Why Bo Jackson is the Best Athlete Ever

The first Nikes I ever asked my parents for were these trainers, because like everyone else in my seventh-grade class, I was completely enamored by two-sport phenom Bo Jackson. That said, I have to be honest: Though I loved his leadoff homer in the All-Star Game – with Ronald Reagan in the booth! – I was probably just as enthralled by his video game likeness as the athlete himself.

My friends and I played Nintendo’s Tecmo Bowl football games to death in middle school, despite their lack of realism — or perhaps because of it, since it took approximately 10 seconds to learn how to play. (Next to Tecmo, even Sega’s Madden games were like learning trigonometry.) The pixelated athletes in Tecmo were even more superhuman than our real-life heroes: Jerry Rice literally never dropped a pass, Dan Marino could throw it the length of the field in three seconds, Lawrence Taylor couldn’t be blocked by a brick wall.

But nobody approached Bo, who set a land speed record every time he touched the ball and was virtually impossible to tackle. Poor digital Marcus Allen was no slouch — the human version is in the Hall of Fame — but he probably saw one carry for every 10 given to Bo, because why would you ever want to give the ball to anyone else? Even the recent 30 for 30 documentary on Jackson devoted a segment to his Tecmo exploits.

The reason Tecmo Bo resonates is that his outsized attributes were at least somewhat plausible. Jackson, who once ran an absurd 4.12 in the 40-yard dash, often seemed a human video game character — and not just from a marketing standpoint, though he was once depicted outracing a falling bottle of tea from the top of a skyscraper. The man himself was capable of physical feats described in the reverent tones reserved for something heretofore inconceivable.

When Tecmo Bo would slice back and forth between end zones while defenders flailed powerlessly, it was unrealistic — but not by that much, when you consider his 91-yard Tecmo-style touchdown against Seattle, somewhat overshadowed by his demolition of Brian Bosworth in the same game. Even the freak injury that ended his football career turned into a Paul Bunyan-esque tale: Bo was said to have popped his dislocated hip back into place himself, which one might think physically impossible.

Jackson wasn’t a flawless baseball player, leading the league in strikeouts one year and accumulating just 8.3 wins above replacement in his eight-year career. (Mike Trout had 8.9 WAR last year alone.) But Bo’s high spots were just as memorable and unfathomable on the diamond as they were on the football field. You can easily imagine some Tecmo-ized version of Jackson throwing a perfect strike from the warning track, or breaking his bat over his head, or literally running up a wall.

“Players from both teams watch when Bo takes batting practice,” Bret Saberhagen once told Peter Gammons after Jackson hit a ball 450 feet … left-handed. “There’s always the feeling that you’re going to see something you never saw before, and we don’t want to miss it.”

Bo, for his part, didn’t necessarily see the big deal: He rightfully carried himself with the swagger of a superstar, but he wasn’t smitten by his own abilities, simply playing sports in the manner he was accustomed to. As Michael Jordan once said of him and Jackson, “Neither of us is easily amazed.”

“Everything I do,” Bo said once before he played the Yankees, “people tend to exaggerate it. With me, they want to make things bigger than they are.

“I’m just another player, you know?”

Bo would hit three mammoth home runs that day, because of course he did.

*****

Since I could remember, when asked the best athlete I’ve seen play, I’ve come back with Jordan, who dominated his primary sport like no other.

But over time, I’ve come to wonder whether I’ve been slighting Bo Jackson, who seamlessly transitioned between two professional sports requiring completely different skill-sets, becoming a force of nature in each of them — something even the great Jordan couldn’t accomplish. Sure enough, ESPN’s Sport Science named Bo the Greatest Athlete of All Time last year.

The fact is, Bo’s two-sport mastery is likely never to be duplicated, even if someone could conceivably pull it off. LeBron James, for one, was an All-State receiver in high school; it’s reasonable to think someone that big, fast, and strong could potentially succeed as a Jimmy Graham-esque tight end in the NFL. But even if James wanted to — and he actually might — there’s no way his team would allow him to try, and his financial risk would be too great anyway.

Likewise, Jackson’s reign over the sports world never seemed meant to last very long. Bo himself insisted during his college days that he would ride off into the sunset by 34, his legacy more a concern for everyone else than the man building it.

As it turns out, he declared himself finished at 32. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t play anymore — even with an artificial hip, Jackson hit 29 homers in 160 games over his final two seasons. But he wanted to spend more time raising his kids, and besides, Bo was terrific at a lot of other things besides sports: hunting, archery, cooking, golf, the business world.

“I didn’t see it as a dark day,” Bo said following his retirement. “I saw it as the end of an old career and the start of a new one.”

So often, nostalgia leads us to exaggeratedly glorify the past at the expense of the present. But Bo’s unique mastery of two distinct sports is rightfully destined to endure, aided by an amazing catch phrase and inspired sneakers, such as the new Air Max Bo Jax, which will release in a new White/Black/Blue colorway at Champs Sports tomorrow.

And though I’ll always wonder just how good Bo could have been had he not gotten injured, or had he focused his energies and attention on just one sport, perhaps it was better he burned out than faded away. From all of our points of view, Bo will forever be young, strong and magnificent – the way he deserves to be remembered.

“Life is about ifs,” Bo once told Sports Illustrated. “I could have hurt my hip sliding in baseball. Sure, it would be nice to be in the Hall of Fame, but it would be nice to win the Powerball lotto, too.”

Of Bo Jackson’s myriad talents, turns out his most impressive might always have been his gift of perspective.

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle