl appearance among them. The team's other first-round pick, DB Rod Jones, would become famous years later for being the only man to catch Jackson from behind — by then Jones was with the Bengals, Jackson with the Raiders. One online website has dedicated a minute to the clip to illustrate why Jones really shouldn't be credited for achieving the impossible on a play in which Jackson covered more than 150 yards, dashing sideline to sideline before racing the length of the field.
Jackson never set the standards Wolf spoke of because he never committed himself fully to football. When he joined the Raiders midway into the 1987 season, it was only because owner Al Davis allowed Jackson to make football his No. 2 priority. Of course, having Jackson part time was better than having many of the full-time backs other teams were employing, and over his four-year NFL career Jackson gained 5.4 yards per carry — second only to Marion Motley among all former NFL backs. (Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs is the active leader among RBs at 6.0 ypc).
It's only one stat, but nonetheless a glimpse of what could have been had Jackson chosen the gridiron. His decision 25 years ago cost him football immortality — and lots of money. As Kauffman put it: "Football guaranteed him $2 million; we guaranteed him $200,000."
People at the time thought Jackson was crazy to trade dollars for dimes, but the decision generated interest, and soon his face was plastered on billboards all across America. He remains the only athlete in the history of sport who could match Michael Jordan on Madison Avenue.
What we have now of Jackson is perhaps more than what he left us with when he was carted off the field during that 1990 playoff game against Cincinnati. Like Gale Sayers, Jackson's legacy grows because time allows it to. The stories we share of what could have been allow Bo Jackson to be every bit as good on the gridiron as the two fictitious men sitting in the upper corner of Raymond James Stadium tell us he was.
Crazy thing is, had Bo played football and not baseball — and had he lasted as long as he should have — he probably would have been even better than what our minds imagine he could have been.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac