Bo Jackson had four memorable years at Auburn University. Each year brought a different set of challenges. But at the end of his college career, he gave us an inspirational message that somehow got lost along the way.
“I was scared when I arrived at Auburn. I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in. I was afraid I wouldn’t make the team. I’d never been away from home before, and I’d never competed against players as good as the players at Auburn. But I got over my fears pretty quick.”
– Bo Jackson, Bo Knows Bo
The Bus Depot – 1982
You could begin this story the day “Bear” Bryant invited Bo Jackson up to his famous tower, where the aging football coach said, “Boy, we’d love to have you here.” You could begin this story with the moment Bo committed to Auburn, when Pat Dye came downstairs in Jackson’s Bessemer, Alabama, home and asked, “Are you coming to Auburn?” The answer was yes. You could begin this story with the first big run Bo ever had in college, a 44-yarder around end against Wake Forest in 1982. But this story really begins at a bus depot in Opelika, the crossroads of Bo Jackson’s athletic life.
“I got sick of hearing Herschel’s name, sick of the attention and the pressure, and then, in the next-to-last game of the season, Georgia beat us and clinched the SEC championship, and Herschel had a good game and I didn’t play very well.”
The previous Saturday, Auburn hosted No. 1 Georgia in the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn. Retrospectively, it was the only game when possibly the two greatest athletes in the history of the SEC—Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson—ever met on the field. At the time, Herschel was a junior and was greatly hailed by the press, while Jackson was only a freshman. Herschel would win the Heisman Trophy later that year, and his day in Auburn did nothing but solidify his candidacy. He ran for 177 yards and two touchdowns in a 19-14 victory that prompted Georgia announcer Larry Munson to observe, “Look at the sugar falling out of the sky!” Jackson, on the other hand, rushed for 58 yards on 14 carries and no touchdowns.
The following Friday, eight days before the annual Iron Bowl, Bo was watching the buses go by as he was contemplating quitting football altogether and going home. Finally it was getting late, and a depot worker said, “Either buy a ticket and get on a bus or you gotta leave.” Bo left and phoned Bobby Wallace, an assistant coach at Auburn who had recruited him. Bo and Bobby sat outside Sewell Hall at a picnic table and talked until 4 a.m. “We talked about success and failure, trying and quitting,” Jackson said. “I felt better.” But the most important thing was that Bo decided to continue his athletic career.
The next week, his fourth-quarter touchdown dive beat Alabama, 23-22. It was the first time Auburn had beaten Alabama in 10 years.
“We never got in trouble, never broke curfew, never went looking for fights. We were all happy to be in college, content, grateful. We knew we were popular, knew kids looked up to us, and we didn’t want to scar our reputations by having people say they saw us out after curfew or saw us getting drunk or getting into a fight.”
Smash Texas like you smashed my car – 1983
Bo worked at Colonial Bank in Birmingham the summer after his freshman year, and driving to work was always interesting. One day, he helped save a woman who’d lost control of her car and run into a guardrail. “We lifted her out, moved her away from the smoking car, and when the police and the paramedics showed up, I just got in my car and drove off,” Bo recalled.
On another instance, Bo rammed into the back of a car and the lady driving hopped out angrily—“ready to snap at me until she heard my name.” Upon hearing it was the Bo Jackson, the anger dissipated.
Later, before the Texas game, the same lady wired Bo a telegram that read: Smash Texas like you smashed my car.
Unfortunately, Auburn was the team that got smashed. The No. 3 Longhorns walked into Jordan-Hare Stadium and lassoed Auburn’s wishbone offense. “The Longhorns’ all junior-senior front four and linebackers average 250 pounds a man,” wrote Kent Hannon for The New York Times, “and they focused their attack on the corners of the field. When the Tigers’ quarterback, Randy Campbell, who is no speedster, pitched the ball out to Jackson and his running mate, 5-foot-7-inch Lionel James, they were swarmed on by the 275-pound tackle Tony Degrate and the 262-pound tackle John Haines or Longhorns just as big.”
Auburn had 130 yards rushing, and Bo ran for only 35 of them. ”I feel like I’ve been stampeded on by a herd of cows. Texas was familiar with the wishbone. They knew every play.”
But Auburn went on to have a great season, its best in 26 years. Along the way, the Tigers defeated six ranked teams led by a number of great coaches: No. 17 Florida State (Bobby Bowden), No. 5 Florida (Charley Pell), No. 7 Maryland (Bobby Ross), No. 4 Georgia (Vince Dooley), No. 19 Alabama (Ray Perkins) and No. 8 Michigan (Bo Schembechler).
Bo ran for 1,213 yards on 158 attempts, an average of 7.7 yards per carry. He scored 14 touchdowns—12 rushing and 2 receiving—and returned 7 kickoffs for 154 yards. His 1,213 yards was best in the SEC.
“The only thing worse than practicing football in the fall is practicing football in the spring.”
