Few individuals in the history of American sport have possessed greater athletic ability than Alabama native Vincent "Bo" Jackson (1962- ). Auburn University's second Heisman Trophy winner, Jackson has been one of the few athletes to succeed in both professional football and baseball at the same time. Although his career was cut short by a serious hip injury, Bo Jackson achieved many firsts in his unprecedented career. In March 2013, ESPN Sport Science named Jackson the Greatest Athlete of All Time.
The eighth of ten children, Vincent Edward Jackson was born on November 30, 1962, in Bessemer. Regarded as stubborn and hard-headed by his family and friends, Jackson earned the nickname "Bo," which was shortened from "boar hog." Largely raised by his mother after his father left the family, Jackson struggled during his adolescence with behavioral problems. Jackson attended McAdory High School in McCalla, Jefferson County, where he attracted the interest of collegiate scouts from three sports: football, baseball, and track and field. In 1982, the New York Yankees drafted him out of high school, but Jackson rejected their contract offer and instead accepted a football scholarship from Auburn University.
As a three-time All-Southeastern Conference (SEC) and two-time All-American selection, Jackson is the only running back in Auburn history to rush for more than 4,000 yards (4,303) in a career. He also is Auburn's second all-time leading scorer with 45 touchdowns. He was named most valuable player in Auburn University's victories in both the Sugar and Liberty Bowls following the 1983 and 1984 seasons, respectively. In 1985, he became the second Auburn player (the first being quarterback Pat Sullivan in 1971) to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding football player in the nation each year. While dominating on the gridiron, Jackson also lettered in baseball and track. Jackson's baseball prowess was demonstrated by a batting average of .401 during his junior season and a career average of .335.
In 1986, both the National Football League's (NFL) Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Major League Baseball's (MLB) Kansas City Royals drafted Jackson. Deciding not to play for the Buccaneers because they didn't want him to play baseball, Jackson signed his first professional contract with the Royals. Jackson spent most of the 1986 season in the minor leagues before joining the Royals. In 1987, the NFL's Los Angeles Raiders drafted Jackson with the understanding that he also would be allowed to play baseball. Before joining the Raiders in mid-season, Jackson managed to hit .235 with 22 home runs in just 116 games with the Royals. Playing only seven games for the Raiders in 1987, Jackson rushed for 554 yards and scored four touchdowns. Jackson's baseball career reached its pinnacle during the 1989 All-Star Game, in which he earned MVP honors after hitting a memorable lead-off home run that propelled the American League to victory. Jackson also was named as an NFL All-Pro in 1989 and was selected for the 1990 NFL Pro Bowl but did not play because of an injury.
Jackson continued playing both sports through 1990, but a serious hip injury suffered in a post-season game with the Raiders ended his professional football career. From 1987 to 1990, Jackson ran 515 times for 2,782 yards and 16 touchdowns and caught 40 passes for 352 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Royals released Jackson after he did not respond well to physical rehabilitation, and he signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox, playing in 23 games in 1991. Jackson missed the entire 1992 season after undergoing hip-replacement surgery. This type of surgery would have ended the careers of most athletes; Jackson, however, aggressively rehabilitated his artificial hip and was able to return to professional baseball. In his first time at bat after returning from a year-long absence, Jackson hit a pinch-hit home run. He finished the 1993 season with the White Sox, batting .232 with 16 home runs; he played the next year with the Anaheim Angels, for whom he hit 13 home runs in 75 games. Because of continuing knee problems, Jackson announced his immediate retirement during spring training in 1995. Between 1986 and 1994, Jackson played in 694 MLB games, had 598 hits, scored 341 runs, and hit 141 home runs. Jackson's athletic talents brought him fame among sports fans, but a Nike marketing campaign featuring a series of advertisements with the tag line "Bo Knows . . .," produced during the late 1980s and early 1990s, made him an American sports icon.
After his retirement, Jackson returned to Auburn University, where he obtained a degree in family and child development in 1995 to honor a promise that he had made to his mother before she died of cancer in 1992.
He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998. Jackson settled in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and children.
In recent years, Jackson has been involved with N'Genuity, a food-service company based in Scottsdale, Arizona; the Bo Jackson
Elite Sports Complex in the Chicago suburb of Lockport; and a suburban Chicago bank as an investor.
Jackson, Bo, with Dick Schaap. Bo Knows Bo: The Autobiography of a Ballplayer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Keith S. Hébert
University of West Georgia
Published September 24, 2008
Last updated April 26, 2013