During the 1980s, Bo Jackson was arguably the best athlete on the planet, balancing stellar careers in the National Football League, with the Los Angeles Raiders, and in Major League Baseball, with the Kansas City Royals.
Today, among other pursuits, he puts his name behind a charity bike ride, Bo Bikes Bama, created to raise money for victims of the April 2011 tornadoes in Alabama.
Jackson participates in the event every year. And he has a healthy respect for cycling, telling CyclingTips, “You have to be bit crazy not to think cycling is a real sport. Get out and push your 200-pound body uphill for 10 minutes, and then tell me whether or not it’s a real sport.”
Coming from a man who seemingly conquered every sport put in front of him, that’s high praise.
A transcendent career, cut short
In high school Jackson was a standout baseball and football player, as well as track champion, winning state titles in sprints, hurdles, the high jump, and long jump. He was also a two-time decathlon state champion.
At the age of 19, Jackson, an Alabama native, was selected by the New York Yankees in the second round of the 1982 MLB draft. He instead chose to attend Auburn University on a football scholarship.
He proved to be one of the best running backs in the history of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), finishing his collegiate career with 45 touchdowns and the 1985 Heisman Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding collegiate football player in the United States.
His career in professional sports began in 1986, with the Royals; he’d been drafted into the NFL as the No.1 pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but turned it down, insistent that the Bucs had intentionally landed him in violation of NCAA rules to prematurely end his collegiate baseball career, fearing he would pursue baseball over football.
“I told (Buccaneers owner) Hugh Culverhouse, ‘You draft me if you want,'” Jackson recalled in a 2012 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about his career. “‘You’re going to waste a draft pick. I promise you that.'”
Jackson pursued professional baseball, but in April 1987, Raiders owner Al Davis offered him a second opportunity to play pro football, permitting him to finish out the MLB season with the Royals, reporting to the Raiders once the baseball season had finished.
Baseball was Jackson’s “career,” while football was his “off-season hobby.”
Jackson’s athleticism on the baseball field was unparalleled. He hit 500-foot home runs, made incredible diving catches, threw out baserunners from deep left field, and on occasion, broke bats over his thigh, or helmet, after striking out. In 1989 Jackson hit 32 home runs and was named the All-Star Game MVP.
On the football field, Jackson was a phenom. He set a Monday Night Football record of 221 rushing yards on November 30, 1987 — less than a month after his first NFL appearance. It was in that game that Jackson bowled over the Seattle Seahawks’ mulleted linebacker Brian Bosworth, who had promised he could contain the star running back.
From 1987 through 1990 Jackson was an international superstar with his own line of Nike “cross-trainers” and an accompanying ad campaign, “Bo Knows,” which played up his multi-sport athleticism. The first 30-second “Bo Knows” ad featured Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and John McEnroe. The ad famously ended with him playing guitar with blues legend Bo Diddley exclaiming, “Bo, you don’t know diddley!”
A subsequent 60-second ad featured Jackson dressed for every sport imaginable, including on a road bike, asking which way to get to the Tour de France.
Jackson’s transcendent career was cut short after a hip injury, sustained in a 1991 NFL playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The injury, first diagnosed as a hip dislocation, led to avascular necrosis — the ball of his hip died after blood supply was cut off. (It’s the same condition Floyd Landis suffered from after a 2003 training crash.)
The Royals dropped Jackson from their 1991 roster, unwilling to pay his salary for an injury sustained playing football. He signed with the Chicago White Sox, but suffered with the injury, missing the entire 1992 season due to a total hip replacement. He returned to baseball in 1993, hitting a home run on the first swing of his first at-bat following hip replacement. He would never play football again.
Against medical advice, Jackson played two baseball seasons on an artificial hip before retiring in 1995. He ended his short career as the only person to ever be selected for the MLB All-Star Game and the NFL Pro Bowl.
Today, Jackson lives outside of Chicago with his wife Linda and three children. He’s been entrepreneurial in his career after professional sports. He is among a group of investors who own The Burr Ridge Bank and Trust. He started a food distribution company. He launched a youth sports training facility in Illinois, Bo Jackson’s Elite Sports, and is set to open another in Ohio.
Jackson launched his charity bike ride, Bo Bikes Bama, in 2012. The event raises money for the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund, which provides disaster preparedness and emergency management resources for the state of Alabama.
This year, the fifth annual Bo Bikes Bama ride will take place in Auburn, on April 30. Participating riders can choose either a 60-mile or 20-mile route. Both routes will take riders through the campus of Auburn University, while the 60-mile route, will pass through Tuskegee and neighboring Macon County.
CyclingTips caught up with Jackson while he was on the road, and asked him about his relationship with cycling, as recreation, as sport, and as a way to bring people together.
CT: When did you start riding?
BJ: Like most guys, I have been riding a bike all my life, but I was not serious about it until after I got out of professional sports. I was looking for innovative ways to stay in shape, to get the exercise in. An artificial hip isn’t conducive to a lot of running, so I had to do it in other ways, and cycling was the best thing for me.
CT: How much do you ride?
BJ: I’ll be honest, I haven’t been on a bike since the end of last summer. I’ve been on the road with business every week. I’m driving across Iowa now. I barely have time to look at my bike in the basement. But with Bo Bikes Bama coming around, and the weather is breaking, I will be back on it real soon. I just need to wait for the snow and ice to get off the bike path.
CT: What business has you on the road?
