Bo Jackson sat at a bus station in Opelika, Alabama, waiting to catch a Greyhound. It was November 19, 1982.
Jackson, dejected from his un-Bo-like performance in a loss against Georgia, had been overshadowed by Herschel Walker, running back for the Bulldogs, who would capture the Heisman Trophy later that year. “I was frustrated, I was depressed, I was tired,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t used to a football season lasting so long. I wanted to go home.”
Contemplating his future, Jackson sat at the bus stop for hours, watching bus after bus chug by. “I’ll catch the next one,” he kept telling himself.
As his internal thoughts shifted, Jackson thought about the ramifications of getting on the bus and leaving Auburn. “My mom’s proud of me. My brothers and sisters are proud of me. What’ll they think if I quit? What’ll I do? Go home and hang around the neighborhood? Be like so many other guys, doing nothing? I don’t want to be nothing. I want to be something.”
Time drew on that night, as Jackson continued to sit. Around one o’clock in the morning, a depot worker saw Jackson and stopped. “Either buy a ticket or get on the bus,” the man said unmercifully, “or you gotta leave.”
Jackson hopped on the phone with Bobby Wallace, an assistant coach at Auburn who had been instrumental in Bo’s recruitment to the Plains.
“Come back to the dorm,” Wallace suggested. “We’ll have a talk.”
Jackson met Wallace at a picnic table outside of Sewell Hall, and the pair talked to nearly four o’clock in the morning. “We talked about success and failure, trying and quitting. I felt better. I didn’t even mind when Coach Wallace told me I’d have to run a hundred ‘stadiums’ for being out after curfew.”
Eight days later, Jackson trotted onto the turf at Legion Field—a setting in which Auburn had lost in each of the last nine years. As it turned out, it would be Bear Bryant’s final meeting with Auburn.
And the day the Iron Bowl changed.
The game was tight in the first half, and Auburn took a 14-13 lead into the locker room. A pair of scores—a Paul Ott Carruth touchdown and Peter Kim field goal—set Alabama ahead, 22-14, going into the fourth quarter (‘Bama went for 2 after the Carruth TD, but the conversion was unsuccessful). But Al del Greco punched in a field goal to make it 22-17, and the game-winning drive, punctuated by Jackson’s plunge, famously known as ‘Bo Over the Top’, gave Auburn a 23-22 victory.
“As I was hit, I looked down and saw the goal line and saw that I wasn’t past it, and I stretched out and stuck the ball into the end zone, and I looked down at the line at the official and he threw his hands up in the air, signaling a touchdown,” Jackson remembered.
Ever since Bo arrived on campus at Auburn, the Iron Bowl has been essentially even, with Auburn winning 19 Iron Bowls to Alabama’s 17.
One might wonder how the complexion of this rivalry—and the complexion of American sport itself—might have been different, had Bo Jackson gotten on that bus. H&A
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Cover photo courtesy Auburn Athletics.