BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — To those who never got the opportunity to see Bo Jackson play with their own two eyes, the stories you hear regarding him almost sound like fiction.
Jeff Pearlman, a sportswriter from New York, is the author of the new book “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson,” which shares many stories from the Bessemer native’s life, as well as his legacy at Auburn University and in professional football and baseball. The book was released Tuesday.
Pearlman, who has written nine books that have appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list, uses “The Last Folk Hero” to take readers into Jackson’s early life and the challenges he had to overcome to get to where he is.
“So there’s a writer named Joe Posnanski, who has written a ton about Bo Jackson. And he was the one who originally mentioned it, the last folk hero and as soon as he said it, I’m usually not like this, I was like, ‘That’s a great title for this book.’ And what he meant, he used an example, which is there’s a famous Bo Jackson throw, when he throws out Harold Reynolds in Seattle. And he’s like, if you watch a video of that throw, you actually don’t see Bo Jackson release the ball because the camera had already gone to Harold Reynolds,” Pearlman said.
“And everyone thinks they saw that throw, but they really didn’t, you just kind of assume Bo Jackson did it. There were so many sort of folk hero like moments with him, things he did that were so ridiculously spectacular. Athletic achievements, jumps, throws, distances that we never saw because it was way, way before Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram. So he’s kind of a folk hero in a Paul Bunyan kind of way, like, stories carry the legend,” Pearlman added.
Jackson had many jaw-dropping moments throughout his career, many of them off the field. Whether it was jumping over a Volkswagen, standing waist-deep in a pool and leaping flat-footed onto the cement or breaking the padlock of a keg with his right hand for his teammates to enjoy, he was different. For Pearlman, there’s one moment in particular that remains a favorite.
“For me as a kid growing up, the one was when he ran up the wall in Baltimore. When he’s chasing a fly ball…. we’ve seen other great throws, every year there’s a great throw, how many times have you seen anyone run up a wall? Ever? Once, in history. I’ve never seen another ball player run horizontal to the ground, across the wall and run down. It’s so good, that’s probably my favorite,” he said.
Pearlman said chronicling Jackson’s life for the book was challenging, mainly because he’s not like many sports superstars.
“He’s really guarded and he’s really enigmatic. He’s not your typical sort of athlete or celebrity who’s always in the spotlight, always wants to be seen. He’s kind of the opposite. It’s not his goal in life to be recognized walking down the street. His goal as a player was to be a great player, his goal as a grandfather is to be a great grandfather, his goal as a dad is to be a great dad. He shovels his own driveway, he drives a Ford suburban truck, like, he’s not a look at me guy. Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson were the first modern era two-sports stars, but they’re as opposite as you could possibly be.”
Nowadays, many athletes strive to be known as more than an athlete. LeBron James trademarked the term “More than an Athlete,” and several athletes have stressed to the media that once they leave the field, court, whatever it may be, they’re still human. For Pearlman, Jackson was as great of a person– if not better– than he was an athlete.
“When he was at Auburn and he was a freshman, he was playing baseball and one day a teammate was throwing batting practice, he was an outfielder, his name was Chris Senn. Bo was taking BP, and he swings, and he hits a ball and it nails Chris Senn right in the head. Senn ended up having bleeding in his brain, he was taken to the hospital and he was never really 100% the same,” Pearlman said.
“Years and years and year later, Bo Jackson is at an Auburn game on the sideline, and Chris Senn’s daughter works at Auburn and she walks up to Bo and she’s like, ‘Hey Bo, I don’t know if you remember my dad, but he’s Chris Senn.’ And Bo was like ‘Oh my God, how’s your dad?’ Long story short, they hadn’t seen each other in probably 30 years, Bo Jackson drives to Dothan and visits Chris Senn, and he says ‘Do you need me to pay for your health insurance? What do you need from me?’ He’s crying, Chris Senn is crying and it’s like this real emotional moment. There’s a million stories of Bo just as a human being,” he stated.
However, despite the prowess he had on the field, there was one thing that held Jackson back early on: his stutter.
“He grew up in Bessemer, Alabama, it was very poor, almost exclusively African-American, aka ignored, when it shouldn’t be ignored, school district where they deserve services that they never got. And if you were a stutterer, it wasn’t like they had a speech therapist or a speech pathologist come in and help you. It was basically, you’re dumb. He’s dumb. So he was held back a year, he was a horrible communicator, he’d be made fun for his stutter all the time.”
“He was in high school and a teacher punished him for trying to cheat on a test by forcing him to stand in front of the entire class and read a poem out loud, because the teacher knew he stuttered, which is one of the meanest things I’ve ever heard in my life… And he went to Auburn and what happened is he started working with theater teachers, about annunciation and dictation and taking your time. And he still has a stutter, but he really has sort of mastered it,” he added.
Pearlman said he wants readers who have never had the opportunity to see Jackson play to understand he was unlike anyone ever seen in sports.
“I think it’s important for people to realize that Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete to ever walk the Earth. And there’s this guy here and yes, his career was cut short. And yes, he’s guarded and quiet, but he is the greatest athlete to ever walk the Earth. And I think his legacy is really, really important, not just in Alabama, but nationally. He was Micky Mantle, he was Eric Dickerson, he was Joe DiMaggio, he was Mike Trout, he was Walter Payton, all in one. And I think it’s just important to tell that story,” he said.