BJ: I’m launching a new company. I’m the owner of a bank, and I’m getting ready to break ground on a new indoor sports complex and training facility, that will be over 100,000 square feet. I also have my food company, so I’ve got my hands full. I recently spent an hour and a half at the Trek Bicycles plant in Waterloo, Wisconsin, getting fitted for a new bike, and seeing all the guys and girls there. I walked through their new plant, and it’s outstanding, what they are doing. They are really at the forefront of cycling, and it’s amazing, the new and innovative things they are doing with carbon fiber.
CT: We’ve seen you on a Domane in the past; which Trek model will you be riding at Bo Bikes Bama?
BJ: Ah, that’s a secret. Come on now, I can’t tell you everything. Trek is one of my title sponsors, and they’ve really helped me pull things off with my charity ride. We’ve recently cracked the million-dollar mark. The first ride was in 2012, so in four years we’ve raised a million dollars.
CT: That must feel good, to be able to be in a position to do that.
BJ: It feels great, to have companies like Trek and Nike as producing partners. It’s good to have big hitters backing you. We also have Big Communications, out of Birmingham, and Trek Travel, so we’re able to get a lot of things done. My number one goal, as the late, great Maya Angelou said, is to try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. That’s what Bo Bikes Bama is trying to do. We’re trying to build community storm shelters, so that people can get out of the way of tornados. We just had a tornado, a week ago, and luckily no one lost their lives. That’s the thing about it, living in the Southeast: a tornado goes where it wants to go, and if you happen to be in the path of it, you have to deal with that wrath. When 170 people were killed [on April 27th, 2011], I knew people who were friends of people that were killed. It’s my home state, and it always feels good to be able to give back.
CT: There was a recent story in the Wall Street Journal about the current generation of NFL players using cycling as a way to stay fit. Curious to hear your thoughts on that.
For a lot of former players, it’s a great form of exercise. It’s an outstanding way to stay in shape. Football is very hard on your legs, knees, and hips. Cycling is a non-impact sport, and anyone can do it. When I’m riding, I’m able to work my legs, just as hard, maybe twice as hard as if I were out running. To be honest you have to be bit crazy not to think cycling is a real sport. Get out and push your 200-pound body uphill for 10 minutes, and then tell me whether or not it’s a real sport.
CT: Compared to pro football and pro baseball, cycling is a pretty marginalized sport in the U.S. What would you say to those who know of your exploits on the playing field, who might not appreciate cycling — or might even complain about sharing the road with cyclists?
BJ: Well, you have to take good with bad. There are a lot of people out there that don’t recognize cycling as a sport, because they aren’t athletes. I have buddies that ride, guys who were football players, and baseball players. Some of them live in areas that haven’t incorporated bike lanes, and you have to ride wherever you can, and you run the risk of being tangled up with someone’s side mirror, or their car. That’s always devastating. There needs to be more advocacy nationwide, as far as cycling is concerned.
CT: Had you heard that [former MLB player] Barry Bonds rides regularly, and sponsors a women’s racing team [Twenty 16-Ridebiker]?
BJ: I had heard that. Barry’s out in San Francisco, so he has the option to ride year round. I don’t have that option, and it makes me jealous. I’ve got to shovel my driveway while he’s out riding his bike. I think that’s good, he’s finding other ways to stay in shape. I think that’s great that Barry has formed a good relationship with the cycling world. I tip my hat to him for sponsoring a team.
CT: Do you follow professional cycling? Do you watch the Tour de France?
BJ: I do watch that, down in the basement. I watch these guys ride and ride and ride, they keep that cadence going, at speeds from 25-60mph, for five or six hours. It’s outstanding. Those guys are real athletes. I don’t think they even have lungs.
CT: Pro cyclists have very different physiques than NFL players. NFL players try to put on as much upper-body muscle as possible; pro cyclists do the exact opposite.
BJ: I’m always surprised, when I see these guys in person, to see how small they are. There’s a reason for that. I know that, now, being 260 pounds, I know why they are small. Every incline kicks my butt. Sometimes I feel like I’m carrying twice as much weight as the guy next to me. These pros go up an incline like they are on level ground.
CT: Do you have a favorite cycling memory?
BJ: There’s not really one favorite, but I’d say everything connected to the first year of the Bo Bikes Bama event, in 2012. It was a five-day ride, and each day we rode 60-70 miles across the state. We rode the same path the tornado took, and to see all that devastation, and have the people come out of their houses and sit on the curb to cheer for us. I had 300 riders with me, and that was the most meaningful ride I’ve ever done.
CT: So you’ll ride it again in April?
BJ: I’ll ride it, yes. I actually lead the pack every year, at the start. I don’t finish first, but I’m always first off at the start. We have made our start and finish on the campus of Auburn University. We’ll have two rides — for serious bike riders, there’s a 60-mile ride, and for the novice riders, a 20-mile trek. There will be rest stops every 15 miles for the 60-milers, and at the 10-mile mark for the short ride. We have it worked out so that we’ll all come back into town together at roughly the same time. I have had heard from a lot of people in the cycling world, from Trek Bicycle and Trek Travel to Lance Armstrong and Christian Vande Velde say that Bo Bikes Bama ranks up there with the top three or four events they’ve ever done, from the way it’s put on, and what we do.
CT: It’s certainly a great way to bring awareness — both for tornado victims, and also for the sport of cycling.
BJ: That’s what it’s all about. I am not doing it for the publicity. I am trying to educate the rest of the country, that doesn’t experience tornados, how damaging and dangerous these things are. I want to raise awareness, to let people know that the rest of the country cares. Any little thing I can do to help, that’s why I am going to do this. We have people coming from New York City and Portland, from Florida and Texas. It’s a great cause.