The Shoulder-Heard-Round-the-World – 1984
Texas wrecked Auburn’s shot at a national title in 1983, and Texas nearly wrecked Bo Jackson’s season in 1984. The New York Times called it a “Double Loss for Auburn” as the Fred Akers’ Longhorns toppled the Tigers for the second straight year, and Bo went down with a shoulder injury on a 53-yard run in the third quarter when Texas All-American safety Jerry Gray ran him down and tackled him at the 23. “Gray caught up to me and jumped on my back and rolled me down after a 53-yard run,” Bo recalled. “The artificial turf at Memorial Stadium in Austin was so hard it was like a sidewalk painted green. I hit shoulder-first, and the pain shot through my whole body. I went numb, but I wasn’t coming out of the game, not when we had a chance to beat Texas.”
Bo played seven more plays from scrimmage but two Auburn fumbles and a capable Longhorn offense led by quarterback Todd Dodge were the deciding factors as Texas won, 35-27.
Back in Alabama, doctors told Bo he needed shoulder surgery. More idle time followed the operation, and Bo used at least part of that time for a lighthearted prank. “And I called Jerry Gray at Texas, the guy who’d tackled me from behind, and disguised my voice and told him that I was his agent and I was going to negotiate a pro contract for him,” Bo remembered. “He couldn’t figure out who was calling. Finally I told him, and we both laughed. I knew he wasn’t trying to hurt me.”
Both Auburn and Texas, teams with great promise heading into the season, ended up with disappointing four-loss campaigns. Auburn lost at Florida and against Alabama at Legion Field to finish 9-4. Texas was sitting at 7-1-1 until the wheels fell off in late November, starting with a loss to Grant Teaff’s Baylor Bears. Then the Longhorns dropped the next two, against Texas A&M at home and versus Iowa in the Freedom Bowl to finish at 7-4-1. More embarrassing for Akers’ team was that SMU, the perennial doormat, won the Southwest Conference with a 10-2 record.
Bo missed six games with the shoulder injury. He bounced back from the injury and had 118 yards against Alabama and 88 yards and 2 touchdowns against Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl.
“We liked being role models, and we grew together at Auburn, we had fun together. Even though we saw each other just about every day for four years, I don’t think we ever had an argument—not a serious one. Nobody had a big head. Nobody had an attitude. When it was all over, we hugged and told each other how much we loved each other, and then we pretty much went our separate ways. We all ended up in the NFL, but on different teams.”
– Bo commenting on his friends Tommie Agee, Tim Jessie, and Lionel “Little Train” James
The Heisman – 1985
Bo’s 1985 Heisman campaign might have kicked off against lowly Southwestern Louisiana, but he made a bold statement out of the gate. Four touchdowns and 290 yards rushing, to be precise. Then he followed that performance with a 205-yard day against Southern Mississippi. But everyone knows the Heisman isn’t going to be won against patsies or cream puffs.
Bo made his hay against Ole Miss (240 yards, 2 TDs), Florida State (176 yards, 2 TDs), Georgia Tech (242 yards, TD), Georgia (121 yards, 2 TDs) and Alabama (142 yards, 2 TDs). He finished the season with 1,786 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 42 runs of 10 yards or more. In two important games, Tennessee and Florida, Bo went down with an injury. Against Tennessee he strained his knee, and he left the Florida game with a bruised thigh. Critics probably unfairly questioned Jackson’s courage, but he always seemed to return in better form.
So the Heisman voting was tight. Bo edged out Iowa quarterback Chuck Long, BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco, Michigan State running back Lorenzo White, and Miami (Florida) quarterback Vinny Testaverde to win the 1985 Heisman Trophy. He gave an extended speech at the Heisman dinner held in the grand ballroom of the Hilton Hotel, bookending it with a message about his faith.
“I’d like to give recognition to a lot of people tonight, and the first I’d like to give recognition to is the Lord Jesus Christ, because without him I don’t think none of us would be here tonight, and it’s just an honor,” he said.
During the 20-minute address, Bo thanked his family, thanked his coaches and teammates, told about the cold floors and the potbelly coal stove in his Bessemer home, encouraged kids not to get involved with wrongdoing, recognized Herschel Walker, and pointed to the cross.
“I was in a teammate’s room the Thursday before the Alabama game and we were sitting there talking, and I couldn’t sleep and it was about, I’d say, 1:30 or 2,” Bo said. “And were sitting there in the room and I noticed on his counter there was this little plaque. And on that plaque it said ‘I asked the Lord how much does he love me.’ And it said ‘He spread his arms this wide and He died.’ And I believe that from the bottom of my heart and I hope that you all feel the same way. Thank you, and I love you.”
This message has somehow gotten buried across the years by all the endorsement deals, the towering home runs, the scaling of outfield walls, and the overall athletic prowess of Vincent Edward Jackson of Bessemer, Alabama.
For Bo Jackson, the story of his college career could have ended at the bus stop in Opelika, Alabama.
As it turns out, it ended at the cross. H&A